When Cincinnati Reds right fielder Nick Castellanos signed a four-year contract in January 2020, the Reds knew they had added a big-name hitter in hopes of bolstering a weak offense. The Reds watched Castellanos dominate with the Cubs down the stretch in 2019. Signing him felt like a no-brainer, which is why it was probably so disappointing to see him struggle for most of the 2020 season. However, it’s not as simple to just say “Castellanos struggled at the plate.” It goes deeper than that, and the deeper the dive into his stats, the bigger the realization that multiple factors played a part in his disappointing season last year.
In 2020, Castellanos batted .225/.298/.486 with a .784 OPS. He hit 14 home runs and drove in 34 baserunners in 60 games. After starting the season strong, posting a 1.214 OPS with nine hits, including two home runs, in just 24 at-bats in July, August was a little worse. He had just a .840 OPS with 23 hits in 102 at-bats. Then came the major slide in September, when he posted a .604 OPS for the month. Despite this, he still managed to finish the season with a 102 wRC+, good for around league average.
However, contrast that with what he did in 2019 when he was with the Tigers and the Cubs. In 100 games with Detroit, he had a respectable .790 OPS. Once he got to Chicago and joined a playoff race, his bat exploded, hitting .321/.356/.646 with a 1.002 OPS. Castellanos finished 2019 with 27 home runs, a whopping 58 doubles and 73 RBI. His wRC+ was 121, which still wasn’t as high as the previous year when it was 129.
Barreling the Baseball
At age 29, Castellanos is still considered to be in the “prime” of his career. His offensive power in 2020 proves it. According to Baseball Savant, he was in the upper echelon of the league in hard hit %, exit velocity, and barrel %. He finished in the 82nd and 83rd percentile for exit velocity and hard hit %, respectively. His hard hit % went up 5.2% from 2019. Considering he hit 58 doubles that year, it’s pretty impressive his power increased.
His xSLG and barrel % were in the 92nd and 95th percentile, among the top five percent of hitters in all of MLB. And his 16 percent barrel % was the highest of his career and the highest since 2016. This was also up 5.1 percent from a year ago. What does all this mean? Well, it means that when Castellanos made solid contact (24 barrels in 150 batted balls), he crushed baseballs.
(Now, I know these are small sample sizes given the shortened season last year, but 60 games is about equivalent to playing from the beginning of April through Memorial Day. All Star selections are based on this length of time).
Missing Pitches and Sheer Unluckiness
Unfortunately, Castellanos’ power and contact didn’t translate to the basic stats. There are two reasons for this. First, his BABIP was only .257, the lowest of his career and the lowest since his rookie season in 2013. Castellanos usually stays consistent with his BABIP above .300 throughout the course of his seven year career. He just hit balls right at players in an unlucky way last year.
Second, although Castellanos is a great power hitter and can barrel a ball well, he also missed a lot of pitches, mostly on the inside of the plate. His Whiff % was at 34.2%, up from 26.9% a year ago and the highest of his career. This led to a K% of 28.5%, a seven percent jump from 2019.
Taking a look at his swing% profile, it shows that he swings at balls over the inner half of the plate way more often than the average batter. This can get him into trouble and it’s likely a contributing factor to the 69 strikeouts in 218 at-bats in 2020.
2020 was a hard year for everyone, and MLB players were not exempt from that. Last month, Castellanos did an interview with MLB Network talking about his mental state. He said he felt the protocols and the restrictions, although necessary, wore on him to the point that he didn’t feel in control of his day or his pregame routine. Baseball players are known for their routines. Sometimes we forget that these players are human too. Humans are creatures of habit. When someone is forced to change a habit or a long-standing routine, it can cause a person to lose focus.
Between the poor mental heath and the bad luck, it’s easy to see why Castellanos struggled last year, particularly in September. It couldn’t have been easy to play without the normal routine, empty ballparks, and likely no family with him. After a while, it probably got tiring and it started to affect his play.
2021 is a new year, however. Vaccines are here, fans are back at the ballpark, and now that the players know what to expect, there can be some semblance of normalcy. It should help the mental health aspect. As for the unluckiness, it’s almost impossible for a player to hit the ball that hard and not see success two seasons in a row, right?
If Castellanos can continue barreling the ball at the rate of the top five percent of the players in the league, he should have a better year than last year. He had a great spring training. In 48 plate appearances, he hit .333/.354/.622 with a .976 OPS. He collected 15 hits, including two doubles, one triple and three home runs. I can’t wait to see if he can continue it as the 2021 season starts.