Nick Castellanos: The Greek God of Hard Contact

It’s a little crazy how deep third base is this year. Perusing the NFBC average draft position list, there are nearly twenty players whom, in most years, I’d be happy to roll with in standard leagues. Most surprising though was seeing Nick Castellanos languishing all the way at 19th off the board in NFBC drafts (Note: I had originally considered anointing him just The Greek God of Contact but unfortunately that moniker implies a certain frequency of contact that the 25-year old simply cannot be bothered with). Castellanos won’t win any OBP-titles but in 2016 he did one thing well. And that’s hit a baseball really, really hard.

Over the course of 447 plate appearances last season, Castellanos slashed .285/.331/.496, good for a .350 wOBA and a healthy dose of counting stats. Before an errant pitch fractured his hand, it appeared we were watching him break out. Sadly, Castellanos’ season effectively came to its premature end. Still, even if we had watched him for another 150-plus plate appearances, questions would still linger. Sure, his Statcast data was flattering (76th percentile in Average Fly Ball and Line Drive Exit Velocity, 98th percentile in Average Distance, 95th and 98th percentiles in Barrels per Batted Ball Event and Barrels per Plate Appearance, respectively) but we don’t yet have an idea of how well those stats stick. Was this vast improvement signs of a breakout or simply noise from a talented but young hitter?

Nick Castellanos: Statcast Diety (percentiles)
Avg EV Avg FB & LD EV Avg DST Avg HR-DST Brls/BBE Brls/PA
2015 56th 47th 88th 39th 71st 78th
2016 61st 76th 98th 63rd 95th 98th

Well, if it was just noise, it was of the highly productive kind. Castellanos averaged a vertical launch angle of 18 degrees, which ranked 16th highest in the league. But of those 16 players, Castellanos boasted the lowest true infield fly ball percentage and the second best line drive percentage. And he did this while ranking in the middle of the pack in ground ball rate. In other words, Castellanos earned that vertical launch angle through consistency while the others ahead of him did so by floating pop-ups and pounding infield turf. He also featured the third most evenly distributed spray chart as determined by variance of Pull, Center, and Opposite-field percentages, making him tough to defend. This isn’t to say Castellanos’ batted ball profile is better, just different and more consistent. At least it was last year.

If we pull some comps based on age, line drive rate, true infield fly ball rate, and isolated slugging percentage, the list is undoubtedly encouraging. Here are the players since 2002 who, at 25 years or younger, have posted a 24% or higher line drive rate, a 2% or lower true infield fly ball rate, and a .200 or higher isolated slugging percentage. For reference, our protagonist was 24 last season.

Comps or False Idols?
Season Name LD% GB% FB% True IFFB% ISO
2015 Mike Trout 24.40% 37.20% 38.40% 0.96% 0.29
2005 David Wright 25.60% 39.40% 35.10% 1.30% 0.217
2012 Buster Posey 24.60% 46.50% 28.90% 1.13% 0.213
2016 Nick Castellanos 25.60% 31.50% 43.00% 0.99% 0.212
2008 Joey Votto 25.20% 44.10% 30.70% 1.17% 0.209
2013 Jason Castro 25.20% 39.50% 35.30% 0.64% 0.209
2008 Andre Ethier 26.60% 41.40% 32.00% 1.12% 0.206
2016 Corey Seager 24.40% 46.30% 29.30% 0.62% 0.204
2003 Josh Phelps 25.20% 43.30% 31.60% 1.07% 0.202

Interesting to note that Castellanos hit the fewest grounders of the group. But on a list of nine hitters with similar seasons, six are excellent or at some point in their careers were excellent for an extended period. And two are Jason Castro and Josh Phelps.

So, will Castellanos’ Statcast and batted ball data stick this year? Will he complete his 2016 breakout in 2017? Brandon Warne sure seems to think so. Additionally, his spring training has been promising though let’s not pay more attention to exhibition stats than they deserve. Personally, I find myself on board with Mr. Warne’s assessment because, exit velocity viscosity aside, I love Castellanos’ batted ball profile. I also love his improvement against breaking balls as evidence of a maturing approach.

That’s his ISO per pitch on breaking balls in 2015 on the left and 2016 on the right. Notice the massive difference in plate coverage year-to-year. There was hardly a spot in the zone a pitcher could throw Castellanos a breaking ball and not watch him crush it.

The only aspect of his game that’s preventing me from jumping all-in is his plate discipline. Castellanos still whiffs and chases too often. And while he offset a jump in chase rate with an increase in Zone-swing % and Zone-contact %, greater selectivity would force pitchers into levels of honesty that I think Castellanos would welcome with searing line drives into center.

From a draft perspective, and I realize we’re at the point in the offseason where these kinds of statements start to lose relevance, there are plenty of names going ahead of him that seem crazily optimistic to me. I love Ryon Healy as much as anyone and own a couple shares of him in dynasty leagues but there’s no way I’m taking him over Castellanos. The same can be said for Javier Baez and Hernan Perez, high upside guys but who come with cratering floors. And yes, I realize you’d probably play the latter two at second or short but regardless, for some reason, people seem to have forgotten about or simply dismissed what we saw from a former top prospect who’s still just 25. Perhaps it’s recency-bias and had Castellanos instead injured himself early in the season and finished strong, we’d be having a different conversation. Or maybe his lack of walks and elevated BABIP, despite the profile that supports it, scares some off. But not this guy. This season, I’ll be offering wine and ewes at the altar of the Greek God of Hard Contact.

Rylan writes for Fangraphs and The Hardball Times. Look for his weekly Deep League Waiver Wire and The Chacon Zone columns this season.

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5 years ago

Just a note. Like Kevin Youkilis, Nick Castellanos is not Greek. Very nice piece. Sorry I missed on him in the draft.

5 years ago
Reply to  Metsox


5 years ago
Reply to  Rylan Edwards

the romans had gods too…castellano…

5 years ago
Reply to  Metsox

“I’ve seen Youkilis in the shower, and I wouldn’t call him the Greek god of anything.”
-Terry Francona

Peter 2
5 years ago
Reply to  Metsox

Moustakas and Markakis, am I missing anyone?