As recently as 2014, Nick Castellanos was a top-20 prospect entering the season. For two full seasons, he underwhelmed those in dynasty leagues who expected him to quickly reach his full potential. It’s a common issue — managers see a prospect with a “star” ranking as his ceiling, and they get frustrated when he doesn’t perform at a star level as a rookie or sophomore. We have to keep in mind that most prospects don’t break out immediately and become stars in their first year (or second or third). Owners should practice patience, and it’s sometimes hard when you see other managers reaping the rewards of guys like Trout and Syndergaard.
Now, however, Castellanos has been leading the American League in batting average, and he’s displaying above-average power. It took him two years, but 2016 is proving to be a strong campaign for the young third baseman. Can he keep up this momentum all year? Is he finally tapping into his prospect ceiling? Let’s take a look at his history and his recent numbers.
In 2011 Castellanos managed to break onto some top-100 prospect lists, and he climbed the ranks over the next few years, flirting with top-50 in 2012 and then reaching the top-25 for 2013-14. He profiled as a natural hitter who could hit for an above average BA and power. When he played his first full major league season in 2014, he hit a lot of line drives with an above-average BABIP, but he didn’t put up a great batting average. His lack of running speed is partly to blame, and his hard hit rate wasn’t much above average despite the high LD%.
In 2015, on the surface it seemed like it was more of the same. His LD% dropped, but his BABIP and hard hit rate remained close to the previous season, and his BA didn’t change much either. On the whole, his HR/FB rate was only 1% better than 2014, but it was a tale of two halves, and he was much better from July onward, going from 6% to 13%. He hit more fly balls in 2015 than in 2014, and he pulled the ball more often in the second half, aiding his power stroke: 7 of his 11 second half homers were to left-center or left field.
A downside to Nick’s game is a lack of walks, as well as a high swinging strike rate. Both pitch trackers showed him increasing his swing outside the zone from 2014 to 2015, and his contact rate of 72% was barely holding on to respectable. His contact rate dipped in the second half of 2015 as he started trying to pull the ball more for improved power. Due to his less than ideal plate discipline, his K% rose as well, from 24% to 25%.
After one and a half months of 2016, we’re seeing a different player according to the surface stats. He’s already reached half his home run total from 2015, and he’s nearing half of his run and RBI totals as well. His SLG and OPS are much higher. For 5×5 formats — really, any format — he’s been a star so far. So how much of this is early luck, and how much of it could be growing into his full potential?
The early indications are pretty good for Castellanos. The one obvious red flag is a BABIP over .400, so his average is bound to come back down. That said, I expect some growth in that category above his .255-.260 from the previous two years. He’ll start to be at least average for fantasy baseball, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see .275+ in the years moving forward. Also, he’s still not walking, but plenty of hitters don’t post high walk rates, so it’s nothing to get too upset about.
Let’s get to the exciting stuff. He’s cut his strikeout rate to 22%, his swinging strike rate is lower, and his contact rate is better than the previous two seasons. These help support his likely improved BA moving forward. He’s also boosted his LD% back to 2014 levels, and with continued strength in medium and hard contact, he’s going to keep producing runs and hits.
As for the power, I’m optimistic he has found a new level, and the home runs are here to stay. He started pulling the ball more at the end of last year, which resulted in a 14% HR/FB ratio in the second half, and this season has continued that trend. Of his eight HR this year, five are to dead left field, and so that 17% HR/FB ratio isn’t far off of what he showed last year. He has also increasing his FB%, so even though some of the home runs have been classified as “just enough,” the chances will keep coming, and he should put up his first 20 home run campaign. In fact, I expect he could finish at or above 25 HR this season. And let’s not forget, he’s only 24 this year and it’s only his third full season. He’s got time to keep improving on his game, and the Tigers have a great corner infielder for years to come.
There’s some extra luck to Nick Castellanos in 2016, but he’s growing as a hitter too, and it will result in a strong final stat line from him. It’s possible he’ll end the season with .290, 25 HR, and 100 RBI, and though he may not repeat that every season, it’s not far off what you should come to expect in the future. If an owner in your league doesn’t believe he’ll keep it up, trade for Castellanos now and reap the reward.
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