Castellanos' fielding evolution: 'He needs to stay humble, hungry'

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News
Nick Castellanos: “I want the coaching staff to feel confident that I can make a play over there.”

Detroit – Of course it bothers him. There isn't an everyday big league player worth his endorsement deal that wants to be taken out late in games for defensive purposes. It's humbling, bordering on humiliating.

But Nick Castellanos doesn't blame manager Brad Ausmus. He blames himself. And, going back to last offseason when he went to Lubbock, Texas, for several weeks to work with coach Matt Martin, he's been – with one noted detour -- on a mission to earn Ausmus' trust.

"I want to get to the point where I don't have to worry about coming out of a game in the eighth and ninth inning when it's close or we have a lead," Castellanos said. "I want the coaching staff to feel confident that I can make a play over there."

He's not there yet, but he's getting there.

If you haven't noticed, Castellanos' defensive play has been more than solid since the All-Star break. He looks fluid, more comfortable and more assured. He hasn't made an error in 31 games entering play Monday. He's made just one error since the All-Star break and just six all season.

"He's been able to slow the game down a little bit," Ausmus said. "His feet are moving more smoothly and he doesn't seem to have that tension in his body when the ball is hit to him. I can't attribute it to anything other than his work, from the beginning of the offseason through today. Not just his work at third base but his agility work and all the time he's spent with Matt."

Range is and will most likely always be a concern for Castellanos, a big man at 6-4, not blessed with natural quickness or foot speed. The Tigers rank 12th among American League third basemen with 4.79 runs allowed. Only Boston is worse.

And Castellanos, individually, ranks last in the American League in total zone runs above average (minus-9) and defensive runs saved (minus-9).

But before you write him off, understand the progress those minus-9 numbers represent.

Last season Castellanos was minus-28 in runs above average and minus-30 in runs saved.

That is remarkable improvement.

"It's just getting more comfortable at my position," he said. "Game repetition, that's it. There's no secret remedy, no secret drill. Just the more reps you get over there, the more relaxed and more natural it's going to feel."

'You never arrive'

Martin, who has poked and prodded Castellanos for two seasons, is both excited by and disappointed in Castellanos' progress. Excited to see how far he's come, disappointed because he knows he could have been so much further.

"He got complacent," Martin said. "He's picked it up recently, but complacency is a terrible thing. You saw early, he was really heading in the right direction. It was disappointing that he let complacency set in.

"Maybe he was frustrated by his hitting. His offense wasn't going the way he would've liked and he didn't battle through it enough. But he's headed back in the right direction."

Matt Martin

Understand that Martin is primarily talking about process, not necessarily results. From the day Castellanos showed up at his place in Lubbock, the two mapped out an exhaustive regimen of agility drills, hand-eye drills, positioning work, you name it.

He carried that ethic through spring training and into the season. But somewhere in May, Martin saw him slack.

"Instead of going above and beyond, he was doing the minimal," Martin said. "For a lot of guys, that can be enough."

For Castellanos?

"He needs to stay humble, needs to stay hungry," he said. "You never arrive. You have to continue to improve on a daily basis. And that carries over to your hitting. It's all so intertwined."

It's not a coincidence that Castellanos' defensive work sagged at the same time he was battling one of the roughest hitting slumps of his life – one that earned him a three-day benching.

"There were times where I could have let the frustration in my offense carry over into my defense," Castellanos admitted.

Martin said Castellanos didn't suffer for a lack of effort. Quite the opposite. It was the old quicksand syndrome – the harder you struggle to get out, the faster you sink.

"His mindset wasn't right," Martin said. "It led to him trying to make things happen and it put him a step behind. Same thing at the plate. If you are trying to do something – no, no, no. You work hard, put your mind and body in the best position and then throw the dice.

"Sometimes you are going to get your points and sometimes you crap out. He's getting back to that way of thinking."

Nick Castellanos

Sharpen the knife

Martin has a great analogy for how Castellanos needs to approach his craft. And as with most teaching points, Miguel Cabrera is the example.

"Miguel and I work on things (defensive drills) two times a week in the cage – nobody sees that here," he said. "Miguel Cabrera wants to be a complete baseball player – wants to be great at running the bases, defense, everything. It doesn't just happen. He works at it.

"And he has the best knife there is. But he continually sharpens it. Some people are like, 'Hey, I got a great knife, I'm in the big leagues, I've had some success.' Well, you need to keep sharpening that knife."

Castellanos, for a time, stopped sharpening his knife.

"I had such high expectations for Nick, especially after he came to Lubbock and he had such a great spring training, process-wise," Martin said. "Results, they are hit and miss. But he got off to that great start, process-wise, and he started seeing results in that first month and he settled a little bit.

"He's in a good position now, but in a month from now, he needs to be in a better position than he is now. There is no such thing as staying the same. There is only progress."

Twitter @cmccosky