During the pre-season I spouted several things that, at least so far in the few months since, have proven to have been damned, dirty lies. One of these things was that Nick Castellanos was gonna be a Guy. The pedigree as an elite hit-tool guy was there, I noted, and at 6-foot-4, 210 with a rapidly heightening launch angle, he was a perfect candidate to break out in a big way.
And yet, on this, the 26th day of May, we wait on, hoping that a two-day siesta will be enough to shake loose some base hits. He’s continued to hit a ton of line drives, as is his wont; he’s hit the ball on the screws as many times as the Miguel Sanos and Paul Goldschmidts of the world. He’s even walking more! But it is not going well overall. His .220/.295/.382 line is like something out of a Michael Saunders reel, and there but by the grace of only his constant, previously uninterrupted playing time and the counting stat accumulation that has come with it does he rate as a top-250 player in standard mixed leagues right now.
So what gives?
Well, for one thing, he’s sitting on a more-or-less league-average BABIP of .291. This after posting a consistently well above-average .326 mark through his career. Sprinkle in a strikeout rate that has jumped by three percentage points to push 30, and you’ve got yourself a potent recipe for hitting .220. Worse yet, he seems to have largely owned that result, as in addition to the whiffs he’s hitting a bunch of more balls on the ground, particularly to the pull side. His ground balls aren’t the good kind that are punched hard up the middle or to the opposite field, but rather the softer, rolled-over kind; to wit, he sits in just the 30th percentile for exit velocity on his worm burners.
He’s still hitting the ball hard overall though, with an adjusted exit velocity in the 80th percentile. That topline number has been driven by the aforementioned line-drive rate, which currently sits exactly equal to last year’s mark, nestled inside the top-25 overall among hitters who’ve made triple-digit plate appearances.
And for whatever it might be worth, he certainly hasn’t struggled against any ramped-up shifting efforts that could be accruing on account of the increased rollovers. For the second straight season he’s sitting comfortably above .400 against shifted defenses. Line-drive rate is (at least theoretically) a more random result orientation, and thus prone to more variance. That really hasn’t been the case in Castellanos’ career, however, as he’s been consistently well above-average and among the game’s best line-drive hitters. Broadly speaking, we’re looking at a hitter who produces generally excellent contact when he makes it. And despite the jump in ground-ball rate, he’s still creating a typical launch angle that is more conducive to batting average success than most.
The easiest thing to do when confronted by this package of information would be to throw up our hands and declare Castellanos unlucky thus far, and then rejoice at his inevitable, any-day-now positive regression. But let’s take a look at where those extra ground balls are coming from first, because that’s a concerning development.
Most jarringly in the data, Castellanos has seen a reasonably significant uptick in right-on-right sliders, particularly to start at-bats. And a lot more of the fastballs he’s seeing are of the lower-and-farther-away variety, which mirrors a broader trend we’ve seen of pitchers attacking lower in the zone. Castellanos has struggled to get to those balls down in the zone, however, and his flatter bat path has come over the top of more balls as a result.
He also appears to be adjusting to the updated pattern of attack in a counter-productive way. His strike-zone command overall has taken a step forward, as he’s managed to maintain his good kind of in-zone aggressiveness—he’s in the 83rd percentile for called-strike rate—while staying more disciplined against balls out and off the plate. He’s seeing 4.04 pitches in a given plate appearance right now, which is up notably from previous years. And that’s driven a modest early jump in walk rate (while likely playing a role in the strikeout surge, too).
But here’s the kicker: he’s sacrificing the inner-third, while also making the bulk of his gains in strike-zone management in areas up north of the zone. We’re still well within small-sample territory for zone rates, but at least he’s been leaving on the table a bunch of opportunities to lift and drive balls to the pull side that he was taking last year. So between seeing many more pitches down at the bottom of the strike zone and taking a bunch of extra pitches in and up that he was swinging at (and putting air under) a year ago, he just hasn’t been able to build on his prior profile in a way that I expected he would pre-season.
Baseball is, if nothing else, a game of adjustments. And it’s pretty clear that Castellanos is in need of making some. I remain cautiously bullish on his ability to figure it out, for many of the same reasons I cited pre-season. The big-league batted ball profile has largely justified the mounds of praise heaped on his hit tool back when he was a prospect, and the swing is one that should be able to produce balls with carry to all fields. And that he’s managed to continue hitting the ball with reasonable authority throughout this period of struggle is encouraging, if nothing else.
Patience is the play here, unless you’re rolling in a shallow format or one with teeny, tiny benches. He didn’t cost you much to acquire, and he could end up costing you a lot if you lose him now. As struggling young hitters go he’s got both a longer leash and a higher ceiling than most if and when things do start clicking.
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