Houston — This might be the most impressive set of statistics produced by Nick Castellanos this season: Since June 12, he’s hitting .282 with a .373 on-base percentage, slugging .612 with a .985 OPS.
Why is that so impressive? June 12 is when Miguel Cabrera ruptured his left biceps and was lost for the season. Since that time, Castellanos has been the one guy in the Tigers’ lineup teams pitch around, especially with runners on base.
“It’s not a secret,” Castellanos said. “They are going to pitch around me and not let me beat them. I am just trying to be more selective and do the best I can. I’ve been doing a decent job so far.”
Yes, he has.
He was hitting .316 with a .357 on-base percentage before Cabrera went down. He had 13 walks and 34 RBIs in 283 plate appearances. Post-Cabrera, Castellanos hasn’t gotten many RBI opportunities (nine home runs and 22 RBIs) but he’s taking his walks (14 in 118 plate appearances).
Which means he’s not chasing pitches or trying to play outside of himself – which is a feat for a hitter as aggressive as Castellanos.
“For me, it’s still trying to stay aggressive as possible,” he said. “I just have to make the circle (hitting zone) smaller.”
It’s been one of the few offensive success stories for the Tigers.
“Early on we talked about trying to protect Cabrera and make sure he gets pitches to hit,” manager Ron Gardenhire said. “With Nick, there is no more protection really. We’ve got young hitters all around him and it doesn’t matter where we put him.
“It’s pretty amazing he’s still getting hits because he does get pitched around. When he gets himself in trouble is when he tries to force it. He’s just a real good hitter. He’s got length to his swing and he can get to a lot of balls. And when they make a mistake, he hits it hard.”
Since Cabrera went down, the Tigers are hitting .236 with a .296 on-base average and slugging .353 – all at or near the bottom of the American League. They are averaging 3.4 runs a game and striking out nearly nine times a game (8.6).
The have scored three runs or less in 16 of their last 23 games. They have been shutout 12 times, four since Cabrera went down.
“Lloyd is going crazy,” Gardenhire said, referencing hitting coach Lloyd McClendon. “They’ve been working on so many different things. But once they leave the dugout, we can’t help them. They are on their own up there. You can prepare them as much as you can, work on swings and theories and what you can try to do against a pitcher.
"But once you get in that box, you’ve just got to hit.”
The biggest offensive issue facing the Tigers right now is the youth and inexperience of their hitters. Eight of the Tigers’ 12 position players have less than 750 big-league at-bats. JaCoby Jones (457), Niko Goodrum (258), John Hicks (448) and Jeimer Candelario (439) – players who have been staples in the Gardenhire’s lineup – all have less than 500 at-bats.
“It’s just been sporadic,” Gardenhire said of the offense. “At times you see them locked in and the other times you’re like, ‘What are they thinking?’”
The inexperience gets especially exposed with runners in scoring position. As a team, they are hitting .230 in those situations, .204 with two outs and runners in scoring position.
The Tigers were 1 for 11 with runners in scoring position in the 3-0 loss to the Astros Friday night. Both Jones and Candelario had rushed and unproductive at-bats with runners at first and second and nobody out. Jones flew out to center and Candelario struck out – neither advancing the runner to third.
“It was like, ‘I have to hit this guy before he gets me,’” Gardenhire said. “Panic at-bats. We’ve got to get away from those panic at-bats, especially with men in scoring position. We watched the video on some of these at-bats, and pitches that were balls from the time it left his hand, we’re swinging at it.”
As a contrast, Gardenhire pointed out how the Astros’ hitters, with runners in scoring position in the third inning Friday, took the ball to the opposite field for base hits.
“Professional hitters who have experience, they know what they are looking for,” he said. “They cut the plate in half and I’m either going to look out there or look in here. And I won’t swing if I don’t get it until there are two strikes – then I am going to defend.
“That’s what good hitters do and that’s what the RBI guys really do. They know what to expect in situations and they study the game. We get out of whack.”
It comes with experience. Gardenhire and others believe it takes at least 1,500 at-bats for most hitters to figure it out at the big-league level – and even still, the best will fail seven out of 10 times.
“I just try to remind them to stay in the moment and don’t get too down on yourself,” said Castellanos, who has counseled a lot of struggling hitters the last couple of months. “Just stick with it. You are only struggling if you let yourself believe you are struggling.
“But, honestly, it’s a self-learned thing.”