A Happier and Hotter Nick Castellanos

In Tuesday’s otherwise lopsided rout by the Phillies, Nick Castellanos collected a pair of hits off Aaron Nola. With that, he extended his hitting streak to 18 games, thus surpassing his personal best and breaking a tie with Jose Altuve for the majors’ longest streak of this season. The Reds’ right fielder isn’t just hot all of a sudden, however. He’s been raking since Opening Day, and entered Thursday with his .361 batting average, .644 slugging percentage, 185 wRC+, and 2.9 WAR all sitting atop the NL leaderboards, a big step up from last year’s disappointing campaign.

The 29-year-old Castellanos, who signed a four-year, $64 million deal with the Reds in January 2020, hit just .225/.298/.486 in his first season in Cincinnati. He did play every game and bopped 14 homers while helping the Reds to their first playoff appearance since 2013, but his hot start (.340/.411/.840 through 14 games) quickly faded. His final 102 wRC+ was his lowest mark since 2015, his 28.5% strikeout rate represented a career high, and all told, his 0.4 WAR made it a pretty forgettable season.

Castellanos turned the page on 2020 by homering and doubling off the Cardinals’ Jack Flaherty on Opening Day and adding three more homers (plus two doubles and a triple) in the Reds’ next five games; he didn’t strike out for the first time until the team’s fifth game of the season. That week was a particularly colorful one, as his hop-skip-bat-flip sequence on Opening Day led to a retaliatory hit-by-pitch the next day, followed by an in-your-face flexing gesture after he came around to score, and then a bench-clearing brawl and a two-game suspension that made the powers that be look like stick-in-the-muds.

As silly as the suspension was, it halted Castellanos’ brief slump; he resumed raking upon returning, collecting 10 hits (including two homers) over his next six games. On May 2, he went 5-for-6 against the Cubs, with two homers as well as a walk-off RBI single in the 10th inning. On May 12, he began his hitting streak by going 2-for-4 with a walk against the Pirates. Over his 18-game jag, he’s hit .464/.532/.710 with three homers in 79 plate appearance, and overall he’s at .361/.416/.644 with 12 homers.

What’s fueling his rebound? “I’m a lot happier this year,” Castellanos told reporters earlier this week. “Last year, with all of the restrictions and the state of the country and just the anger and everything, I was just an unhappy, depressed, trapped person. That usually is not a good remedy for success in anything you do.”

“I’m ready to just put everything that has to do with COVID in the rear-view mirror and never look back at it,” he added.

Castellanos’ emotional well-being may be part of the equation. After all, who among us isn’t eager to put COVID behind us, or hasn’t felt a huge weight lifted upon being fully vaccinated? It was the Reds’ attainment of the 85% Tier 1 vaccination threshold, allowing for the relaxing of several health and safety protocols, that prompted Castellanos’ comments in the first place. And particularly at a time when the plight of tennis star Naomi Osaka is in the spotlight, we shouldn’t minimize the role that mental health plays in any athlete’s life, or the very real impact it can have on their performance.

Even so, happiness and good mental health don’t automatically beget better results, just as better results don’t necessarily alleviate stressors of a global pandemic. Luckily, Castellanos appears to be both happier and getting demonstrably better results this year. A closer look at the numbers tells us that the hits are falling in for him where that wasn’t the case last year. An extra two hits a week may not seem like much, but under normal circumstances, they can help turn a league-average wRC+ into a league-leading one.

In the aggregate, Castellanos is hitting the ball more or less as hard as he did last year, and a bit harder than he did in his two seasons before free agency:

Nick Castellanos via Statcast
Season GB/FB GB% EV Barrel% HardHit% AVG xBA SLG xSLG wOBA xwOBA
2018 0.99 35.4% 89.6 10.6% 40.5% .298 .295 .500 .524 .363 .373
2019 0.95 37.7% 88.9 10.1% 40.8% .289 .275 .525 .535 .357 .360
2020 0.88 34.7% 91.0 16.0% 46.0% .225 .273 .486 .542 .329 .371
2021 1.30 37.7% 91.2 9.9% 51.7% .361 .336 .644 .603 .451 .420
Statistics through June 1.

There’s a lot going on in that 2020-21 comparison, which is based on very similar numbers of batted ball events (150 last year, 151 this year). While his exit velocity has been consistent across the two seasons, his barrel rate has dropped sharply even as his hard-hit rate has risen. As to how we can square that, consider that hard-hit rate indicates the percentage of all batted balls with an exit velocity of 95 mph or higher, regardless of launch angle, while barrel rate is a subset of hard-hit balls that yield a minimum .500 batting average and 1.500 slugging percentage via their combination of exit velocity and launch angle. Based on its definition, a batted ball at 98 mph needs a launch angle of 26-30 degrees to be classified as a barrel, while at 100 mph, a range of 24-33 degrees will qualify.

As it turns out, Castellanos is hitting the ball in the air less frequently, producing a lower average launch angle this year (11.5 degrees) than last (16.5). His groundball rate itself isn’t far off from his recent range, but his line drive rate is a career high 33.1% (up from last year’s 26%) and his fly ball rate a career low 29.1% (down from 39.3% last year), which has helped to push his GB/FB above 1.0 for the first time since his 2013 rookie season.

Not only is Castellanos hitting groundballs more frequently, but the results on those grounders have changed drastically:

Nick Castellanos via Groundballs
2018 173 47 84.9 .272 .286 .283 .319 .243 .269
2019 185 46 83.3 .249 .244 .270 .274 .224 .230
2020 54 9 86.2 .167 .264 .185 .295 .154 .250
2021 58 18 83.2 .310 .261 .328 .289 .281 .243
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

Castellanos’ groundballs are leaving the bat three miles per hour slower this year than last but yielding very similar expected stats — yet his actual batting average on those grounders has nearly doubled, and his wOBA on those balls is 127 points higher. He’s already got twice as many infield hits this year (four) as last (two), and more of those grounders are finding holes and sneaking or streaking through the infield as well.

One thing that sticks out in Castellanos’ batted ball line is last seasons’ career-low 32% pull rate. He’s back up to 43% this year, almost exactly where he was in the combined sample of his 2018-19 work, and four points above his career rate. And along with the rising rate, he’s seen a marked contrast in year-to-year results:

Nick Castellanos via Pulled Balls
2018 197 92 90.2 .467 .438 .838 .737 .550 .501
2019 180 66 89.2 .367 .343 .728 .575 .446 .385
2020 52 13 87.7 .250 .343 .481 .523 .304 .372
2021 64 31 91.4 .484 .450 .953 .797 .610 .524
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

Not only was Castellanos pulling the ball less frequently last year, he wasn’t hitting those balls very hard, and his results were subpar; slugging .481 in that context is 10th percentile stuff. This year, his exit velo on such balls is up 3.7 mph, and his slugging percentage when pulling the ball is in the 90th percentile, quite a turnaround. Meanwhile, his batting average on such balls has nearly doubled from 2020 to ’21, and his wOBA has done so.

The theme repeats itself throughout Castellanos’ bodies of 2020 and ’21 work. Here’s one more, his performance on pitches in the heart of the strike zone:

Nick Castellanos in the Heart of the Zone
2018 634 252 93.1 .398 .387 .766 .766 .483 .483
2019 570 177 93.9 .310 .324 .625 .691 .377 .417
2020 222 56 95.2 .253 .411 .608 .900 .348 .541
2021 171 77 96.0 .449 .426 .885 .869 .567 .539
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

From a performance standpoint, this gets to the heart of the matter. Last year, Castellanos was absolutely hammering pitches in the meatiest part of the strike zone but getting far less than his money’s worth, by 158 points in terms of batting average, 292 points in terms of slugging percentage, and 193 points in terms of wOBA. All three of those figures led the majors, and if that’s not a recipe for on-the-job frustration, I’m not sure what is. Fortunately for him, not only are this year’s expected numbers similar to 2020, but he’s slightly outdoing them.

One hundred and fifty batted ball events isn’t a full season’s worth, and the extent to which the “expected” in Statcast’s x-stats is predictive is a subject of debate, but it’s difficult to look at Castellanos’ 2020 performance and not believe there was some serious bad luck in play given how hard he was hitting the ball. That said, I don’t think it’s fair to dismiss his turnaround simply to forces outside of his control, because it’s also apparent that he’s putting in the work, as manager David Bell told reporters on Monday.

“He has worked really closely and worked really well with our hitting coaches here at trying to get to the next level, and for him, he has the power, he has the bat-to-ball skills. He’s always been an aggressive hitter, and he doesn’t ever want to get away from that, but if controlling the strike zone, the ability to take a walk, we’re seeing him mature even at this point in that area. He knows if he can stay in that zone and think about hitting that ball hard, but also be willing to not chase and take a walk when it’s given to him.”

Castellanos’ improved control of the zone shows up in the contrast between his swinging strike rate, which has been pretty consistent from 2020 to ’21, and his plummeting strikeout rate. It turns out that he’s doing a much better job on two-strike pitches:

Nick Castellanos With Two Strikes
Season SwStr% K% 2-Str PA BB% K% AVG OBP SLG wRC+
2018 15.8% 22.3% 343 7.0% 44.0% .230 .289 .334 69
2019 13.9% 21.5% 330 6.7% 43.3% .168 .230 .283 32
2020 16.6% 28.5% 145 7.6% 47.6% .127 .193 .276 21
2021 16.2% 19.1% 108 9.3% 37.0% .265 .333 .480 121
Overall performance numbers to left of bar, two-strike performance to right of bar.

Last year, when major league hitters batted .172/.251/.279 (46 wRC+) with two strikes, Castellanos was very bad; his 21 wRC+ placed him in the 14th percentile among batters with at least 100 two-strike counts. This year, with hitters performing even worse with two strikes (.164/.240/.262, 44 wRC+), he’s in a virtual tie for second in the majors with a 121 wRC+, that while cutting his strikeout rate in that context by over 10 percentage points. The 9.4-point overall drop of his strikeout rate is the majors’ fourth-highest, while the 83-point rise in his wRC+ is second only to Vladimir Guerrero Jr.’s 87.

One way or another, it’s an impressive rebound from a mediocre campaign, though for Castellanos, his new-found happiness might be tempered by the Reds’ struggles. They’re 24-29 at this writing, seven games back in the NL Central, and with Playoff Odds that have dwindled to 7.7%. Given Castellanos’ contract status — he can opt out out of the final two years and $34 million of his deal after this season — there’s a very real possibility he’ll be on the market this summer as one of the game’s top trade targets. He does have some control of his destiny, but we may find out whether his happiness includes seeking out greener pastures.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

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1 year ago

If it was just happiness, there should have been a huge breakout after getting the hell away from Detroit

Bartolo Cologne
1 year ago
Reply to  talloptician

You might not recall, but he actually did have a big breakout when he left Detroit at the trade deadline for Chicago. He played 100 games for the Tigers and 51 for the Cubs. Some stats:
2019 Tigers Castellanos: .273 avg, .462 slg, .790 ops, 106 ops+, 1.1 bWAR
2019 Cubs Castellanos: .321 avg, .646 slg, 1.002 ops, 154 ops+, 1.8 bWAR