'Not an empty year': Tigers' Willi Castro working to salvage a rocky season

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

St. Petersburg, Fla. — A season like the one Willi Castro has endured could ruin a player.

Going from getting Rookie of the Year votes in 2020 and winning the regular shortstop job to losing the shortstop job; moving to second base and losing the regular second base job, to taking on a utility role, even playing left field for a while, all the while struggling for even a glimmer of success at the plate.

Another player would be shattered. Castro has not been.

Willi Castro

“I know the kind of player I am,” he said before the Friday's game against the Rays. “I know my work ethic and I know I’m going to be playing this game for a long time.”

The jury may still be out on that, at least in terms of his future with the Tigers. But what can’t be denied is, through all the trials and travails, Castro has grown as a player and taken positive, encouraging steps defensively.

“Overall, he’s taken a step forward defensively,” manager AJ Hinch said. “And by the way, he’s done this while he’s been grinding relentlessly with the bat. Coming off last season, it’s been a mental grind for him at the plate, trying to figure out his comfort zone and how to be productive.

“We’ve kind of had dual development going on, grinding away on one side while we’re wearing him out on the defensive side. It’s been a taxing year for him, but not an empty year for him.”

The offense just hasn’t come. He’s still chasing pitches out of the zone at a 40% clip. He’s still struggling with fastballs — .227 with 57 strikeouts in 223 plate appearances. After hitting .349 with a .932 OPS in 36 games in 2020, he’s slashing .213/.270/.347 with a .616 OPS.

There’s not enough time in the season to rescue any of those numbers. But defensively, his growth, especially at second base, is evident.

In the eighth inning Thursday night, Yandy Diaz hit a bullet at him, 110 mph off the bat. He had to play the ball on a slight retreat and still got a wicked short hop. He not only picked the ball clean, he made a perfect feed to shortstop Niko Goodrum to turn an inning-ending double-play.

“He’s come a long way with that,” Goodrum said. “He works his butt off every day with Ramon (Santiago, infield coach). That feed tonight will get overlooked. But to do a sliding, turnaround, off-your-knees and throw a perfect feed, that’s not easy. But it gets overlooked.

“Those are the things I make sure I tell him so he knows when he comes off the field how good that feed was.”

Castro’s metrics still show he’s a minus-10 in defensive runs saved at second base, but Statcast is also showing his outs above average is at zero. He’s been a minus in that category all season. So he’s making the plays he’s supposed to make.

“I think he’s gotten better,” Hinch said. “It’s been a productive summer for him, albeit different than what we anticipated going into the season. Santy (Santiago) has done a great job with him with some of the drill work. His hands, he’s handling the ball more cleanly. He’s throwing the ball a lot better — he’s just a little more comfortable at second base with the depth that we play and the different throws that he’s able to make.”

It took a while for Castro to feel at ease playing in the shift, especially against left-handed hitters when he aligns in shallow right field. Learning when to charge, learning how to negotiate the lip of the infield, understanding the different timing of fielding balls that far from the plate — it took a minute.

“Repetition and confidence,” Hinch said. “And just having success at that position and doing things the right way. With the work and seeing results during the game, that’s probably been the biggest help for him.”

Where does that leave him, though, in the team’s plans for 2022? Does he come to spring training fighting for the second base spot or for a utility spot? He does have a minor-league option left, so this season probably won’t be his last opportunity to solidify himself in the plans.

“He’s got a lot to work on to continue at this level,” Hinch said.

Around the horn

Reliever Jose Cisnero (right elbow laceration) is with the team, but he still has eight stitches in his arm. Hinch said he is hopeful Cisnero will return before the end of the season.

“He might do a little throwing once the doctors deem him able to do that without tearing the stitches out," Hinch said. "We’ll see how it heals and see how his range of motion is with the skin. I hope he’s back.”

… There was still no word on whether left-handed starter Matthew Boyd will elect to have surgery on his elbow. He's visited one specialist (Dr. Keith Meister) and was expected to seek opinions from at least one other doctor. 

… The Toledo Mud Hens clinched the Triple-A Midwest Division title on Thursday. It’s their seventh division title since 1965 and the first since 2018.


Twitter: @cmccosky

Tigers at Rays

► First pitch: 4:10 p.m. Saturday, Tropicana Field, St. Petersburg, Fla.

► TV/radio: BSD/97.1


► LHP Tarik Skubal (8-12, 4.21), Tigers: His 160 strikeouts are tied with Houston’s Luis Garcia for most among big-league rookies. It is also a club record. He made the most of his three-inning max last time out, striking out six in three scoreless innings. His fastball is his calling card, but his change-up has been his most-improved tool. Hitters are 9-for-51 with 21 strikeouts against it. He’s got a 48.9% whiff rate with it.

► LHP Ryan Yarbrough (8-5, 5.27), Rays: Rough month. He’s made a start and a relief appearance in September, a total of 4⅓ innings and been tagged for 14 runs and 18 hits. Oddly enough, the exit velocity on balls put in play is 84 mph, among the lowest in baseball, and his hard-hit rate is 27%, also in the top two percentile in the game. Right-handed hitters are doing most of the damage, including 20 of the 22 homers he’s allowed.