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Nick Castellanos isn’t swinging as much and that’s a good thing

How can we talk about both the Talking Heads and baseball? Easy!

MLB: Philadelphia Phillies at Cincinnati Reds Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports

Most people that you know have eclectic tastes in music. Pigeon holing yourself into one genre of music will lead to miss out on some extraordinary artists. You might be a fan of rock or heavy metal, but chances are, if you are, you’ve probably got some rap stored deep in your playlist, ready to come out and help you nod along as you do whatever task it is you’re doing whilst listening to the music.

I would not consider myself one of those people who has a large canvas of musical tastes in my own library, preferring to stick to what I know. Were you to download the entirety of my saved musical library, you’d be coming up against things like Metallica, Foo Fighters, Pearl Jam and the like. There is the occasional country song, maybe even some rap included, but for the most part, it’s all the same genre that I tend to hang around in. One of my favorites is the Talking Heads. You know some of their songs even if you don’t know the titles or why you even like them. One of their more famous songs is “Once in a Lifetime”, the one that sounds like a waterfall. It has that catchy lyric:

And you may ask yourself, “How did I get here?”

By this point, you’re asking: what does this have anything to do with Nick Castellanos?

After the game in July 24, Castellanos saw his triple slash line sitting at .245/.290/.365. He was lost at the plate, lost in the field and facing calls for him to start losing playing time. If he was frustrated, he didn’t show it on the outside, but with the team fighting for playoff positioning, they needed him to start picking his game up a bit, and fast.

Fast forward to today. In the month of games since that date, Castellanos has been hot, hitting .342/.375/.500, with four home runs, 13 RBI, some of it fueled by a .398 BABIP that has helped him get that average up to more palatable places. It’s been a stretch that has helped right the ship a bit on Castellanos’ season, even if it ultimately still feels disappointing. In that time, the team has gone 20-9, lofting them into the second wild card spot by a full two games over San Diego, a full 3 12 games over the Brewers. It’s been a pretty remarkable turnaround for a player that looked completely lost as the season wore on. To put a little twist on what David Byrne once sang: you may ask yourself, how did we get here?

At first glance, one could point at that BABIP and say that Castellanos’ luck has finally changed, but as Leo Morgenstern pointed out in his own dive into his season, that isn’t completely the case:

His .368 batting average on balls in play (BABIP) is higher than his .331 career average, but not by much. With his usual BABIP, Castellanos would still have a .291 batting average in August...That’s almost identical to his .292 Statcast expected batting average (xBA) over his past 100 plate appearances. His .346 xwOBA over the past 100 PA is also a promising sign – it is right in line with his .341 career wOBA...In other words, he is hitting the ball hard and he is hitting it well – he’s not just lucking into more bloop singles than usual.

Leo also points out that the pitch that has given Castellanos fits all season long, the slider, has, at least for a bit, been “neutralized” by the slugger. While it has been the slider that has been an issue, it’s also been the location of the slider. And not just that on that pitch, but also all pitches: down and away. Castellanos had struggled for much of the season against that particular part of the strike zone.

Zones: April 1 - July 24

But since the end of that game on July 24, he has been much, much better not just protecting against that pitch down and away, but against most of anything around the plate.

Zones: July 25 - August 25

There is likely a reason he has been better equipped to improve within the strike zone as well. It leads us to another rabbit hole in looking at his season, one where we can look at how Castellanos has decided to approach pitchers while in the box, both now and when he was struggling.

As we watched Castellanos descend deeper and deeper into a funk as the season wore on, the hardest thing to watch, anecdotally at least, was that pitchers were going up against him with a definite game plan, particularly right handers. When Castellanos stepped into the box to start off an at bat, there was a good chance he was going to see a slider from that right handed pitcher.

Slider on the first pitch from a RHP?

Month Percentage Swing%
Month Percentage Swing%
April 34% 41.9%
May 44% 55.6%
June 39% 57.1%
July 27% 56.0%
August 41% 65.5%

Consequentially, it felt like Castellanos was simply trying to swing through it all, flailing against everything and then getting himself into pitcher’s counts where he had to swing just to stay alive. In response, he struggled. He wasn’t being particularly choosy about what he swung at and was paying the price. As a result, his production dropped.

Since July though, he has stopped swinging just for the heck of it, instead deciding to swing at better pitches, the ones that are in the strike zone and has improved a great deal because of it. All of this can be illustrated in this chart, one that can get a little busy without explanation.

There is a lot going on here, but much of it is self explanatory. There came a point in this season, somewhere between games 60 and 80, where Castellanos almost decided to say “F*ck it,” and started swinging at everything, including those pitches that were outside of the zone. Pitchers noticed and that vicious cycle began:

  • first pitch swinging, 0-1
  • swing at everything near the plate
  • production at the plate bottoms out
  • rinse and repeat

We could all see it, yet it continued happening. There’s a good part of the story, though.

Right around game 100, a little bit before even, Castellanos came to the conclusion that maybe swinging at pitches outside of the zone isn’t a great idea to be a better hitter, stopped doing it as much and saw his production at the plate go up. That doesn’t mean that the two things equal each other, but it definitely helps one’s ability to be better at the plate when one stops swinging at pitches that aren’t strikes.

Thanks, at least in small part, to his being a little more selective when swinging, August has been a little more kind of Castellanos and the Phillies have benefited.

There’s no doubt that Castellanos has had a much better few weeks as opposed to the earlier part of his season. There may have been some mechanical changes he made, there could be a more accepting response to tips from the hitting coach, who knows. What we can say is that he has been much better at the plate over the past month and that has been due to better swing decisions on his part. Thanks to that improvement, the Phillies have been able to maintain their edge in the playoff run against their opposition.

As Castellanos struggled, people watching the team were beginning to wonder if maybe he was a bust. Maybe his career was starting to decline, maybe the pressure of the contract was getting to him, maybe he just wasn’t that good in the first place. Now that we’ve seen him get hot during the past month, we can be pretty confident that he’s still a good hitter. In other words,

Same as it ever was...
Same as it ever was...
Same as it ever was...