If you took a quick look at the MLB leaderboard for hard-hit rate in 2017, you would probably surmise that Nick Castellanos actually did break out, as opposed to what the headline of this post may indicate. Castellanos hit the ball hard more frequently than all but six players this season, as you can see below. The ranking by each player indicates his end-of-season rank in standard 5×5 leagues:
- J.D. Martinez – 15th – 49.2%
- Joey Gallo – 99th – 46.4%
- Aaron Judge – 5th – 45.3%
- Miguel Sano – 102nd – 45.2%
- Paul Goldschmidt – 4th – 44.4%
- Corey Seager – 66th – 44.1%
- Nick Castellanos – 65th – 43.6%
Here we see three of the best hitters in fantasy with Martinez, Judge and Goldschmidt. We also have Gallo and Sano, two big-time power hitters with sky-high strikeout rates (both >35%) that suppress their value — not to mention Sano lost about six weeks to injury. Seager hits quite a few ground balls relative to the other hitters (aside from Goldschmidt) on this list which limits his home-run ceiling, and he lacks the stolen-base numbers to make up for that enough to be a truly great fantasy player.
In short, everyone ahead of Castellanos on that list was either an elite fantasy producer, or had an obvious reason for being merely quite good. Then we get to Castellanos himself, who was basically the exact same hitter he was in 2016 on the surface:
- 2016: .285/.331/.496
- 2017: .273/.321/.493
Honestly, the main surface difference between 2016 and 2017 for Castellanos was that he got 200+ more plate appearances this year, and his counting stats increased almost exactly as you’d expect them to. He hit a career-high 26 homers, compared to 18 last year. He picked up 174 R+RBI, up from last year’s 112. Et cetera, et cetera.
Dig a bit deeper and everything seems to point to what should’ve been a big year for Castellanos. His strikeout rate (21.3%) dropped for the second straight year, down from 25.5% in 2015 and 24.8% last year. His isolated power climbed for the third straight year (.135 in ’14, .164 in ’15, .212 in ’16, .219 in ’17), as did his home-run-to-fly-ball rate (7.5% in ’14, 9.2% in ’15, 13.7% in ’16, 14.3% in ’17).
It seems that what held him back this year was that he traded some fly balls for ground balls. After putting the ball in the air at a career-high 43.0% clip in 2016, his fly-ball rate dropped to 38.3% this season. His ground-ball rate climbed accordingly, from 31.5% to 37.1%. For any player who relies more on power than speed, that’s usually not a good thing. This one shift in batted-ball profile was enough to essentially cancel out the improvements I discussed in the last paragraph, as 2017 and 2016 were virtual facsimiles of each other on the surface for Castellanos.
I think this is the main reason the 25-year-old didn’t break out in 2017, despite being a relatively popular sleeper coming into the year (and with good reason). A look at his launch angle breakdown on Baseball Savant for 2016 and 2017 paints an even clearer picture:
If you look at these graphs (especially against righties), you can see that in 2016, Castellanos hit lots of high line drives and low fly balls in that 25-30 degree area, which is the type of batted ball that produces the most homers. However, this year, he didn’t just trade fly balls for ground balls, he also exchanged high liners/low flies for lots of medium liners in the 20-degree range. Medium liners are great for doubles and triples — and may help explain how the less than fleet-footed Castellanos picked up 10 triples in 2017 — but they do not produce many homers.
Nothing about his data against righties jumps off the page to me, as it seems to be a combination of this undesirable batted-ball trade-off, and maybe also a bit less luck in general against right-handers (.383 BABIP vsR in ’16, .323 BABIP vsR in ’17).
While single-season numbers against lefties are small samples by default, he did show dramatic improvement against southpaws this year:
- vsL: .207/.242/.414, .207 ISO
- vsR: .315/.365/.529, .214 ISO
- vsL: .294/.338/.603, .309 ISO
- vsR: .267/.316/.461, .194 ISO
It further interests me (if only a bit) that this increased production against lefties largely came against off-speed stuff. Check out his numbers in plate appearances that ended against southpaws’ off-speed offerings:
- 2016: .188/.204/.333, 20 K in 49 PA
- 2017: .294/.321/.608, 10 K in 53 PA
Whenever you’re dealing with portions of a player’s single-season sample against lefties, you’re obviously in tiny-sample land. Still, it’s at least worth mentioning that he went from doing absolutely nothing against southpaws’ off-speed pitching to producing quite well against those same pitches the next year.
It is also worth noting that Castellanos’s best month of 2017 was his last one (.368/.381/.649), which just so happened to coincide with Jeimer Candelario taking over at third for the Tigers, sending Castellanos to right field. It’s another tiny sample, which is why I’m not putting much (if any) stock into it, but it’s worth keeping an eye on next season if/when he plays the outfield full-time.
Where does all this leave us? On the positive side, he’s striking out less, producing tons of hard-hit batted balls, and his power production numbers have steadily improved three years in a row. Throw in on top of those items the unproven, small-sample-driven possibilities that he’s figured something out against lefties, and/or might hit better as a mediocre right fielder than he did as a bad third baseman. (Side note – Manager Brad Ausmus had these inspiring words to say about Castellanos’ transition to the outfield: “He actually thinks he’s going to be good out there.” Now that’s a vote of confidence!)
Those are some significant positives, but as we saw this year, that doesn’t really matter if you’re not hitting the right kinds of batted balls. He hit the ball considerably harder in 2017 than he did in 2016, but his launch angles decreased his home-run opportunities and increased the likelihood of finding a fielder’s glove. As you now know, he not only traded flies for grounders in 2017, but he also traded some high drives and low flies — the game’s most valuable batted balls — for a bunch of medium drives. There’s only so much you can do as a power hitter with batted balls that don’t get high enough to clear the fence.
I’m willing to give Castellanos another year to figure it out. He’s entering his age-26 season which certainly isn’t too late, and we hear stories about players increasing their home-run production by adjusting their launch angles all the time. It’s still easier said than done though, and until Castellanos can find a way to turn his ability to hit the ball really hard into production that shows up in the box score, he’s stuck in the realm of the pretty good players.
Scott Strandberg started writing for Rotographs in 2013. He works in small business consultation, and he also writes A&E columns for The Norman Transcript newspaper. Scott lives in Seattle, WA.