Nicholas Castellanos Can't Play First Base
Defensive statistics, especially, can be nasty snares. Decades ago, Bill James codified the Defensive Spectrum, using broad-spectrum historical study to identify the hierarchy of positional difficulty for defenders. He made important discoveries that way, and the hierarchy he sketched is still, more or less, the one we use today. From hardest to easiest, the stations go:
- Second Base
- Center Field
- Third Base
- Right Field
- Left Field
- First Base
As a result, the modern default in evaluating players as potential additions to a defense is to check their Defensive Runs Saved total, project that figure to hold steady if they remain at their current position, ponder a move down the defensive spectrum where appropriate, and call it close enough. Sometimes, that works. In cases like that of Castellanos, though, we can and should do better.
In September 2017 I wrote the following about Castellanos, then playing third base for the Tigers, as part of my ranking of all 30 teams’ starting third basemen in the field. (Castellanos ranked dead last on that list.)
[Castellanos] doesn’t use his speed well at the position. His lateral movements are robotic and his hands are stone. There was a reason why Detroit was willing to make this kid wait while Miguel Cabrera manned third base just a few years ago, and now that he’s learned to run and can access his full speed potential, they ought to move him back to the outfield for good.
The day after that article ran, Castellanos played his first game of the season in right field. He played two more games at third at the end of the season, but otherwise, has never returned to the dirt. He’s played over 2,500 innings in right field since September 2017. At first, he was a total butcher out there, too. However, his numbers improved considerably from 2018 to 2019:
Given that, and given that Castellanos stands 6-foot-4, with improved athleticism, it’s easy to imagine a world in which he slides on a first baseman’s mitt, comes back to the infield at the cold corner, and continues to rake the way he has over the last two seasons. That’s the narrative the numbers want you to believe; it’s the trap his body and the data have conspired to lay.
Go back, though, and watch video of Castellanos playing third base. It wasn’t a dearth of athleticism that held him back when he played there. Nor was it an erratic arm. Rather, it was the fundamental skills required of any infielder—nimbleness, smooth motion, soft hands, and an underlying comfort with the ball coming in one’s direction—that were simply missing. Castellanos was drafted as a third baseman. He played there, with only a brief sojourn in the outfield, for seven professional seasons. If he had the instincts or the feel for the infield, it would have shown up by now.
Instead, he’s quickly becoming a viable outfielder, because his athleticism plays better there. As he gains experience, he can use his speed to make up for poor jumps and reads. In the infield, there’s no such margin for error, so Castellanos should never return there. The Defensive Spectrum, in this sense, does not apply.
Castellanos also isn’t what the Twins need at the plate. Donaldson would bring an approach consistent with everything the Twins already emphasize, and he’d add a dimension (extraordinary plate discipline) that was the only missing ingredient at times in 2019. Castellanos is a fun, enthusiastic, unorthodox hitter, but he’s an inveterate hacker. He swung at 40.2 percent of pitches outside the strike zone last year. He is, in a number of ways, a right-handed Eddie Rosario, and while Rosario is unfairly maligned at times, there are few times when Twins fans find themselves wishing they had two of him. After Castellanos signs, the Twins should call up whoever failed to get him and see whether that team would cough up something useful for the next best thing. Other than that, though, Castellanos’s free agency is irrelevant to the Twins’ winter.
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