PITTSBURGH — Detroit Tigers manager AJ Hinch and starting pitcher Matthew Boyd stood in left-center field last week at Comerica Park. They were watching utility player Harold Castro crush home runs in batting practice.
“This guy can hit. He keeps the ball in the air,” Hinch said to Boyd. “But you watch. Tonight, he’s going to get up and just try to slap some singles around.”
In the sixth inning, Castro — who has earned the nickname “Hittin’ Harold” for his abundance of singles with little power — stepped into the batter’s box to face Oakland Athletics reliever Yusmeiro Petit in the sixth inning. He put a curveball over the left-center wall for an opposite-field home run, helping the Tigers to an 8-6 victory to open the September schedule. (Though, back in the second inning, Castro had indeed slapped a single to left field — scoring his team’s first run.)
“That’s big-man territory there,” Hinch said Sept. 1. “So Boyd had to remind me of that conversation, that he can hit the ball in the air and hit the ball far when he wants to. We call him ‘Hittin’ Harold’ Castro, I’ve said that before. He had a nice night tonight.”
Castro, 27, is hitting .286 with three home runs, 31 RBIs, 14 walks and 65 strikeouts over 90 games this season. During his four-year MLB career, spanning 215 games, he boasts just eight home runs over 682 at-bats, averaging 85 at-bats per homer.
He struggles against left-handed pitchers, so he primarily plays against righties. But when the Tigers need a single, he’s the guy they turn to. (For example, it was his single with two outs in the eighth inning that broke up Cleveland starter Triston McKenzie’s perfect game bid Aug. 15.) Although Castro isn’t Gold Glove-caliber at any defensive position, he can play virtually everywhere: second base (63 career games), shortstop (47), center field (34), third base (25), left field (17), first base (17) and right field (11). He also has a 0.00 ERA over 2⅔ innings in three appearances as a relief pitcher, all this season.
Next up: Castro wants to add power.
“That’s what I’m going to try to do this month,” Castro said Sept. 1. “I’m going to try to hit the ball hard this last month of the season.”
The next day, on Sept. 2, the Athletics had starter Frankie Montas on the mound. He had pitched well enough to put his team in a position to even the three-game series, but not well enough to fool Castro with his first-pitch two-seam fastball in the fifth inning.
Castro put the ball into the Comerica Park shrubs in straightaway center for a home run.
“He crushed that ball,” third baseman Jeimer Candelario said. “Hopefully, he can continue doing that. Put the barrel on the ball and good things happen.”
So what does Hinch think about Castro craving a power surge?
“It’s not as if he’s going to sell out and you’re going to start to see these monster swings. He can drive the ball. He will pop the ball from here to there. But let’s not forget that he makes his money being a really good bat-to-ball, base-hit artist.
“He did show that he’s got plenty of power, but I think Harold having a good at-bat is probably more important than focusing on power.”
That doesn’t mean Hinch isn’t interested in power. He just wants Castro to put the ball in play. After all, Castro’s bat-to-ball mentality is what provided the Tigers with a 9-8 win over the Chicago Cubs in the 10th inning May 15 at Comerica Park, as he drilled a two-out walk-off single to left field.
In high-leverage situations this season, Castro is hitting .407 (22-for-54) with two doubles and 20 RBIs. In medium-leverage plate appearances, he is hitting .342 (27-for-79) with three doubles, one home run and four RBIs. And in low-leverage? Just 27-for-132 (.205) with four doubles, two home runs and seven RBIs.
“He’s got a calm heartbeat,” Hinch said Aug. 29. “He knows what his strengths are. I know some of the underlying numbers and how we evaluate different hitters, you can knock him on a few things. You can’t knock the fact that he’s a good hitter and puts up good at-bats.
“He doesn’t change his adrenaline level from the first-inning at-bat when I start him to the ninth-inning at-bat when I pinch-hit him. I know the consistency that he’s going to bring, and he’s a dangerous hitter in his own way.”
For Castro, stepping up in the big moments is a product of his confidence.
“The trust that the manager and the coaches have in me, that helps me in those situations,” Castro said. “They’re giving me the opportunity to do something, and I have to do it. I have to make my mind strong and do my job.”
This season, Castro is slugging .353, with 12 of his 77 hits going for extra bases. Of those 12, four were hit across his eight games (five starts) in September. As Castro attempts to rake for the remainder of the season, Hinch offered a reminder of his importance off the field.
Because Castro is an impact player, even beyond the singles and recent home runs.
“He’s pretty mild-mannered, but he’s pretty influential,” Hinch said. “When you see him amongst the group, he’s not the most outwardly spoken guy on a team. But amongst the group of his friends, he’s pretty influential on Miggy (Miguel Cabrera), pretty influential on Candy (Candelario) and Willi (Castro). Harold’s in the middle of the culture and chemistry, and I’ve noticed that throughout the season. He’s a glue guy.
“He accepts his role and wants to play a little bit more like every player does, but he’s a positive add when I think about add-value to a club. He does a lot of good things.”
Evan Petzold is a sports reporter at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold. Read more on the Detroit Tigers and sign up for our Tigers newsletter.