Nick Castellanos early season breakout isn’t completely out of left field. The Tigers’ young third baseman was a first round draft pick in 2010 and showed impressive pop in AAA before looking ready to make an impact in 2014. It’s taken two decidedly average seasons, but it looks like the power has finally arrived.
An important thing to monitor when assessing the viability of a young player’s breakout is his patience at the plate. In many cases, cutting down on strikeouts and taking more walks is a sign of maturation and leads to sustainable and consistent production. But there is more than one path to every breakout, and Castellanos is clearly on a very different path.
That pretty much says it all. The stabilization point for walk rates is 120 PA. For strikeout rates it’s 60 PA. It’s safe to say that Castellanos will be either walking or striking out ~30% of the time going forward, which is what you would expect from your prototypical three true outcomes power hitter. Except for the the fact that, until this month, Castellanos hasn’t been a power hitter.
Looking at his batted ball profile, we can begin to understand the changes Castellanos has made in order to up his ISO from .164 to .261 so far this season.
What stands out immediately is the dramatic drop in that GB/FB ratio. He’s not only getting the ball in the air way more, he’s also cut down on his ground balls by a shocking amount. Oh, and he’s also hitting those balls that he’s now putting into the air way, way harder. That 21.2% ground ball rate currently leads all of baseball, so while that’ll probably come up as the season plays out, that’s the kind of batted ball mix you want from a power hitter.
While the strikeouts are a bit high, he’s got a minuscule IFFB% that indicates elite bat control and will help him in the AVG department as it eliminates a large source of automatic outs on balls in play. His 1.2 IFFB% from 2015 was the fifth-lowest in the league—just ahead of Joey “Unpoppable” Votto—and judging from his Major League track record it looks legit. Guys with low IFFB% also tend to have high BABIPs and vice versa (unless you have good speed), which bodes well for the amount of inevitable regression Castellanos will get on his .449 BABIP.
A final promising sign is that Castellanos finally seems to be figuring out how to hit big league sliders.
From 2014-2015 (x PA), Castellanos managed to hit just 3 HR and slashed a putrid .177/.278/.101 (AVG/SLG/ISO) off of sliders. So far in 2016 (x PA), he has punished sliders to the tune of a .333/.778/.444 (AVG/SLG/ISO) slash and has already hit two homers off the pitch.
That domination is captured in the graph above, which shows his slider runs above average on a rate basis (per 100 pitches). I can only speculate as to how he figured sliders out, but he is suddenly an above average slider hitter, and pitchers have already caught on. According to Brooks Baseball, righties threw him a slider 23% of the time between 2014-2015. In 2016 they’re throwing it only 16% of the time.
ZiPS projects him for a .280/.327/.455 line with 15 HR and 66 RBI over the rest of the season, which seems a little generous on the AVG front and a little stingy on the power front. I would peg him at .260/.320/.480 with 20 HR and 70 RBI over the rest of the season. With a compact power swing that’s looking more and more like teammate JD Martinez’s all-fields stroke, the sky is the limit for Nick Castellanos.