Long before the Tigers took the field for batting practice last homestand, Willi Castro was often on his knees in foul territory in front of Detroit’s dugout. Infield coach Ramon Santiago, a former Tigers infielder, was about 30 feet away with a fungo bat and a bucket of baseballs, peppering Castro with grounders.
One ball after another, Castro would field from his knees — one round with a flatter “pancake glove” that forced him to follow the ball into the glove, then a round with his regular glove. Hall of Famer Alan Trammell joined in and provided pointers while he helped manager A.J. Hinch’s coaching staff last weekend.
After enough rounds of that, Castro was back on his feet and taking rapid-paced throws from Santiago, then relaying them into a net nearby. The drill was meant to focus on his exchange on double plays.
“Santi’s done a great job with him on some drill work where he handles the ball,” Hinch said. “His hands are handling the ball a little more cleanly. His throwing has gotten a lot better.”
It’s an example of how much work Castro has put into his defense, even late in the season, as he tries to answer one of the long-running questions about his game. After a miserable start to his season, there are defensive metrics that suggest the work is paying off.
Both metrics and eye tests generally showed that Castro had a miserable start to the season at shortstop, which is how he ended up moving to second base by the end of April. Metrics weren’t all that kind to him there, either, at least for the first month or two.
Since July, however, at least two major metrics have diverged on how Castro has progressed on defense. At minus-10 defensive runs saved, he has the lowest rating among Major League second basemen with at least 600 innings at the position this year, according to Fangraphs.
Statcast, however, suggests Castro has greatly improved since midseason. He registered at minus-3 outs above average in May and minus-4 in June, both second worst among qualified MLB second basemen. In both months, Castro’s success rate of converting plays into outs was five percent lower than the estimated rate based on positioning, exit velocity and launch angle.
In July, the metrics flipped. Castro was plus-2 outs above average for the month, placing him in the top 10 at his position, and had a 73 percent success rate compared to the 68 percent estimate. He was even better in August, at plus-3 OAA and a 76 percent success rate compared to a 70 percent estimate.
With solid work during Thursday’s 5-2 loss at Tampa Bay, Castro moved to plus-2 OAA for September, and 0 OAA for the season. He has an 83 percent success rate for the month. His 74 percent success rate at second for the season now matches estimates.
Much of his improvement on Statcast has been on plays moving to his right toward the middle, plays that take him toward his old position of shortstop. They’re also plays that would presumably test his throwing arm.
“I think he’s gotten better,” Hinch said, “and I think it’s been a productive summer for him, albeit a little different than maybe what we anticipated going into the season.
“I do think he’s settled in and been a little bit more comfortable at second base with the depths that we play and the different throws that he’s asked to make from different areas at second base. Turning the double play, I think, has been better. So overall, I think he’s taken a step forward defensively based on where we were at the beginning of the season. And by the way, he’s done this all while he’s been grinding relentlessly with the bat.”
What that means for Castro going forward will be intriguing. The Tigers are already expected to look for ways to upgrade at shortstop, and they’ll have rising shortstop prospect Ryan Kreidler knocking on the door after a strong finish at Triple-A Toledo. Castro, meanwhile, has seen time in left field to add to his versatility, potentially setting him up for a role at several spots.
“I know the kind of player I am. I know my work ethic,” Castro told reporters on Friday at Tropicana Field. “And I know I’m going to be playing this game for a long time.”