Inevitably, Game 5 Found the Slumping Nick Castellanos
In a Game 5 that was an instant classic, Nick Castellanos‘ number came up. With the Phillies losing 3–2 and down to their final out, Ryan Pressly hit Bryce Harper on the right foot with a slider, putting the tying run aboard and bringing up Castellanos, 0-for-3 with a walk for the night and just about the weakest link in the Phillies’ lineup during their amazing October run. Castellanos fell behind 0–2, chasing a low slider and then fouling off a juicy center-cut one, but he laid off three low-and-away pitches to draw the count full. Pressly then threw a hanging slider, but Castellanos could only hit a grounder to shortstop Jeremy Peña, a routine play that produced an anticlimactic ending to an absolute nailbiter that swung the series to three games to two in favor of the Astros.
It was the latest rough night in a postseason run that’s had its share of them for the 30-year-old slugger. Castellanos is 3-for-20 with a walk and eight strikeouts in the World Series, and while he has company there (both Rhys Hoskins and J.T. Realmuto are 3-for-21, albeit with homers), his .197/.246/.262 line through 65 postseason plate appearances gives him the lowest wRC+ (43) of any Phillies regular, though Bryson Stott (45 wRC+, via a .140/.260/.233 line) has the slightly lower OPS, .493 to .508. Castellanos has had a few big moments at the plate and has made some surprisingly stellar defensive plays, but he’s one or two games away from the end of a frustrating season in which he batted just .263/.305/.389 (94 wRC+) with 13 homers in the first year of a five-year, $100 million deal he signed in March.
Castellanos joined the Phillies amid the post-lockout whirlwind. He had opted out following the second year of a four-year, $64 million deal with the Reds, having made his first All-Star team and setting across-the-board career highs with a .309/.362/.576 line, 34 homers, a 139 wRC+, and 3.4 WAR. The Marlins and Padres were among the teams who reportedly expressed interest in his services before the owners shut things down in early December, with the former believed to be the favorite to land the Miami native, at least before Derek Jeter departed the organization in late February. Eight days after the lockout ended, the Phillies agreed to terms with Castellanos, reuniting him with president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski, who as general manager had drafted him in Detroit in 2010. Two days before that, the Phillies had agreed to terms with Kyle Schwarber as well. Given both sluggers’ longstanding defensive issues, the apparent plan was for them to share significant time at designated hitter.
Particularly in a compressed spring training, the timing of the signing left Castellanos comparatively little room to get ready for the regular season; he didn’t make his Grapefruit League debut until March 27 and played in just nine exhibition games, compared to 17 in 2021. For what it’s worth, he did hit well in those nine games and actually hit a robust .300/.374/.475 (138 wRC+) in April, but as he told The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal last month, everything about his season felt rushed:
“Hurry up and find a team. Hurry up and get to spring training. Hurry up and figure out what your role is. Figure out where you’re going to live. Figure out what the city’s like, what the fans are like, how the media is. Then throw a new kid into the mix. It was just a lot. I juggled as best I can. Obviously for my standards, I fell short.”
By mid-April, a torn ulnar collateral ligament in Harper’s right elbow — not severe enough to require surgery but enough to require a platelet-rich plasma injection and limit him to DH duty — restored Castellanos to everyday appearances in regular right field. He was the DH only seven times after April 15, even as Harper missed two months with a fractured left thumb. In the midst of that, Castellanos’ wife Jessica gave birth to their son Otto on May 4.
While correlation is not causation, it’s worth noting that from May through September, Castellanos had just one good month:
Nick Castellanos by Month
By the end of July, Castellanos was on my Replacement Level Killers list for right fielders — not that the Phillies were going to push him aside, particularly as they had gone on a roll after firing manager Joe Girardi in early June. He finished the regular season with a career-worst slugging percentage and his lowest batting average, on-base percentage, and wRC+ in any full season since 2015 (he hit .225/.298/.486 for a 98 wRC+ in 2020). He accompanied this year’s dismal numbers with a career-low 5.2% walk rate, a 23.3% strikeout rate, and career highs in swing rate (57%), chase rate (43.6%), and swinging-strike rate (17%) — figures that fit the pattern of a player pressing. His numbers on contact were out of whack; his 41.9% groundball rate was a career high, over five points above his norm, and his 10.6% infield fly ball rate tripled his career rate. The Statcast picture was not pretty:
Nick Castellanos Statcast Profile
Castellanos’ exit velocity and hard-hit rate placed in the 22nd and 23rd percentiles, respectively, and his barrel rate was in the 36th. He’s nowhere near even that quality of contact in the postseason. He did hit the ball hard on Thursday night, most notably smoking a 105-mph liner off Justin Verlander in the third inning, though Peña leaped and speared it. At the end of a 10-pitch battle in the fifth, he hit another ball 98.2 mph… but at a 50-degree launch angle, a can of corn for left fielder Yordan Alvarez. Castellanos did end a 38-PA streak without a walk (dating back to the Division Series clincher against the Braves) by drawing a seven-pitch free pass in the eighth inning against Rafael Montero, and he came around to score the Phillies’ second run via Jean Segura’s single. All told, he saw a team-high 28 pitches in his five plate appearances, but it was still a rough 0-for-4 in a one-run loss.
It’s not that Castellanos hasn’t had big moments here and there during the Phillies’ postseason run. After going 0-for-7 in the Wild Card Series against the Cardinals, he went 3-for-5 with three RBIs in the Division Series opener against the Braves, driving in a run in each of his first three plate appearances and making a great diving catch in the ninth inning of a 7–6 win. His two-out double off Joe Musgrove in the sixth inning of Game 3 of the NLCS against the Padres turned into an insurance run when Alec Bohm hit a double of his own to cap the scoring in a 4–2 win. He helped chip away at a 5–0 deficit in the World Series opener by driving in the Phillies’ first run against Verlander in the fourth inning and made another outstanding diving catch on a Peña bloop with two outs in the ninth inning and the potential winning run on second base. He doubled off Framber Valdez in the seventh inning of Game 2, coming around to score the Phillies’ first run while again down 5–0, and made yet another nice snag on Jose Altuve’s game-opening bloop in Game 3. Defense aside, it’s still not a lot to write home about.
On that note, Castellanos put up typically brutal numbers in right field during the regular season (-10 OAA, -9 DRS, -7.6 UZR). After Game 3, he conceded to Sports Illustrated’s Stephanie Apstein that he spent a lot of time in right field lost in Deep Thoughts during the regular season:
“Baseball in the postseason has really locked me in,” he said. “The honest truth is a lot of times on defense, I struggle with focusing for 162 games. My mind is really fast and wanders, but with this atmosphere, it’s unbelievable. Being locked in on every pitch, I think my jumps, my anticipation, has just gotten better.”
He added, “You’re just kind of all by yourself out there, you know?” Over the course of a long season, he sometimes catches himself thinking about his wife, Jessica; his sons, 9-year-old Liam and 6-month-old Otto; his parents; his siblings; his last at bat; and “the status of the country, the economy, global relations,” he said. “All of it.”
… “Have I gotten bad jumps because my mind is elsewhere?” he said. “Yeah, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t.”
Oooookay. Colleague Davy Andrews has a deeper dive into Castellanos’ defense, complete with the highlights, so I won’t dwell upon that further. But I do have to wonder about what goes on in his head at the plate when he’s slumping, given not only those out-of-right-field comments but also his comment to Rosenthal last month: “I’m somebody who doesn’t forget anything. I’m also somebody who takes everything personally… there have been certain weighted issues that I felt I’ve carried with me longer than I should have.”
It’s also worth wondering about Castellanos’ physical state. He missed 20 games in September due to an oblique strain and went 6-for-25 without an extra-base hit in seven starts and one pinch-hitting appearance at the end of the regular season. Through 65 PA in the postseason, he has four doubles but no homers — that after hitting fewer this year than in the short 2020 season (13 to 14) — and a .065 ISO, not to mention a 4.6% walk rate and 24.6% strikeout rate. He hasn’t missed a playoff game and hasn’t hit anywhere but fifth in the order; basically, Thomson has treated him like a pair of lucky socks, unwilling to consider changing anything so long as the team is succeeding. And for the sixth seed to go 9–2 through the first three rounds of the expanded postseason and get to within two wins of a championship, you can see where that might be coming from.
Sometimes a slump is just a slump, even a season-long one, and with Castellanos we have no shortage of numbers to ponder its dimensions. Consider that he performed worse against every major pitch type this season than he did in 2021, with his wOBAs against four-seamers, curves, and changeups all dropping by more than 100 points, and his hard-hit rates against all but four-seamers falling by at least 11 percentage points:
Nick Castellanos vs. Pitch Types, 2021 vs. 2022
SOURCE: Baseball Savant
During the postseason, Castellanos has handled four-seamers and sinkers quite well, hitting .364, slugging .500, and producing a .399 wOBA (and .338 xwOBA), but that’s in just 24 PA ending with fastballs (not including cutters). Not surprisingly, opponents have figured out that he’s a mess on everything else; in 51 PA against all pitch types besides four-seamers and sinkers, he’s hit .146, slugged .208, and has a .185 wOBA (and a .230 xwOBA), with a 24.1% swinging-strike rate and a 39.8% whiff rate. The Astros got him out on Thursday with two high fastballs — the first-inning one from Velander was well above the zone — and two high sliders. So it goes.
I’m prone to overusing the famous Reggie Jackson line at this time of year — “When you have the bat in your hand, you can always change the story” — but that’s true for Castellanos. For as badly as he’s swung the bat in 2022, he could have been the hero in Game 5, in one of the most crucial plate appearances any player has taken this season; by Baseball-Reference’s championship leverage index, his 287.71 cLI (!) was surpassed only by three PAs with Phillies in scoring position in the previous inning and by Aledmys Díaz in the 10th inning of Game 1. Even after losing, he and the Phillies still have a puncher’s chance in this World Series, though it’s fair to wonder if Thomson and company would be better off with Matt Vierling in right field. Then again, Vierling hit for just an 81 wRC+ in the regular season, is only 2-for-12 in the postseason, and has made two plate appearances in 16 days. Castellanos came close without getting the cigar in Game 5. We’ll see if he gets a similar shot with the season on the line on Saturday.