The numbers don’t look good. Your eyes might disagree, but hold onto that thought for a moment. Let’s consider the data first and our perceptions second. Nick Castellanos was never heralded as a good defender at any time coming up through the system and he spent a year and a half playing the outfield prior to 2014, so the expectations weren’t terribly high. No one expected Castellanos to be Evan Longoria at third this year. The goal was simply to be better than what Cabrera over the last couple of years.
To date, by the numbers, this is the worst case scenario. Twenty eight third basemen have at least 500 innings at the position this year and Castellanos ranks last in DRS (-19), last in UZR (-10), second to last in UZR/150 (-17.4), and last in RZR (.611). No one is going to tell you that defensive statistics are perfect over the course of a half season, but when so many different methodologies line up like this, it’s probably safe to say that you’re not doing very well. We don’t have to say that Castellanos is terrible, but he’s definitely performed poorly during this 100 game sample.
But maybe you think these defensive stats are garbage. They’re not, but I’ll indulge you. Forget ball tracking and comparisons to average and all of the things that go into advanced metrics. Let’s go back to school on the most basic measure of defense. How well does Nick turn ground balls into outs? Let’s look at BABIP on ground balls to third.
Now the available data only allows us to grab Tigers’ 3B, so there are a few Cabrera and Kelly games mixed in, but Castellanos has played in close to 90% of the team’s games so this is a fine estimate.
To do this, I went to Baseball Savant and looked at ground balls toward third base and carved up the field by a few different cutoff points to make sure we had it right. The left field line is at -45 degrees and the second base bag is a 0 degrees, just to give you an idea. Let’s look at -45 to -25 degrees. This assumes that the 3B has about 45% of the left side of the infield.
BABIP on ground balls from -45 to -25 for the Tigers is .398, which is by far the worst in the league. Let’s try .-45 to -30 and ask that our 3B only covers 33% of the left side. That leaves the Tigers at .343, which is 29th in baseball. It’s also nice to see Cleveland in last because that’s who the other defensive stats look poorly upon. Finally, let’s go -45 to -35, which calls on Nick to cover just 22% of the field. Again the Tigers are last at .339.
You might think advanced defensive stats are still in beta testing, but there’s nothing advanced about looking at how well a player turns ground balls into outs. This is as basic as it gets and Castellanos is baseball’s worst third baseman in this department.
There are a couple of reasons to pump the breaks, however. First, Nick just spent 18 months playing a different position. It’s possible that he just doesn’t have his bearings back. When you think about it, that’s totally fair. You shouldn’t expect him to pick the position right back up, meaning that even if his performance this year has been bad, it’s fair to say this is his floor and not his ceiling.
Second, this is all about range. That matters, but his hands and arm and such don’t grade out poorly. He’s not getting to a lot of balls, but he’s converting the ones he gets to. You can’t necessarily teach him to be more mobile, but I’d rather he have one big problem that four medium sized problems.
Third, he doesn’t look as bad as the numbers. I don’t think you can throw out the numbers just because you don’t like what they say, but Castellanos doesn’t look like he’s worse than Cabrera was. My guess is that when all is said and done, this is going to regress a little. He’s more of a -8 than a -18. It’s not hard for a few bad plays to haunt you on defense just like a bad week can sink your offensive stats.
The scouting reports are positive enough on his defense to the point where most see him staying at 3B for at least the next few seasons. I’m not so sure, but that’s because the Tigers might not need him to be there. Pretty much the only area of depth on the farm for the Tigers is middle infield and if Suarez is going to swim at the big league level, he’s going to need a new position next year. That might be 3B and he’s not the only one knocking on the door behind Iglesias and Kinsler.
It doesn’t sound like the plans are in place or anything but Castellanos could move to RF as early as 2015. Not necessarily because he’s so horrible that he has to move off the position, but because he’s not good enough there for it to matter. I can see a world where Castellanos is a serviceable gloveman at third, but that might not be the best way to line up the defense. He’s never going to be a plus defender, so it’s just a matter of finding a place for his glove so that his bat can shine.
I think he’s going to be a big time contributor at the plate, but while his defense doesn’t look as bad from a tools perspective as it has from a performance perspective this year, there’s not a lot of reason to think he can be a positive contributor at third base. It’s been bad this year. I think it can and will get better, but the simple fact of the matter is that it might not have to.