Detroit — In front of a locker bearing his name spelled in metallic blue and silver letters, Nick Castellanos sat late Friday afternoon in a typical pregame pose.
Castellanos was studying something on his iPhone that had him as riveted as if it were a pitch that had just been flung from Comerica Park’s pitching mound, which in three hours he was about to confront as the Indians and Tigers got ready for a four-game weekend festival that was later altered when Friday night’s game was postponed because of rain (Sept. 1 day-night doubleheader make-up date).
Castellanos had on his Friday face an expression well-known to Tigers students. It was serious, even morose. It was not about to change during a few minutes of necessary baseball conversation.
Might it be possible, he was asked, that a guy who had been defying baseball’s conventions this spring would lead his team in hitting during the season’s second half?
Castellanos looked up. His face changed no more than an IRS tax auditor’s might during a conference about last year’s return.
“I mean, look, the truth is, this year I’ve probably hit the ball harder and more consistently than I have any year,” he said. “I really believe I could be hitting .285 right now. No one questions that.
“I can only tell you, if I hit the ball as well the second half as I have the first half, I’ll be happy.”
Castellanos departed his in-season home in Royal Oak on Friday and headed for Comerica Park with a .240 batting average, which is probably 50-60 points beneath where he, and others, had thought a 25-year-old third baseman might be sitting 78 games into a 162-game schedule.
He had nine home runs, 16 doubles, and a .721 OPS, which, like his batting average, is probably 80 points beneath elevations expected.
Anyone who saw him whistling batted ball after batted ball past infielders, up alleys, and beyond fences during the Grapefruit League season in Florida might also have figured Castellanos was headed for a hefty 2017, maybe even as an All-Star.
But it hasn’t evolved. Not statistically. Castellanos spent April and May feeling as if Bonnie and Clyde had returned from the grave to this time rob a hitter of hits he should have been registering.
Hard-hit pitch after hard-hit pitch seemed to have a mating urge with defenders’ gloves.
“I don’t have the answers,” Castellanos said, acknowledging that, yes, percentages can be defied —for a while —in any job or endeavor.
Sooner or later probabilities do begin to make sense. And perhaps a catch-up phase began in June, when Castellanos batted .308, with a .364 on-base percentage and a more-like-it OPS of .913.
It is striking progress, maybe more because it reflects one man’s faith in himself.
Castellanos never for a moment this spring considered doing what Tour golfers often do when times are tough. He never considered a change in his swing or in his set-up.
The self-assurance, the stubborn understanding he was a victim not of bad mechanics but of bad luck, helped him to June’s revival and to what could be a merry second half.
Ask him what he most has learned in 2017 and Castellanos pauses for only a split-second.
“This year?” he asked. “To not change my approach because I haven’t gotten the results I’ve wanted.
“My results aren’t there yet, but I’m doing things right.”
Offensively, anyway. The story at third base hasn’t been as pleasing. You can ask him about that, also.
“I’ve had my struggles,” he said, “probably trying too hard not to mess up. Putting pressure on myself.”
He thinks the glove will stabilize, as well, particularly when he made noticeable progress a year ago. It so often works in tandem for a player. The bat catches fire, the defense gets better, and vice versa.
Psychology at work there. This, after all, is the big leagues. The mental game is as fearsome as the physical grind.
“I understand this is baseball,” Castellanos said. “But this is still the best job I could have in the world.”
With, he believes, a better second half to come.