PHILADELPHIA -- Nick Castellanos has been on everybody’s mind lately because so much is riding on his success.
It is almost impossible to imagine the Phillies hanging with the best in the National League without Castellanos hitting as expected, certainly while Bryce Harper and Jean Segura are sidelined for weeks, maybe months, with injuries. But Castellanos had a big night Thursday in a 14-4 victory over the Braves at Citizens Bank Park to help the Phils (40-37) finish June with a 19-8 record. He smashed a hard-hit single in the first and an opposite-field three-run home run in the second.
“Results are more enjoyable than getting out,” Castellanos said.
Castellanos had been mired in an awful slump, batting .207 with a .538 OPS since May 10. His struggles have drawn more attention since Harper broke his left thumb on Saturday. But if Castellanos hits in July like Kyle Schwarber and Rhys Hoskins hit in June, the Phillies’ lineup would obviously become much deeper and better.
“I would expect -- if not today, if not tomorrow, I would say in the next week, two weeks -- I think he’s going to take off,” Phillies hitting coach Kevin Long said before the game. “And I think it’s going to be pretty special. I just have that feeling from his work and what I’m seeing. I really feel like the process is in place, and I think we’re moving in the right direction.”
Castellanos entered Thursday batting .245 with seven home runs, 37 RBIs and a .674 OPS. He had not homered since May 30 and his OPS was 265 points below last season’s mark and 131 points below his career mark. His -0.7 WAR was second to last among 158 qualified hitters in the Majors, according to FanGraphs.
There were a lot of reasons why.
Castellanos has mentioned the baseballs. He does not think they are flying as far. It might sound like an excuse, but there is something there. Long said he found seven balls Castellanos hit that would have been homers last year.
Castellanos entered Thursday with 17 barrels, according to Statcast. A barrel is a ball in play of which comparable hits (i.e. same exit velocity and launch angle) led to a minimum .500 batting average and 1.500 slugging percentage. Eight of Castellanos’ 17 barrels have been outs, and almost all of them have been hit between left-center and right-center fields. He has pulled only 23.5 percent of them this season, compared to 36.4 percent last year. He is hitting 64.7 percent of them to the middle of the field, compared to 43.2 percent last year.
“He expressed some frustration and wanted to maybe pull the ball more and find places that he could go to hit home runs, and I said, 'That’s detrimental to who you are and how you were built,'” Long said.
There are other factors. Castellanos’ hard-hit rate (36.2 percent) is his lowest since 2015. He is batting .266 against fastballs, compared to .376 last year. He is seeing more sliders than ever. In fact, he is seeing sliders more than any other pitch. Maybe because his overall chase rate (38.3 percent) is his second-highest mark since 2015.
“The biggest revelation we had was when we started talking about staying more behind the ball,” Long said. “He was jumping at the ball and going to get everything. His contact point had become an issue, where it was three to four, even five more inches out in front than it was in the past.”
There is no question the past several weeks have not been fun for Castellanos. He has looked defeated at times.
“I see the same thing,” Long said. “I think he’s working through some failures. But everybody handles failure differently. Some people pout, mope. Some people bottle up. He seems to bottle up a little bit more and just kind of stay to himself. He’s not doing that in the cage. He’s not doing that [in BP]. He’s doing a pretty good job right now. I think he’s working through it.”
Or maybe it is better to say Castellanos is feeling his way through it. Long said Castellanos is a “feel” guy, meaning he doesn’t care for deep dives into his hitting mechanics.
Every hitter is different in that regard. The important thing is that Castellanos is feeling better.
“Better,” he said.