The Cincinnati Reds Find a New Star in the Nick of Time

Nick Castellanos emerges as one of the league’s best hitters, but can the team keep him past this season?

Opening Day arrived this year without the usual fanfare, though it came with no less excitement for fans in Reds country. Though forced to watch the contest on television, many, including me, were eager to see the new additions to the Reds roster, and we weren’t disappointed. Mike Moustakas, Shogo Akiyama, and Nick Castellanos all drove in runs in Cincinnati’s 7-1 victory over Detroit. For one day, the sun shined, butterflies floated on the summer breeze, and smiles were everywhere.

 

Well, almost everywhere. While Moustakas got plenty of digital ink for a three-hit, four-RBI performance in his Reds debut, it was Castellanos who got the headlines. It provided an early glimpse into the personality of one of Cincinnati’s biggest-ever free agent signings.

Last winter, Castellanos inked what has been termed “a one-year contract disguised as a long-term deal.” In theory, Castellanos agreed to four years and $64 million to play for the local nine. The devil, of course, is in the details: He can choose to opt out and enter free agency after his first season, or after his second season. His long-term future in the Queen City will be a popular topic of conversation around digital water coolers this winter, no doubt. For now, he’s a Cincinnati Red, and we’re glad to have him.

But Castellanos was pretty hot on Opening Day, after manager David Bell removed the slugging right fielder from the game in the seventh inning in favor of pinch-runner and defensive replacement Travis Jankowski. As soon as the game ended, Castellanos bounded out of the home dugout, glove in hand, and made his way back out to right field.

He was soon joined by Reds coach Jeff Pickler. The two were seen to have a spirited discussion, whereupon Pickler went back into the tunnel beneath the stadium and returned with a pitching machine. He proceeded to pepper line drives and fly balls at Castellanos. The defensive workout ended only when Bell walked out to right field and had what he later described as a “tense” conversation with Castellanos.

Castellanos was destined to take some social media criticism (“the new guy isn’t a team player!”) but I imagine that most had a different reaction, similar to mine. I loved it, and it occurred to me immediately that this guy is absolutely perfect for a town like Cincinnati. He’s upset about being removed for a defensive replacement, and how does he respond? By working even harder!

Even better, after his fiery outburst on Opening Day, Castellanos hasn’t cooled down one iota. Coming into Wednesday’s game against the Royals, Castellanos was hitting .290/.380/.726 with seven home runs and 16 runs batted in. He’s tied with Mike Trout for third in homers among all big leaguers and is just one off the National League lead.

As August dawned, Castellanos was awarded the NL Player of the Week award, the second time he’s collected a Player of the Week award (he won in 2018, when he played for the Tigers). During the week that garnered him the honor, Castellanos went 9-for-21 (.429) with four homers, two doubles, 10 RBIs, and a 1.595 OPS. He hit a grand slam in a win over the Cubs and hit two homers against his former Detroit teammates in the first game of a doubleheader sweep.

He’s in the NL’s top five in pretty much category. Castellanos even has the fourth-best betting odds to be the Most Valuable Player at season’s end, if you’re into that sort of thing.

Yes, defense is still an issue. In the two-homer game mentioned earlier, Castellanos committed a key error in right field that permitted three runs to score, briefly tying the game before Cincinnati pushed across the winning run in the final frame. But, hey, he’s working on it, right?

I’m only half-joking there. Castellanos has developed a reputation as a poor fielder over his career, and the metrics seem to lend support to that general consensus. But there’s every reason to hope that he can turn into a serviceable defender. He’s certainly athletic enough; this is the same guy, after all, who led the league in triples back in 2017.

But enough about the one area where Castellanos is less than perfect. Let’s talk about his bat. He’s been the lone Red in the everyday lineup who has been consistently great during this decidedly uneven start for the home team. How did we get to the point where Castellanos is being discussed in the same breath as the best hitters in the league, even if only in the early going of this chaotic season?

First things first: Castellanos has always been a good hitter, and a doubles machine. He led the majors with 58 doubles last year, only the 10th player in the entire history of baseball to hit that mark. The last time a right-handed hitter reached that total, before Castellanos last year? Try 1936.

There were murmurs among some observers that Great American Ball Park might be the perfect location for Castellanos, with the idea that some of those doubles could turn into home runs. Former Cubs manager Joe Maddon, who managed Castellanos last year after a mid-season trade landed the slugger in Chicago, had this prescient take back in spring training: “He’s uncanny with his ability to hit doubles. It’s crazy. When he hits the ball, it’s in the gap or down the line. Beyond that, he comes to play every day. He’s a much better outfielder than he’s given credit for. In that ballpark, he has a chance to kill it.”

And kill it, he has. I won’t bore you with all the data, but suffice to say that the analytics agree with what your eyes are seeing. His exit velocity is way up, and his barrels are almost off the charts. He’s “barreled” up a ball on 23.3 percent of his plate appearances, a mark that places him within the top 2 percent of the league. (I’ll stop nerding out on you now, but if you’re interested in the Statcast data, click here and dive in. It’s glorious.)

So he’s hitting the ball harder than he ever has, and while Castellanos will almost certainly cool down at some point, there are encouraging signs that he has developed as a hitter. First of all, he has improved his launch angle substantially over the last couple of years, which will contribute to more longballs obviously. At GABP in particular, his improved launch angle combined with a career-high exit velocity is a recipe for lots of trots around the bases.

But Castellanos is also making a concerted effort to improve his plate discipline. When he joined the Reds, pitcher Trevor Bauer told him that the rap on him when he played for Detroit (in the same division as Bauer’s Indians) was that he would swing at too many pitches outside the zone. “Trevor and I actually had a conversation about that same topic before the season started, and challenging me just to be more disciplined and having a more concrete plan of what I’m looking for and what I want to do before I get to the plate,” Castellanos said. “I just kind of said challenge accepted.”

Early returns are good. Castellanos hasn’t improved his strikeout rate, but the percentage of pitches outside the zone that he hacks at has dropped to 35.9 percent, from 40.9 percent a year ago. That’s not Joey Votto (career: 21.5 perent) territory, but it’s trending in the right direction.

Plate discipline is a hard thing to learn, but even a little improvement could reap big dividends, as we’ve seen in the small sample of this season thus far. Only time will tell whether Castellanos has really turned the corner and become a legit star in this league or whether he’ll even stick around past this year.

For the moment, he’s the best hitter in the Reds’ lineup. If he decides to make Cincinnati his long-term home, Castellanos may just end up being the most popular guy in town.

Chad Dotson authors Reds coverage at Cincinnati Magazine and hosts a long-running Reds podcast, Redleg Nation Radio. His first book, The Big 50: The Men and Moments That Made the Cincinnati Reds, is available in bookstores and online.

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