Making the case for Detroit Tigers’ Willi Castro as AL Rookie of the Year

Detroit Free Press

Evan Petzold
 
| Detroit Free Press

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Detroit Tigers shortstop Willi Castro deserves to be in the American League Rookie of the Year conversation.

And with his .350 batting average in just over half the season, winning the award could easily be justified.

Castro has quietly made a dash up the Rookie of the Year pecking order since making a splash in his 2020 debut Aug. 12, when he went 3-for-4 with a home run.

The 23-year-old switch-hitter hasn’t missed a beat since then, slashing .350/.383/.561 with four doubles, two triples, six home runs and 23 RBIs in 34 games. He continues to govern opposing pitchers and has yet to stumble into a slump. And he also has delivered in clutch moments, carrying the struggling 22-33 Tigers on offense in September.

“This is where I belong,” Castro said Thursday after a 3-for-5 performance with three RBIs in a 7-6 loss to the Kansas City Royals. “I worked for this. I want to be here for a long time. Every year that I come, I will come even better. I’m trying to get better every year. That’s something I always keep in mind — that I want to be here for a long time and make the team win.”

From the outset of the shortened 60-game season, Mariners outfielder Kyle Lewis and White Sox outfielder Luis Robert have been frontrunners for AL Rookie of the Year.

But that’s beginning to change.

Robert, 23, was stellar in July and August, as the White Sox became one of the premier offensive teams in baseball. He has 11 home runs and 30 RBIs with a 1.3 WAR through 53 games, but his candidacy has been mired by an 0-for-26 slump over his past eight games, and he’s now batting just .220 this season. Robert has struggled so much, in fact, that White Sox manager Rick Renteria kept him out of Thursday’s lineup for a recalibration day as his team gears up for the playoffs. 

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Lewis, 25, is the greater challenge to Castro, and the current frontrunner. He has almost equal power numbers (11 homers, 28 RBIs) as Robert, and his WAR (1.7), average (.277 in 55 games) and consistency make him a more viable candidate. Lewis also has been exceptional in center field for the struggling Mariners, evoking memories of Ken Griffey Jr. with highlight-reel catches that will undoubtedly sway some voters. 

Castro’s success hasn’t generated nearly as many YouTube hits, and his defense hasn’t been great (he has four errors at shortstop this season). But he has been a very consistent top-half-of-the-order player, hitting safely in 26 of his 34 games, including 13 multi-hit games. And had he accrued about 50 more at-bats this season, he’d have the second-highest average in MLB and would trail only the Yankees’ DJ LeMahieu (.355) in the race for the AL batting title.

Imagine, then, how differently Castro’s candidacy would be viewed if he played another 10 games (he’s currently on pace to play 37).

Games matter in a Rookie of the Year race, especially in a shortened season, and for a candidate who has been incredibly solid but hasn’t had many “wow” moments, the late start after not making the active roster out of July’s summer camp might end up being the difference.  

Castro, who is batting .364 this month, could have benefited from the exposure of being in a playoff race in a tough division, had the Tigers not lost 17 of their past 23 games. He has a higher on-base percentage (.383) than both Lewis (.378) and Robert (.291). And while it’s true his defensive struggles have contributed to a more modest WAR (0.5) than his competitors, his oWAR — measuring only offensive wins above replacement — stacks up much better at 1.2, well ahead of Robert (0.6) but still a bit behind Lewis (1.7). 

“Circumstances called for him to go down (to Toledo at the beginning of the season), but the way he’s swinging it now, man, it’s loud and impressive,” Tigers interim manager Lloyd McClendon said Thursday. “And it’s from both sides of the plate.”

There are a handful of rookie pitchers who could steal some votes — particularly Twins righty Randy Dobnak (6-4, 4.05 ERA) and Astros righty Cristian Javier (5-2, 3.48) — but it stands to reason the race is down to just two: Castro and Lewis. 

[ Detroit Tigers’ Willi Castro ‘not a fluke.’ Here’s why he can be the answer at shortstop ]

However it shakes out, Castro has handled the bat like a veteran this season. And while it’s wise to remember that a 60-game schedule is only 37% of a 162-game slate — and that one hot streak doesn’t guarantee stardom in the big leagues — Castro’s blistering 34-game stretch shouldn’t be overlooked.

“It’s pretty encouraging going into next year,” McClendon said. 

[ Detroit Tigers’ Willi Castro’s routine, approach may be what keeps him in the lineup ]

Encouraging enough that the Tigers’ rising shortstop needs to be in the conversation for AL Rookie of the Year, and deserves to finish in second place — ahead of Robert and behind Lewis — regardless of what happens over the final three games.

“I’m having a lot of fun,” Castro said. “This is a dream come true to be here.”

Evan Petzold is a sports reporting intern at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at epetzold@freepress.com 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

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