Detroit Tigers: Is Willi Castro the future or just the present?

Mar 15, 2021; Lakeland, Florida, USA; Detroit Tigers shortstop Willi Castro (9) throws to first for an out during spring training at Publix Field at Joker Marchant Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 15, 2021; Lakeland, Florida, USA; Detroit Tigers shortstop Willi Castro (9) throws to first for an out during spring training at Publix Field at Joker Marchant Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports /

Stop me if you’ve heard this in some form…”Detroit Tigers shortstop Willi Castro had an unsustainable BABIP in 2020 and he’s going to meet the Regression Monster in a dark alley this season.” A view that begs the question: Is Willi Castro the future at shortstop in Detroit or just the present?

We all get it. An unheralded guy nearly hits .350 in 36 games during a weird season and folks tend to be skeptical. It’s both human nature to not believe it was real and modern statistical orthodoxy to point out a high unrepeatable BABIP (Batting Average of Balls In Play) and “a small sample” in order to dismiss the Castro finish as a fart-in-the-wind hot streak. You know what? That’s completely fine. It’s accurate. It’s also a little tiresome because just about everyone expects he’ll never sniff .350 for any real-time again.

However, if we just turn our gaze slightly away from aspects of what has happened and look ahead to “what can Castro be”, it starts to get interesting. Mostly because the Tigers have a glaring shortage of young position players who a fan can dream of hoping for a cornerstone talent to evolve. If you can’t invest a bit of Spring Training hope in Castro, options start to dwindle fast among players already in the majors.

What really is Castro’s ceiling? What would the Tigers find to be acceptable production offensively and defensively in ‘21 in order to move ahead in the organizational rebuild with Castro as the shortstop?

The Road Ahead is Still Steep

While the gaudy BABIP and corresponding batting average get much of the discussion, a lot of Castro’s future as a shortstop probably hinges on where his walk rate heads as he moves forward and if he can conquer any throwing demons he seems to have defensively.

Castro will never be “The Walking Man” Eddie Yost and his 5.0% walk rate in ‘20 could use a lift. But it useful to note that Castro did gradually raise his walk rate throughout his minor league progression. There is at least some chance he can similarly edge his walk rate toward respectability if he works on his patience, adds power, and gains experience.

It’s the four throwing errors in 36 games  (plus numerous shaky throws not resulting in errors) that might be more concerning than the walk rate. A good shortstop has to have some degree of a strong, accurate arm…and more importantly, have the confidence to make any throw necessary. Castro is yet to show much of that. “Sometimes it’s mental, sometimes I’m afraid to throw to first,” he said. “That’s when the errors come.” It’s fairly hard to imagine a similar quote being uttered by a truly elite shortstop.

There is still time to work on footwork and other fundamentals for accurate throwing since the Tigers don’t have a better option in-house at this time. There is no doubt however most weak throwing shortstops eventually become “offensive-minded 2B’s” if he’s unable to fix the issue.

The Great Shortstop Flood looms

The ‘21 campaign for Castro also takes on some added weight in the eyes of some because of what many see as an impending bumper crop of premium shortstops hitting the free-agent market next off-season. Carlos Correa, Francisco Lindor, Corey Seager, Trevor Story, and Javier Baez are all possibly loose next winter.

Any of those players would be currently considered an upgrade over Castro on the field. However, plenty can change in one season. Castro has the chance to put the throwing yips behind him and hit enough to prove he wasn’t a short-season wonder in ‘20. Some of those big-name guys might falter in ‘21 or sign extensions and never hit the market. Lindor is currently in talks with the Mets on an extension for instance.

It just seems there is occasionally too much confidence among some observers the Tigers will compete for and ultimately pay the top dollars needed to secure a player like Correa or even Story. Those players have to want to be in Detroit as well. To be honest the odds seem low one of those five players listed above is housed in Lakeland next Spring.

Castro taking steps forward, even to a couple of steps below the elite players, would be the simplest and cheapest path forward for the Tigers. If they could secure a premium guy then a Castro move to second-base could happen.

Obscene or Serene at shortstop

In the 1964 Supreme Court case of Jacobellis v. Ohio Justice Potter Stewart famously said of obscenity, “I know it when I see it.”

We can likely say much the same when trying to determine if Castro’s efforts in ‘21 meet the standard to be thought of as a legit shortstop option moving forward. We’ll know it if we see it.

Certainly, we can look at numbers offensively and assign benchmarks that are reasonable. Perhaps an OPS+ between 110 and 120 will show us Castro wasn’t a fluke in ‘20. We can look for a clinching walk rate, decrease in K-rate, increasing power. The numbers will speak out but so will the day-to-day view of the quality of each at-bat.

Defensively…errors will occur. But any improvement Castro shows will likely be felt in the pit of AJ Hinch’s stomach every time Castro rears back to fire across the diamond for a critical out in the late innings. Will the flinching decrease? Will fans stop hoping the ball is hit to third-base instead in a tight game? If so, it’s likely Castro is making strides and Justice Stewart can be quoted again then.

Beyond 2021

The Tigers need premium talent injected into the organization. They certainly should try to land the highest quality shortstop they can haul in next winter no matter how good Castro looks this year.

But if that becomes unrealistic for them a very positive scenario would be to see Castro emerge further as a quality second-level shortstop. Let him hold down the job for a few seasons while the Tigers draft either Jordan Lawler or Marcelo Mayer with the third pick in July’s draft and wait for them to emerge in MLB to push Castro off the position.

The bet here is for the latter scenario to play out.