Toronto – Day after day this spring, Tigers outfield coach Dave Clark and roving outfield coordinator Gene Roof would line up the outfielders – either on one of the back fields or the stadium field – and hit balls in front of them.
“Get to the ball!” Clark would yell. “Get to the ball!”
There was a heavy emphasis on charging base hits hard to discourage runners from taking the extra base as much as possible. Opposing base runners had a 58-percent success rate going first to third on base hits to the outfield against Tigers outfielders last season.
Not the worst percentage in the league, but something the organization identified as an area that could be improved.
“It’s about charging the ball under control, and then either hitting the cut-off man or throwing it to the right base and backing each other up,” Clark said. “That’s all we can do.”
Flash ahead to the fourth inning Saturday. The Blue Jays had a runner on second with no outs and Billy McKinney singled to right field. Nick Castellanos, just like he’d done in countless drills this spring, charged the ball hard, came up with it clean and threw a strike to second base well ahead of the sliding McKinney.
“This is Nick’s second year in the outfield now,” Clark said. “And going into last year I told him you’re probably going to be up there in assists because guys are going to test you. This year, he’s been prepared for that. He’s getting his work in and he’s done a good job of it.”
Castellanos threw out 10 runners last season from right field. And through three games this season he is already a plus-one in defensive runs saved. He was a minus-19 in that sabermetric category last year.
“Everything about the kid in the outfield is better,” Clark said. “His first step is great, a lot better. He goes back on balls well. He’s reading the ball off the bat a heckuva lot better than he did when he started.
“He’s an outfielder now.”
He made a good play going back to the wall on a ball hit by Freddy Galvis on Friday. On Saturday, he made a long running catch in foul territory on a slicing ball hit by Danny Jansen. Castellanos was shaded toward right-center against the right-handed hitter, but he got a good jump and ran it down right in front of the short wall.
Then on Sunday, he raced 102 feet in 5.4 seconds, according to Statcast, and made a sliding catch of a foul fly by Kevin Pillar in the third inning.
“It’s just the work he’s put in,” said Clark, who has worked tirelessly with Castellanos since the Tigers converted him to outfield from third base. “He gets all of the credit, really. He’s the one actually doing it. All you’ve got to do is watch him in batting practice.
“He’s reading and chasing balls off the bat every day. He’s working on his craft.”
And, believe or not, he’s gotten significantly, noticeably, more comfortable and more confident.
Around the horn
The Tigers' starting pitchers limited the Blue Jays to one hit total through the first three innings of all four games – 1 for 37 with 14 strikeouts, all told. Jordan Zimmermann, Spencer Turnbull and, on Sunday, Matt Moore dispatched the first nine Jays hitters. On Friday, Matthew Boyd gave up a lead-off triple, then set down nine straight.
...The Tigers didn't score a run off a Blue Jays starting pitcher in this series -- 24 scoreless innings.
... Blue Jays starter Trent Thornton, in his big-league debut, knocked Tigers lefty Matthew Boyd out of the Jays record books. His eight strikeouts were the most by a Jays pitcher in his debut -- one better than Boyd (who punched out seven in his debut with the Jays in 2015).
… Jays Rule 5 rookie Elvis Luciano also made his debut, becoming at 19 the youngest player in Jays history. He is also the first player born in the 2000s to play in a Major League game.
On deck: Yankees
Series: Three-game series at Yankee Stadium
First pitch: Monday-Tuesday – 6:35 p.m.; Wednesday – 4:05 p.m.
TV/radio: Monday-Wednesday -- FSD/97.1 FM
Probables: Monday – RHP Domingo German (0-0, 0.00) vs. RHP Tyson Ross (first start); Tuesday – RHP Masahiro Tanaka (1-0, 1.59) vs. RHP Jordan Zimmermann (0-0, 0.00); Wednesday – TBD vs. LHP Matthew Boyd (0-1, 5.40).
German, Yankees: Although he possesses a 95-mph four-seamer and sinker, his pitch du jour is the curveball – and it’s nasty. He throws it at 82 mph and opponents managed just a .181 average against it last season. He got a 41-percent whiff rate on the pitch.
Ross, Tigers: Since Thoracic Outlet surgery, the velocity on his fastball is down some 6 mph. But he’s compensated with a vastly improved slider and two-seam fastball. Coupled with a deceptive delivery, four-seam fastball seems to play a notch above the 90-91 mph reading on the radar gun.