An ‘important player’ for Detroit Tigers, Willi Castro stuck in dreaded sophomore slump

Detroit Free Press

BALTIMORE — Jeimer Candelario understands.

He remembers his miserable 2019 season, bouncing between the Detroit Tigers and Triple-A Toledo and finishing with a .203 batting average over 94 games in the big leagues. Expected to be a part of the future, his results weren’t encouraging.

What Candelario went through in 2019 compares to Willi Castro this season. Castro, 24, is hitting .214 through 90 games, got demoted to Toledo on July 16 and then was called back up July 22 to replace injured infielder Isaac Paredes.

Since then, Castro has a .214 batting average (12-for-56) with one walk and 14 strikeouts in 16 games. He went 2-for-4 with a double, triple and three RBIs in Tuesday’s 9-4 win against the Baltimore Orioles.

“This game is about failure,” Castro said Tuesday. “Not every day is going to be a good day. I just got to keep my mind on being consistent. When I grab that again, being consistent, I know I’m going to do good.”

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Candelario posted a breakthrough 2020 season by hitting .297 in 52 games, and he continued his success through 2021 with a .277 batting average, 50 walks and 96 strikeouts over 104 games. He is tied for first place in the American League with 30 doubles.

But Castro feels stuck, just waiting to surge. Perhaps that surge began Tuesday, with a double and triple in four at-bats and three RBIs in the Tigers’ 9-4 win.

“He can hit, man,” Candelario said Tuesday. “He can really hit. He’s a good ballplayer, hustles all the time and is hungry. It’s going to pass away, and he’s going to be really good. He knows what he has. He just wants to see it happen now.”

Manager AJ Hinch added: “I’m not going to label his season as anything until we get through the entire season. He is an important player for us. He has to keep trying to figure it out. … If you look at his offensive profile, he chases too much and has too much swing-and-miss for the skills he has and for the hitter he can be.”

Defensively, Castro is the worst second baseman in baseball.

His minus-11 defensive runs saved puts him in the cellar, behind the Athletics’ Jed Lowrie (minus-9 DRS) and the Cardinals’ Matt Carpenter (minus-7 DRS). Castro opened the season at shortstop — where he played last season — but an abundance of throwing miscues forced a switch to second base.

“Stuff like that’s going to happen,” Castro said. “Every time I come out here, it’s to get better. You never know what’s going to happen. Every day I’m excited because you never know what the day is going to bring you.”

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Without an infield spot solidified for the future, could the Tigers turn Castro into a utility player?

They might, but if Castro takes on a utility role, it won’t happen until spring training. (The old coaching staff considered moving Castro to the outfield, but injuries pushed him to shortstop.) Regardless of defense, the Tigers need Castro’s offense to spark.

He tied for fourth place in 2020 AL Rookie of the Year voting by hitting .349 with six home runs and 24 RBIs. Despite seven walks compared to 38 strikeouts, the way the ball sounded coming off his bat — and the results — shadowed those concerns, as well as the defensive issues.

This time, nothing is going as planned.

“Every player goes through a year like this,” Castro said. “I think I’m handling it pretty good. I trust my abilities and my talent. I just got to keep playing.”

[ Matthew Boyd scheduled for rehab start in Triple-A Toledo on Thursday ]

Along with his .214 average in 2021, Castro has 12 doubles, five triples, seven home runs, 34 RBIs, 19 walks, 86 strikeouts. His 39.9% chase rate, 25.4% strikeout rate and 5.7% walk rate are much worse than the league averages.

“The bottom line for Willi to be a bona fide hitter that we can rely on is to hone in on the strike zone and get away from the chase rate that’s eating into a lot of his quality at-bats,” Hinch said. “That is the one point of emphasis for him to be better.”

Evan Petzold is a sports reporter at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold. Read more on the Detroit Tigers and sign up for our Tigers newsletter

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