by Steffen Taudal

Putting a value on Nick Castellanos for the Reds

Nick Castellanos’ time with the Reds has been … eventful. After a disappointing, Covid-shortened first season in 2020, he has re-emerged as one of the best hitters in baseball in 2021. With Castellanos’ possible impending free agency, let’s dive into his two seasons in Cincinnati and see what they can tell us about his future, be that with the Reds or another team.

Wrath of the baseball gods

Castellanos’ 2020 season was, like it was for most of us, a weird one. He began the year mashing, putting up a 215 wRC+ in seven games in July before slowing down in August (116 wRC+) and hitting a wall in September (53 wRC+). Overall a down year for the big free agency signing, but it was not without value. Before the 2021 season started, Matt Wilkes wrote on why Castellanos’ excellent 2021 season should come as no surprise. To sum it up, here are Castellanos rankings among 124 batters with at least 200 PAs in 2020:

  • wOBA: 78th
  • xwOBA: 23rd
  • SLG: 38th
  • xSLG: 16th
  • wOBACON: 40th
  • xwOBACON: 10th

Castellanos was doing what he had been signed to do: hit the ball really well. He’s continued doing that in 2021 to much greater statistical success. The big difference between the two seasons lies with his extreme bad luck in 2020. Last season his BABIP or batting average on balls in play of .257 ranked 102nd out of 124 batters with at least 200 PAs. Meanwhile his BABIP in 2021 is .371 which is the highest among qualified batters. How big a difference has this made? These are Castellanos’ rankings among 134 qualified hitters in 2021:

  • wOBA: 6th
  • xwOBA: 25th
  • SLG: 5th
  • xSLG: 21st
  • wOBACON: 5th
  • xwOBACON: 24th

Castellanos has been a little lucky this year, but his two seasons in Cincinnati have established that the guy can hit. His continued excellence in expected numbers should earn him a nice next payday. But there are a few concerns about Castellanos’ game, as Matt laid out. They could keep him from being one of baseball’s elite hitters.

Walk more, strike out less

Castellanos doesn’t walk enough. Of the 91 hitters who have accumulated at least 2500 PAs from 2016 (Castellanos’ first good season in the majors) through the 2021 season, Castellanos ranks 69th in BB%. And even in his phenomenal 2021 season, he ranks 110th out of 136 qualified batters. That hasn’t kept him from being near the very top in OBP, where he ranks 12th, but he is one of just three batters in the top 20 who have a BB% under 10, and his is the lowest at 6.8%. So, a team looking to sign Castellanos to a long term deal would no doubt have concerns about the sustainability of his 2021 OBP, and also expect him to regress closer to his career number since 2016, which sits at .339 and ranks 48th of the 91 batters with at least 2500 PAs.

Another of Matt’s concerns, was Castellanos’ unfortunate penchant for striking out during the 2020 season. That season, Castellanos’ K% had ballooned to a career high 28.5% which ranked 121st out of 142 qualified batters. As you may have guessed, another reason for Castellanos’ wonderful 2021, has been his ability to get this number under control, as it has dropped to 22%, good for 79th out of 136 qualified batters. So just slightly below average. It’s a credit to Castellanos, that he has been able to remedy this, but with the drop in his BB%, means that his BB/K ration hasn’t changed much compared to 2020. In 2020 it was at 0.28 122nd out of 142, and in 2021 it’s at 0.31, ranking 113th out of 136 batters. And that’s who Castellanos is. He is not your three true outcomes player. He relies on the ball in play, with all the randomness that comes with such a reliance, and that’s probably not going to change. He isn’t suddenly going to develop the plate discipline of Juan Soto, or the power of Shohei Ohtani, but he has a proven record of good expected stats and – outside of 2020 – high BABIPs.

 The questionable glove

In Castellanos’ contract with the Reds, there is a clause that gives him $100,000 if he wins a Gold Glove award for his work in right field. The Reds could comfortably bump that bonus up to include a hundred times that amount, an island in the Pacific and his own private aircraft carrier, because that ain’t happening.

Castellanos came to Cincinnati after a season in which he saw his defense improve dramatically compared to 2018. In 2018, Castellanos was one of the absolute worst defenders in baseball, ranking terribly in all the defensive metrics. DRS (Defensive Runs Saved) had him at -19, good for 121st out of 124 fielders. Statcast’s OAA (Outs Above Average) ranked him dead last, 241st with an appalling -23, while UZR or Ultimate Zone Rating gave him a score of -12.9, which ranked 113th out of 114 fielders. So, pretty atrocious.

To give those numbers context, here’s how defensive metrics work for outfielders. When a ball is hit into the outfield, it is assigned a likelihood that it will be caught. To calculate this likelihood, the different stats use different data, but ultimately a player is then credited for making the play and docked for failing to make the play. So, let’s say a fielder catches a ball that has a 75% chance of being caught. That fielder is then credited with 0.25 extra plays, while he would be docked -0.75 plays if he fails to make the catch. In the case of UZR and DRS, several modifiers are added to convert it into runs prevented, while OAA, the simplest of the bunch, is the accumulation of plays made, and plays not made, no modifiers. Zero is league average.

But 2019 was a very different story, as Castellanos’ defense suddenly looked bad. DRS had him at -9 (101st of 107), UZR ranked him 85th out of 107 fielders with -4.4. OAA gave him -7 which ranked 227th out of 261. Still far from good, but an improvement. Castellanos said he chose the Reds because he wanted to play right field every day, and improve his defense even further. That… hasn’t happened, unfortunately, as Castellanos is tied for the worst score among outfielders with -11 OAA. UZR is a little kinder, ranking him 84th out of 102 fielders with -4.5, while DRS gives him -11 which ranks 96th out of 102 fielders. At this point, the best use of Castellanos’ talents is probably at DH. He isn’t a complete disaster in right anymore, but by playing significant innings out there, he hurts his overall value. With Castellanos about to enter his thirties, it’s unlikely those stats will get better.

Conclusion

Nick Castellanos’ 2021 season has been a treat to watch. With fellow All-Star Jesse Winker and the resurgence of Joey Votto, Castellanos has been a huge part of the entertaining Reds offense. But reports are circulating he intends to opt out of his $16 million contract with the Reds for the 2022 season and choose free agency.

From Castellanos’ perspective, it makes a lot of sense. By sticking with his deal with the Reds, Castellanos would be agreeing to a two-year $32 million contract, with a $20 million mutual option for 2024. For a player that just had a career year in his age 29 season, that’s not gonna cut it. If the Reds want to keep Castellanos, they’ll have to offer him enough extra money to make him give up his opt-out.

Will the Reds pay up? Doubtful. Should they? Castellanos will be looking in the vicinity of $18-$20 million AAV and a contract length of 4-5 years. For a player whose career numbers suggest he will hover around .360-.370 wOBA and an fWAR between 2.5-3 per season with poor defensive skills to boot, that could be a little rich.

Either choice for the Reds offers an upside. Sign Castellanos to a long term deal or use that money to improve the team in other ways. They have numerous options for spending it: sign Luis Castillo to a long-term deal, lock up Jesse Winker, or sign an exciting name in free agency. The only mistake the Reds’ front office can make this offseason is to continue their depressing, transparent cost-cutting.

[Featured Image by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire]

Steffen has been a huge Reds fan since watching his very first baseball game during the 2018 season. Despite the Reds finishing 5th in the NL Central for the fourth season in a row, he found himself drawn to the team's storied past and infinitely likable players such as Eugenio Suárez and Joey Votto. Since then, his love of baseball has led to a deep interest in the game's analytics and advanced statistics. Steffen is from Denmark and recently graduated from Aarhus University. You can follow him on twitter @TaudalSteffen

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Drew Hardesty
Drew Hardesty
2 months ago

Pay the man. He brings way more than the bat and the glove to the Reds.

Christopher DeBlois
Christopher DeBlois
2 months ago

There are two separate questions here. What is Castellanos worth for the production he provides, and what is the opportunity cost of paying (or over paying) for that production. Since it’s not my money I’d love to see Castellanos stay in Cincinnati even if you’re buying a DH for strong right fielder money. But what would really stink is if the Reds figure out a way to lose Castellanos by pinching pennies while simultaneously (grossly) over paying for Suarez and Moustakas. Jettison Moustakas and if at all possible, Suarez. Sunk cost fallacy applies there. Extend Castellanos.

Christopher DeBlois
Christopher DeBlois
2 months ago
Reply to  Steffen Taudal

I’m sure you’re right Steffen – the only options are keep them and play them, keep them and sit them, trade them (with prospects) and still pay them, or DFA them. As far as improving the team on the field goes those options all cost the same. So even though I think they won’t, the front office should cut them loose and install Barrero at SS with Farmer and eventually Senzel (or India) at 3B. But the fact that those all cost the same does also mean there is less money to pay Castellanos. Really frustrating that the reason they may lose the all star is that they have to pay the ineffective players.

Thomas Green
Thomas Green
2 months ago

Just getting to this article and discussion…
I like article and think it does a solid and dispassionate job of assessing Nick’s hitting and fielding. The Reds have multiple challenges to address in valuing his lay, though, that are in addition to what you assessed.
The team has several players who are best suited to part or full-time DH duties, and each is signed for at least two more seasons. Winker is a DH, Votto fields poorly and needs the reduced wear of the DH as he ages (at least PT), as does Moustakas. If Suarez gets his bat back in play, he still fields below average and would be better suited to DH (or maybe 1B). And Stevenson would make a great DH on his non-catching days. If the team signs Castellanos, the logjam and poor fielding metrics get worse, not better.
On the other hand, every team needs leadership, and good leadership makes a difference by elevating the players all around the leader. Look at the Reds teams of the last 25 years that have achieved above expectations and competed for the playoffs – each had a core, new leader that moved the effort, focus, and intensity of the others in that clubhouse. Vaughn, Rolen. The trade for Rolen was panned as an overpay, but what did the team do that next year? They won. Larkin and Griffey and Dunn had the big stats, but the teams underperformed. As soon as Rolen and Vaughn departed, the expectations were under-fulfilled.
While you state that you would only want to pay for on field performance, this team needed his fire, his energy and his expectation that those around him would work their tails off and be held to a high standard. It has made a big difference for the team this year, and I don’t see who replaces that if he departs. This is the first Reds team in 9-10 years to significantly over-achieve on their preseason wins projections, and I fear that it would be a one-time occurrence without Castellanos still on board next year.

Thomas Green
Thomas Green
2 months ago
Reply to  Steffen Taudal

Thanks, Steffen. I agree there seem to be possibilities for others to lead, and the front office clearly looked for that leadership in adding players like Miley, Moustakas, and Akiyama two off seasons ago. The challenge among the everyday eight is that you generally have to perform to lead at a high level. Shogo is overmatched (and in the downslope of his career), and Moose has been unable to stay healthy and get on track, while also being at an age of often significant decline. Votto got to learn from Rolen and declared himself ready for the leadership mantle when Scott retired, but has never delivered that type of leadership; it just doesn’t seem to be in his personality. Getting that leadership from second year players like India and Stevenson would be quite unusual, but I agree that they seem much more likely than normal to eventually fill that role.
Yes, it’s very difficult to quantify, but it is critical that this front office understand the locker room and make good decisions about its leadership. It feels like a big risk to let Castellanos get away.