Nick Castellanos is an enigma. I say that in absolutely the most admirable fashion possible. Off the field, he reads as a very spiritual, artistic type. The type of person who ditches his smartphone in favor of a flip phone as part of a process to cultivate his own happiness. The type of person who refers to every day as Opening Day. The type who utilizes (past tense?) his social media to deploy his artistic and poetic endeavors. If ever there was a free spirit in Major League Baseball, you’re likely going to find it in Nick Castellanos.
In 2021, we have a fairly clear picture of many Major League players. While we don’t assume to know everything about their respective lifestyles, we have a sense of the rigid, rise-and-grind types, and we have an idea of those who show out on the field and have a ton of fun off of it, along with everything in between. The mindset of the man, however, in conjunction with the dissipation of his social media presence, lends an aura of mystery to the Cincinnati Reds outfielder. We know less about him than we once did and much less than we know about many of his peers at this level. It enhances the allure and perhaps makes him all the more endearing.
This is the part where I shed off my envy of a man who is consistently focused on being the best version of himself and maintaining the self-awareness to make decisions that are best for his own brain and remind you (and myself) that this is a baseball website. But looking at the stat sheet makes Nick Castellanos no less interesting.
Before his trade deadline arrival to the Chicago Cubs, Castellanos never really had too much notoriety among the league’s bats. He toiled through seemingly the first, like, two decades of the Detroit Tigers rebuild, broke out on the North Side for a much wider audience, and ultimately landed a contract with the Cincinnati Reds. He’s never played in an All-Star Game, and yet this year he’s on pace to start the Midsummer Classic (along with outfield mate Jesse Winker) and likely garner some votes as the National League’s Most Valuable Player.
It’s quite a leap for a guy who has long been a solid bat but never really considered to be in any sort of upper tier. Prior to this year, his best stretch was the 225 plate appearances he recorded with the Cubs, where he hit .321, reached base at a .356 clip, posted his only OPS over 1.000 (1.002), and reached 1.8 bWAR. After a subpar beginning to his career in Cincinnati, though, Castellanos is now on pace to obliterate virtually everything he’s produced to date.
Castellano’s slash for 2021 is as follows: .341/.394/.583/.977. His previous career highs in each of those individual categories? His highest batting average was .298 (2018). His best OBP season came in at .354 (also 2018), and his top SLG was .525 (which was his combined 2019 in Detroit and Chicago). His top OPS prior to this year was .863, also during that 2019 season. Castellanos’ wRC+ this year is at 163, while his previous best of 129 came in 2018. His 3.0 fWAR to date is already the highest of his career, with his previous mark of 2.9 coming in 2018. While there’s definitely a more recent track record of success for Castellanos, given the heavy presence of 2018 and 2019, he’s still destroying much of what he turned in those two years from a statistical standpoint.
What’s interesting is that Castellanos is doing all of this without a huge influx of power, something you might expect given what he’s turning in all over the place. His .242 ISO as of this writing is almost 20 points lower than what he produced in 2020, which was a fairly disappointing campaign for him overall (.225/.298/.486/.784, 102 wRC+). So he’s actually dropped some of the power, not only to rebound from last year’s sprint of a season but to reimagine the entire perception of him as a hitter.
Perhaps the most intriguing factor in all of this is in Castellanos’ batted ball trends (there are actually far more, and FanGraphs’ Jay Jaffe does a much better job of outlining all of them than I could; the two-strike approach is especially interesting). Such intrigue includes the type of contact he’s making, as well as his directional hitting.
The former isn’t exactly what you’d expect it to be, with a hitter who could be classified as elite this year not necessarily destroying the board in matters of batted balls. His HardHit% comes in at 41.5 percent and ranks in the 79th percentile. It’s actually his fourth-lowest mark in the last five seasons. As Jaffe notes in the above piece as well, his Barrel% is strikingly low with an 8.7 percent that is barely half of his outcome last year and ranks in just the 51st percentile.
But! Castellanos has leveled out his contact quite a bit. He’s making more line-drive contact than ever before, with a LD% at 30.4. That eclipses last year’s total by about four percent and is, again, his highest ever. This, while his FB% is down almost a full eight percent (31.4) and his GB% is up just over 38 percent. He’s still producing a 20 percent HR/FB rate (second only to last year), but making much more line-drive contact is part of what has helped drive that BABIP up to .397, which leads the entire league (Yoán Moncada is second with a figure of .388).
Interestingly enough, Castellanos has also managed to do this with a much higher pull rate. He has an Oppo% of 26.6 for his career but has been below that in his last two seasons. In 2020, though, he was driving the ball up the middle fairly consistently with a Cent% of 46.7, which had a double-digit lead over any percentage prior. He’s leaned heavily into the pull game this year, with a 42.5 percent rate that is the second-highest of his career and almost 10 percentage points higher than last year, while middle contact has dropped by about 11 (35.3).
When Castellanos pulls the ball this year, he’s mashing it. His Hard% is up over 45 percent, while his Soft% sits below five. His LD% in matters of the pull contact is 30.7, which represents a 12 percent (!) increase from last year. He’s also still managing that strong HR/FB rate (46.7). More interesting yet is the fact that despite the heavy pull increase, opposing teams aren’t shifting against him. Castellanos has a shift rate against of just 19.2 percent. That’s the 285th highest among his peers. Not that it matters. His wOBA against the shift is .449 anyway.
My hope is that the broader spectrum of baseball fans will come to understand what smaller circles have known for a few years now: Nick Castellanos is a wildly interesting individual. In matters of the persona, he presents so much intrigue to the extent of mystique. He’s also been very vocal about his fresh mindset in 2021 as opposed to some of the mental turmoil he experienced in 2020 (also referenced in the above Jaffe piece). I personally envy his ability to be reflective and utilize that reflection to better himself.
But in a baseball context, there’s a lot to appreciate. Castellanos has always been a fairly impactful player on the offensive side of the ball. But his emergence in the last few seasons has been an inspiring evolution. This year, more than anything, he’s simply turned himself into a better hitter. He’s not selling out for power. He’s not forcing anything to the opposite field. He’s embracing a line-drive approach to the pull side, and it’s working. It’s just such an interesting development for a tenured player in Major League Baseball. It makes you wonder if this version of Nick Castellanos is here to stay, or if launch angle takes back over to some extent and we see an influx of power. Either way, we get to continue to watch a 29-year-old baseball player develop in new ways, and that’s pretty cool.
Randy Holt is a contributing writer for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter @RandyHolt42.