Detroit Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire wants to clear something up about Willi Castro.
When the organization called him up Aug. 11, it was an opportunity for him to prove his big-league worth. He produced immediately with a .314 batting average through 11 games in August, but sustainability as a 23-year-old is rare, even in a 60-game schedule.
Yet 18 games into September, becoming the everyday shortstop in the process, Castro is 24-for-66 (.364) this month. He has five homers and 17 RBIs with a .347 batting average in 2020.
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That’s what Gardenhire wants people to understand. The offensive success, in his opinion, isn’t going to stop.
“He’s proven that he can hit at this level,” Gardenhire said Tuesday after Castro went 3-for-5 with a homer in a 6-0 win. “He’s been doing it for a while, so it’s not a fluke thing. He’s been doing that since he got up here.”
The Tigers tried to get Castro in the lineup as much as possible, but a jammed infield made it difficult. When Jeimer Candelario moved to first base as injured C.J. Cron’s replacement, Castro played third base for four games before prospect Isaac Paredes made his MLB debut Aug. 17.
That forced Castro to platoon around shortstop, third base and second base. The Tigers then had him take outfield lessons from first base coach Dave Clark.
He kept hitting, and Gardenhire needed his bat in the lineup.
“He thought I was going to be upset because he told me I was going to play outfield a little bit,” Castro said about his conversation with Gardenhire. “Not at all. I told him I’ll play anywhere.”
Castro added his fifth homer of the season, a three-run line drive to right against Shane Bieber, to give the Tigers their only runs in a 10-3 loss to the Cleveland Indians on Thursday. His offensive surge is a product of keeping a steady head and not moving his body too much at the plate.
In 2019, he recorded a .230 batting average in his first 30 career games. This time, he is hitting .352 against fastballs, .346 against breaking pitches and .333 on off-speed offerings. He believes he can hit any pitch, a rare mindset for someone with less than 600 career at-bats.
“There’s a lot of guys that know they can’t hit a curveball, know they have trouble with a slider or a changeup,” Tigers hitting coach Joe Vavra said Friday. “He doesn’t. He’s got 100% accountability. He really trusts his natural ability to hit any pitch. If he’s looking for it, and it’s in the zone, he’s going to put a pretty good swing on it. He’s got good balance. He can use the whole field.”
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When Niko Goodrum sustained a right oblique strain Sept. 1 against the Milwaukee Brewers, the Tigers dropped the outfield idea and made Castro the starting shortstop in his absence.
Third base coach Ramon Santiago, who played 13 seasons in the majors, is helping him develop defensively. Castro owns a minus-seven DRS — a number to show how many runs he has, or hasn’t, saved on defense. The league average for shortstops is minus-two.
“He’s thinking about it too much,” Santiago said. “I think when he lets it go and just relax, he’s been catching the ball pretty good. Right now, he’s swinging the bat really well. I don’t want to mess around too much. Don’t want that to affect his hitting. I keep it simple with him right now.”
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Although Goodrum returned from the 10-day injured list Tuesday, the Tigers won’t move Castro from shortstop. They want to see more, despite his four errors in 68 chances. Santiago has reminded him to focus on separating his defense from his offense.
“If you have a bad day swinging the bat, you can’t take that to the defense,” Castro said. “If you have a bad day on defense, you can’t take that to the hitting side. I think I’ve been doing a pretty good job keeping up with that.”
Unless something drastically changes, those outfield plans were short-lived.
Because the Tigers think the future at shortstop is already here.
“We were talking about another place to go play to get more at-bats,” Gardenhire said. “Honestly, it’s not a bad thing to be able to play multiple positions. But there’s a lot of people, we believe Willi’s got a chance to be a major league shortstop, and a hitting one, too.”
Evan Petzold is a sports reporting intern at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold. The Free Press has started a new digital subscription model. Here’s how you can gain access to our most exclusive Detroit Tigers content.