When it wraps up next month, the 2018 season almost certainly will have been the best of Nicholas Castellanos’ six-year career. The twenty-six-year-old already was positioned to take on an increased leadership role entering this season, and that responsibility has fallen even more squarely on his shoulders following a season-ending injury to Miguel Cabrera in June. Castellanos is younger than many of his newer teammates, including Niko Goodrum, Mikie Mahtook, and Ronny Rodriguez, but no one– with the exceptions of Victor Martinez and Jose Iglesias (by less than a month)– on the Detroit Tigers’ current forty-man roster has a longer major-league tenure with the Tigers than Castellanos. With Cabrera out and Martinez fading into retirement (but see), Castellanos is what qualifies as this team’s veteran leader. And yes, I realize he won’t even hit arbitration until next year.
Emerging along with his clubhouse status is his bat. By whichever offensive metric you prefer, Castellanos is having a career year at the plate: 120 OPS+; 121 wRC+; .303 TAv. While his BABIP is elevated (.354 in 2018 versus a .330 career average), there is reason to believe that this level of production from Castellanos– again, just twenty-six– is real. That’s because his contact quality backs up the results. For example, he’s improved his hard-hit percentage every year, and he currently has the fourth-highest rate in baseball:
Hard contact is good, but contact has other dimensions besides hardness that inform outcomes. One of those other dimensions is launch angle, or the angle at which the ball comes off the bat. There too, Castellanos is making the best type of contact, as the next two visuals demonstrate. The first is a bar graph illustrating that, at least for 2018, the best batted-ball results come on balls hit with launch angles between +5 and +35 degrees. The second is a table showing the players with the highest rate of batted balls in that ideal range in 2018. Castellanos ranks third, just behind Matt Carpenter and Joey Votto, all of whom are making a majority of their contact in that ideal range.
Statcast offers an interesting hit-quality comparison. It tracks xwOBA, which represents expected offensive results based on exit velocity and launch angle. By subtracting a player’s actual wOBA from his xwOBA, we can get some idea of whether a hitter’s results are supported by quality contact and thus more likely to be “real” or are “empty,” unsupported by strong contact in productive launch-angle ranges. Castellanos’ xwOBA always has outpaced his actual wOBA, which suggests to me that his actual offensive-output numbers, including his BABIP, are “real,” and that Castellanos actually is getting better at the plate. (But see also (suggesting some unreliability in Comerica Park Statcast numbers).)
It makes sense that a hitter would develop contact skills before plate discipline, and that’s what looks to be happening with Castellanos. His overall swing rate in 2018 represents a full-season career-high, and why not? He’s making the best contact and getting the best results of his life. His next move, ideally, would be to start to dial back the rate at which he swings at pitches out of the zone and build up his walk rate. For now, though, I suspect hitting coach Lloyd McClendon is happy enough to let good enough be good enough and not tinker too much with what looks like the progressive development of the strong hitter the Tigers always believed Castellanos would become.
At deadline, Tigers move their best player – 7/31
The case for watching the Detroit Tigers in the second half – 7/18
Which Tigers may move in deadline deals? – 7/16
Bos to the Races, Part II – 6/29
Bad Company? – 6/26
Busted – 6/13
Bos to the Races – 5/22
Welcome Back Kozma – 5/9