DETROIT – The Detroit Tigers have started to show signs of turning their season around, and it coincides with Harold Castro and Willi Castro moving to the top of the batting order.
Willi Castro has spent the last four games as A.J. Hinch’s leadoff hitter, and he’s played in all but one game during the team’s recent 12-7 stretch.
Harold Castro, meanwhile, has played just 12 times over that span. But those 12 games have been extraordinarily impactful: four home runs, 15 hits, and a 1.162 OPS.
What sunk the Tigers during their miserable 9-23 start to the season was a punchless offense that rarely scored more than two runs per game. That issue still isn’t fully resolved, but they’ve at least scored four or more runs in five of their past nine.
Hey, you’ve gotta start somewhere, right?
But what’s more important than what happened the first two months is what we should expect to happen next.
Let’s start with Hinch’s new leadoff hitter.
First of all, Willi Castro has been really, really bad at the top of the lineup. In 16 plate appearances batting leadoff, he’s 3-for-15 with no walks, one hit by pitch, and one double.
His on-base percentage for the season is a mediocre .321, largely thanks to his inability to draw walks (just five in 112 plate appearances).
Willi Castro has a really strange profile to figure out. Here’s why:
- He never -- and I mean *never* -- hits the ball hard. He ranks in the first percentile of MLB in both average exit velocity and hard hit percentage. That means 99% of batters hit the ball harder than him, on average.
- Despite that, he ranks in the 94th percentile in expected batting average.
What gives? How is it possible that Willi Castro, whose exit velocity and hard hit rates are both in the bottom 1% of baseball, is expected to have a .314 batting average right now, according to Statcast?
It helps that Castro doesn’t strike out very much. His 16.1% strikeout rate puts him in the 78th percentile of MLB. Strikeouts, by definition, cannot help your batting average, so avoiding them is a good start.
But the rest? How do I phrase this? It’s almost as if Willi Castro is really good at hitting the ball softly in the perfect spots. It’s basically the antithesis of lining out to center field.
Is this luck or some kind of otherworldly bat control? Is Willi Castro like the guy in every slow pitch softball league who can just place the ball wherever there isn’t a defender? Consider me a skeptic.
A great example of Willi Castro’s strange profile is the May 10 doubleheader against the Oakland Athletics. He went 5-for-7 with five singles during those two games, and that’s when he sort of cemented himself as a regular in Hinch’s lineups.
Willi Castro’s seven batted balls that day were hit 66.1, 70.5, 74.1, 74.9, 76.2, 90.7, and 96.2 mph. Statcast requires a ball to be hit at least 95 mph to register as “hard-hit,” so he just barely had one. Five of the seven balls were classified as “weak” contact.
Of course, because this is Willi Castro and everything has to be weird, the 96.2 mph grounder was one of only two outs he made that day. He recorded singles on four softly hit balls and one medium-hit ball.
In general, balls that are hit softly have a much lower chance of resulting in base hits, but his 66.1 mph single had an expected batting average of .710. His 74.9 mph single had an xBA of .960. Even the medium-hit ball, at 90.7 mph, had a bloated xBA of .920.
Incredibly, Willi Castro’s bloopers and well-placed grounders have consistently gone to the exact locations where Statcast *expects* weakly hit balls to work out. That’s how he’s managed to make some of the worst contact in MLB and still underperform his expected batting average while hitting .275.
Even with this anomaly of a profile, Willi Castro owns a .665 OPS and is about a replacement-level offensive player. That doesn’t even take into account his poor defense.
He doesn’t strike out much and he has solid speed, but unless Willi Castro starts impacting the ball much harder, his time on the roster could be limited.
Now that we’ve got the bad news out of the way, let’s take a look at a profile that’s much more interesting.
For three years, Harold Castro has managed to keep himself in the lineup thanks almost entirely to batting average. He provided no power, no on-base ability beyond hitting singles, and gave the team flexibility with slightly below-average defense at many positions.
This year, though, he’s been different.
Since he’s only played 31 games and registered 100 plate appearances, Harold Castro doesn’t technically qualify for Statcast percentile rankings. But if he did, here’s how he would rank:
- Top 1% in expected batting average
- Top 2% in expected slugging percentage
- Top 4% in expected weighted on-base percentage
- Top 10% in weighted on-base percentage
- Top 20% in barrel rate
- Top 34% in average exit velocity
- Top 35% in strikeout rate
- Top 51% in hard-hit rate
Prior to 2022, we had 772 plate appearances’ worth of data that said Harold Castro doesn’t slug the ball like Giancarlo Stanton or hit for an average as high as Tim Anderson’s. But that’s basically what he’s done so far this season.
Is it just a hot streak? That’s the most likely explanation, but hey, there are breakout players every season -- could that be the case for Harold Castro? J.D. Martinez was in his mid-20s and 975 plate appearances into his career when the Tigers resurrected him.
Harold Castro’s average exit velocity and launch angle are both career highs so far, but not by such wide margins that they couldn’t be sustained. He came into the season saying he wanted to try to hit for more power, and so far, he’s made the changes necessary to do just that.
Now, should we believe he’s suddenly a legitimate everyday MLB player? Not necessarily.
Harold Castro will always be held back by terrible plate discipline. Not only does he have a horrific 3% walk rate, but he chases pitches out of the zone more often than 86% of others in the game. His whiff rate is actually strong (top 30% of MLB), but he makes so much contact on bad pitches that it can result in weak balls in play.
So far, Harold Castro is making by far the best contact of his career. Maybe it’s a legitimate breakout, or maybe it’s just a hot streak.
Considering he’s a 28-year-old with a career OPS south of .670 in 3,600 combined plate appearances between the majors and minors, history is not in his favor. We’ll need to see a lot more to believe Harold Castro has turned into a real weapon for the Tigers.
But unlike Willi Castro, at least Harold Castro’s hot start is fully backed up by the underlying data.