Last night against the Cincinnati Reds, Nick Castellanos found himself in a position he’s encountered hundreds of times in his big league career.
Hitting in the No. 5 hole, there were two runners on and two out. The Phillies were in an early 2-0 hole and, after a 2-for-23 performance with runners in scoring position in the Mets series as a team, they desperately needed one of their “big guns” to come through with a timely hit. On an 0-2 pitch, Castellanos delivered a single to left, scoring Alec Bohm from 2nd to cut the deficit to 2-1.
The Phils would score two more runs in the 3rd and another in the 5th, then held on for a much-needed 4-3 victory.
It was a good at-bat from Castellanos that keyed a rally, and Phillies fans will take that every time from their $100 million slugger. Harder to take was his at-bat in the 8th inning when, with the Phillies clinging to their one-run lead, J.T. Realmuto doubled and stole third with one out. A ground ball or fly ball to medium outfield would have given the Phils some insurance.
But Castellanos struck out, and he did so in much the same fashion he’s done all season — flailing at sliders.
In baseball more than most sports, the numbers tell the story. For Castellanos, the numbers this year are a Stephen King novel. His isolated power of .120 is a career low and dramatically lower than his .261 mark in 2020 and .267 last year. He’s hitting just .258/.304/.378, with a wRC+ of 89. After slugging 34 home runs last year, he has just 10 this season, and went more than a month recently without one.
His 42.8% ground ball rate is 5% higher than his previous high in 2019, and his hard-hit rate has plummeted from 40.4% last season to 28.0% (all stats via Fangraphs). Castellanos is chasing balls out of the zone a career-worst 44.5% of the time, way up from 40.4% last season, and he’s seeing first-pitch strikes 67.7% of the time, again, way up from last year’s 60.9% and his career mark of 63.6%.
It’s hard to hit when you’re constantly in an 0-1 hole.
As you can see from the graphic above, pitchers have been attacking him with low and away sliders and he has yet to adjust, a fascinating development for a veteran player of his pedigree. He’s seen sliders 31.0% of the time, again, far higher than his previous single-season high of 26.8% in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, and he just can’t lay off them.
According to Brooks Baseball, last year he struck out 41 times on sliders, with a .226 batting average and .438 slugging percentage. This year, he’s already struck out 42 times on sliders, and while he’s hitting .244 against them, he’s only slugging .381.
His issues with sliders are perhaps impacting his ability to hit the fastball. Last season, he slugged 17 of his home runs off fastballs, with a .338 average and .753 slugging percentage. Shockingly, he has just four homers off fastballs this year, with a .264 average and .455 slugging percentage.
Castellanos’ Slugging Drop Is Historic, But There Is Hope
It’s easy to see why his slugging percentage has dropped .198 points from last year. In fact, our resident stat guru Schmenkman crunched the numbers and found, over the last 30 years, Castellanos’ .198 slugging percentage drop was the 8th-largest year-over-year decline in Major League Baseball.
While Castellanos’ name being on a list like this isn’t awesome, it is instructive in one way. Some of the names on this list are very, very good players who were in the middle of their careers and, for most, their power drop-off was nothing more than a blip.
Jeff Bagwell’s .750 slugging percentage in 1994 was simply unsustainable, and it fell to a still respectable .496 in ‘95, but Bagwell then had a slugging percentage well over .500 for the next eight seasons. Adrian Beltre’s drop from .629 in 2004 to .413 in 2005 was pretty big, but he would go on to post another 11 seasons of slugging percentages over .450 during the rest of his Hall of Fame career.
Travis Hafner went from .451 in 2007 to .323 in 2008 then back to .470 in 2009 and remained at around .450 for the following two seasons after that. Bryce Harper had a big drop in 2016 and he won the MVP Award last year. Cal Ripken’s .566 slugging percentage in 1991 was an aberration, and it corrected itself back into the mid-.400s from 1993 until he was done in 2001. Luis Gonzalez’ slugging fell from .688 in his ‘01 MVP season to .496 in ‘02, but was at .532 and .493 the next two seasons.
In other words, most of the star players above rebounded after their one-year power droughts. Castellanos is a far better hitter than Ray Durham ever was, and he’s clearly not a declining player like Chris Davis was when his power left him.
Castellanos may not recover his power stroke this season, and that will be incredibly frustrating if true. For whatever reason, he’s simply been unable to adjust to the way pitchers are throwing to him, and it’s hurting his ability to catch up to the fastball and provide the kind of power stroke the team needs from the right side of the plate.
But if history is our guide, he’s more likely to rebound in 2023 than not.