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Nick Castellanos is finally breaking out

After experimenting for a few years, the Tigers third baseman has found a batting stance that works.

Detroit Tigers v Chicago White Sox
The new stance looks like it’s working.
Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Evaluating early-season stats is always tricky. You never know when an ostensible breakout is the real deal, or which struggling players will continue to do so. Will the journeyman batter with a bunch of home runs hit 50 on the year? Will the no-name pitcher with a couple of shutout starts win the Cy Young? It’s hard to say, although that never stops us from saying it.

On the surface, Nick Castellanos’s performance is most definitely not a breakout. The Tigers third baseman has hit .217/.265/.457 in 49 plate appearances; his 99 wRC+ is a step down from last season’s 119. His strikeout and walk rates are as unsightly as ever, and he hasn’t made up for it with BABIP or ISO. Underneath that, though, a few signs indicate that Castellanos has made the leap.

Know a good way to get hits? Make quality contact — i.e., hit the snot out of the ball, with regularity. Heading on over to the Statcast leaderboard, we see a familiar name leading the way in that regard:

Exit velocity leaders

Rank Player Batted balls EV (mph)
Rank Player Batted balls EV (mph)
1 Castellanos, Nicholas 32 96.7
2 Davis, Khris 33 96.6
3 Moreland, Mitch 30 96.3
4 Stanton, Giancarlo 29 96.1
5 Cespedes, Yoenis 31 95.7
6 Braun, Ryan 25 94.9
7 Freeman, Freddie 27 94.6
8 Franco, Maikel 34 94.6
9 Cabrera, Miguel 26 94.5
10 Peralta, David 27 94.4
Ranking among hitters with 15+ balls tracked by Statcast. Data via MLB.com

Castellanos leads the majors, outslugging Giancarlo Stanton and Yoenis Cespedes — and Statcast (which has its flaws) isn’t alone in thinking so. By Baseball Info Solutions’s judgment, Castellanos has hit the ball hard 63.6 percent of the time this year, which ranks third among qualified hitters behind Yandy Diaz and Mitch Moreland. However you look at it, Castellanos has mashed this year.

The progress hasn’t come in any one area of the strike zone. Compare Castellanos’s 2016 heat map…

Image via Baseball Savant

…with one from 2017:

High pitches? He’s hitting those hard. Low pitches? Hard, too. Middle pitches? Don’t even think about it. No matter how pitchers have approached him, Castellanos has crushed the ball.

What’s behind all that hard contact? It’s not just the results that have changed — Castellanos has altered the process, too. Let’s check out a couple of dinger swings. This one is from 2016:

GIF via MLB.com

And this one’s from 2017:

GIF via MLB.com

Each pitch was a slower offering (though, to be fair, one was a knuckleball), placed on the outer part of the plate about thigh-high. Castellanos pulled each one over the wall in right — but the way he did that was different. Look at his stance from each:

Images via MLB.com

Castellanos had a pronounced leg kick last year, and he’s retained that kick this year. Beyond that, though, he stands at the plate differently — his back leg is more upright, and he doesn’t crouch as much, instead taking a more open stance.

This isn’t the first time Castellanos has changed the way he hits. After the 2015 season, FanGraphs’s Eno Sarris noticed he’d cleaned up his swing by a lot, taking a smoother path to the ball. At that point, Castellanos was coming off a 95 wRC+; in 2016, he’d improve to 119, with his new swing increasing his exit velocity from 88.6 mph to 89.5 mph. This year, he’s tweaked things again, and the production has gone up in kind.

Of course, posture might not be the only factor at work here. My colleague Nick Stellini offered another theory:

Though inebriated, Nick made an excellent point. Following an injury-abbreviated 2016, Castellanos came to spring training with a “noticeably honed upper body,” in the semi-creepy words of MLB.com’s David Mayo:

Tigers manager Brad Ausmus has taken note of Castellanos' leaner midsection, expanded shoulders and back, and regards them as part of a more holistic transformation.

BSOHL caveats aside, it’s not out of the ordinary for a 25-year-old hitter to build some muscle. Simply because of the way they age, baseball players tend to peak in their mid to late 20s (although some recent evidence contradicts that). This could be the year that everything just comes together for Castellanos.

Castellanos is far from a complete player. He still flounders at the hot corner, and at this point in his career, he might not get any better defensively. On offense, though, he’s made a ton of progress, and his batting line will start to reflect it. Playing alongside Miguel Cabrera and J.D. Martinez, Castellanos is finally becoming a big-league slugger.


Ryan Romano is the co-managing editor for Beyond the Box Score. He also writes about the Orioles for Camden Depot, sometimes. Follow him on Twitter if you enjoy angry tweets about Maryland sports.