Detroit — In the fourth inning Friday night, with the Tigers leading 2-0, right fielder Nick Castellanos snared a line drive hit with an exit velocity of 95 mph off the bat of White Sox shortstop Tim Anderson.
There was a runner on first, Yoan Moncada, who likely would have scored had Castellanos not reacted swiftly and correctly on a ball hit on a line directly over his head.
That play was a demonstration of the progress Castellanos has made in the outfield since he changed positions on the fly late last season.
Flash ahead to the fatal eighth inning when the White Sox scored six times. Moncada hit a double over his head that scored the tying and go-ahead runs. The ball was scorched, 98 mph off the bat, and hit at the base of the wall. According to Statcast, it had a hit probability of 63 percent.
Hard to fault Castellanos on that one.
Three batters later, though, Anderson hit a slicing line drive that spun Castellanos around. That one had a hit probability of 34 percent and Castellanos didn’t get close to it.
That play was a demonstration that Castellanos remains a work in progress in the outfield.
“I think Nicky will tell you he should’ve made a catch, at least one of them,” manager Ron Gardenhire said. “But I think he got turned and the ball sliced. It wasn’t an easy play. The ball was hit hard. He just needs to keep working.
“We need to make better pitches, more than anything else.”
Castellanos said he was not positioned in no-doubles depth, meaning he wasn’t playing unusually deep in the eighth inning.
“It depends on the situation,” outfield coach Dave Clark said. “There are times when we will play deeper, but I didn’t put the no-doubles sign up. We were still playing deep, kind of a modified no-doubles.”
The reasoning for that, Clark said, was to give the outfielders a chance to throw a runner out at home or at third.
“They had runners in scoring position,” Clark said. “Especially when there are no outs, you still want to have a chance to throw a guy out.”
Clark said Castellanos saw the ball off Anderson’s bat headed for the right-center field gap, which it was. But Anderson is a right-handed hitter and the ball was slicing toward the right-field line. Castellanos didn’t pick up the slice quick enough.
“He’s made that play before,” Clark said. “He just got turned around last night.”
Castellanos has thrown out nine runners this season, second-most among American League right fielders. According to FanGraphs, he has made 73 percent of the plays they determine to be likely outs and 98.7 of the plays that they consider routine.
Other metrics are less kind, like his minus-18 defensive runs saved. As a point of reference, though, J.D. Martinez, in 2016 playing right field for the Tigers, was a minus-22.
“I will say this,” Clark said. “He is working his butt off and he is a lot better then what he was at this point last year, and he’s going to continue to get better.”
The reality is, Castellanos has played 138 games in right field at the big league level, going there cold after spending the previous four seasons at third base. He's come a long way in a short period of time, and, yes, he still has a long way to go.
The larger point is this: Castellanos productivity with the bat outweighs his defensive deficiencies in right field. His offensive WAR, according to Baseball Reference, is 3.6 and his defensive WAR is minus-2.2.
He drove home three runs Friday night, delivering two, two-out, RBI hits. It was his 43rd multi-hit game of the year. He’s hitting .409, with nine runs, four doubles, three home runs and 14 RBIs in the last 11 games.
He leads the Tigers in the triple-crown categories (.294 average, 19 home runs and 73 RBIs).
He may not be perfect — no player is — but he’s the most productive player the Tigers have right now — by far.