Nick Castellanos Is One Tweak Away From Being Elite
Did you buy Nick Castellanos this offseason? Why not? I told you to do it.
Nick Castellanos is in the midst of his next-level breakout season, even if you can’t see it in his home run totals right now. While this will be his first full-season as a star player on what should be a putrid Detroit Tigers squad, the breakout began somewhere around June 1st of last season and he hasn’t stopped hitting since. Since that time, he’s brought his strikeout rate down to 18.5% while generating some mind-boggling numbers such as a .239 isolated slugging percentage and 134 wRC+. However, Nick Castellanos must start pulling the ball more in the air.
How can I demand that a player sporting a .375 wOBA over his last 128 games start pulling the ball more? His home park and batted balls dictate that it’s worth it to him to do so. His largest incentive should be the obvious monetary incentive that comes with being a .400 wOBA player, but it should also be the production he’s leaving off the board for his team.
Over the course of the 2015-2017 seasons, there are only four active players sporting a .400 wOBA. Joey Votto (.423), Mike Trout (.422), Bryce Harper (.407), and Paul Goldschmidt. Apologies to Freddie Freeman, Charlie Blackmon, J.D. Martinez and Josh Donaldson who were snipped from the list by my chosen 3-year time span rather than 2-year (2016-2017), but they only add to the reasons why I implore Nick Castellanos to pull the ball more.
It has been noted that Tigers hitters in general–and Castellanos in particular–are falling victim to some general weirdness of batted balls to right field. It’s not just Comerica’s cavernous dimensions in centerfield that drive an oddity where Tigers hitters underperform their expected stats (xStats). While I don’t know the reason (one hypothesis is a wind factor), what I do know is that Nick Castellanos has a wOBA on balls hit in the air (16-40° launch angles) to center and the opposite field of .507 and .482 respectively. This is against a wOBA of 1.008 to the pull field over the course of the 2015-2017 season.
Now, Nick Castellanos has neither Mike Trout’s game power nor his walk rate, but Castellanos does have power to the pull-field. Moreover, he’s got enough of it to generate a considerable uptick in his overall wOBA if he were to pull more balls. Here’s a comparison of Castellanos to Trout in terms of their spray tendencies on balls hit in the air and their exit velocities.
You’ll notice that Castellanos and Trout share similar batted ball characteristics on balls hit in the air. Both hit ~65% of their air balls to the pull field at greater than 95 miles-per-hour. Both hit greater than 50% of their air balls to centerfield at greater than 95 miles-per-hour. Finally, their average exit velocity to the opposite field is quite a bit lower (~90 mph) and they both hit considerably fewer balls at 95 miles-per-hour. You can also see how much Castellanos is handicapped by his home park by comparing the centerfield wOBA numbers (.782 vs .521).
For this reason, I wanted to do a thought experiment. He and Trout both share a similar approach on balls in the air. Trout has a 23/39/38 spray approach, buoyed by his 31% pull percentage on air balls in 2017 and Castellanos employs a 21/37/42 approach. If we were to give Castellanos a more neutral approach to his fly balls (33/33/33), what would that do to his wOBA if everything else was held constant?
It turns out that his ~.340 wOBA from 2015-2017 would be a .360 wOBA! That’s 20 points of gain just by trying to pull the ball more. This doesn’t take into consideration his strikeout rate gains from the last half of 2017 that have carried into 2018. If we project him for an 18% strikeout rate and use this neutral air-ball approach his wOBA would be at .385. Finally, if you allow for an improved walk-rate, akin to what he’s doing this year (~8%) you’ve pushed his wOBA up over .390.
While there are a host of different “what-if” scenarios you could run on Nick Castellanos, the break-even point on a this altered approach is fairly high. Even moving to the splits that Trout had last year: 31/43/26 would add 15 points of wOBA to Castellanos’ profile. It would take 3 points of strikeout rate increase to break even because each percentage point of strikeout rate you apply to Castellanos he loses 5 points of wOBA.
It’s worth noting that this type of change in approach is what fueled both the Marcell Ozuna breakout last year – going from 25% pulled air-balls to 38% – and also the soon-to-be free agent Yasmani Grandal’s April surge. The latter is now pulling the ball 50% of the time in the air compared to his 33% rate over the past three seasons. He’s also demonstrating that the outcomes are still better despite rolling over on more ground balls at the same time.
The takeaway here is two-fold. First, Casteallnos should pull the ball more because it will generate better outcomes, even if you were to allow for more weakly hit groundballs or strikeouts. Second, he will be an unrestricted free agent after the 2019 season and this is his chance to tinker on what should be a last-place club to cash-in on his free agency. I’m an unabashed Nick Castellanos fan and I’d love to see him achieve greatness akin to what Freddie Freeman has transformed into in Atlanta. Embrace the data, Nick!