Turn the page: Castellanos eyes '21 success

Right fielder set career highs in barrel percentage, exit velocity last year

February 27th, 2021

Reds right fielder Nick Castellanos left little doubt that he wanted to turn the page from a 2020 season that was every bit of disappointing. It was his first season in Cincinnati after he signed a four-year, $64 million contract.

“I'm sure if we had 162 games, man, my numbers would have been right where they normally are,” Castellanos said from Goodyear, Ariz. “We also only played 60 games. Last year, I will say, the difference of all the regimens and protocols and not having any fans and not being able to get to the park when I wanted to or leave when I wanted to or go out and be in charge of my own day, that was an adjustment that I was figuring out how to deal with last year.”

Through his first 11 games of last season, Castellanos crushed six home runs while batting .368 with a 1.363 OPS. By the end, he finished batting .225 with a .784 OPS, 14 homers and 34 RBIs.

However, Castellanos was as advertised with his ability to tear into a baseball. His 16 percent barrel rate was ranked ninth in the Major Leagues, according to Statcast. His exit velocity average of 91 mph was a career high, but his .257 batting average on balls in play was a career low.

“It’s one of those things in baseball that sometimes you can’t really put your finger on the reason,” Reds manager David Bell said. “When you’re squaring balls up and hitting the ball hard, you really don’t know where to turn. A lot of times what happens is you start trying to do too much. I’m sure that’s what happened to some extent last year. That’s no weakness on any player’s part. Anyone that is competing and trying to win, it’s just the natural thing to do. Eventually, it turns. You end up getting better mentally, and a lot of times you become a better player for it."

Of course, with only 60 games, there wasn’t time for Castellanos to turn it around. He admitted that he did press a lot to improve.

“Usually those little spells where nothing's falling are easy to ignore, but then when you look up and you only have 17 games left, you know?” Castellanos said. “To say that I didn't pay attention to it or I wanted to do really well? Or I tried to do too much? I'd be lying.”

Castellanos, who turns 29 on March 4, had an opt-out clause after the first year in his contract and he has another one after the ’21 season. He never considered exercising his right to leave.

“There's so much uncertainty, not just in Major League Baseball, but the world,” he said. “I didn't think last year would be an appropriate time to do so. Other than that, I think we still have a good team and a good thing going on here with a chance to do some damage in this division. Last year, it was an easy decision for me not to.”

Hitting approach alterations

Of course, Castellanos wasn’t the only Reds hitter who had a dip in production. The team batted a Major League-worst .212 last season and went scoreless across 22 innings in two postseason games vs. Atlanta. The club did a postmortem to evaluate how to improve.

“The quality of the contact when we did put the ball in play, we just hit it up in the air too much,” Reds hitting coach Alan Zinter said Saturday. “So just having a focus and more of an intent to get down through the ball can clean up a lot of those low rankings.”

League-wide, hitters have focused harder on launch angle and tried to hit more homers. It often led to the “three true outcomes” -- homers, strikeouts or walks -- dominating box scores. Cincinnati isn’t abandoning that approach altogether, but it is making alterations.

“We don’t want to strike out as much, but we want to give ourselves more room for error,” Zinter said. “It’s just really focused on getting down through the baseball a little bit more correctly, rather than trying to create some results, and over time, that’s going to give us more room for error when we do unleash in the game.

“You can see that we walked, we had great swing decisions last year, but our guys never scored. We were missing the variety of hits, so we didn’t really work in that spectrum where that high hit probability is. We hit a lot of home runs when we were on, but when we did miss it, we were in the air too much. We’re trying to bring down that focus a little bit, so we open up that spectrum.”

Romano makes changes

Reds pitching coach Derek Johnson has long stated his preference for swing-and-miss pitchers. Bullpen candidate Sal Romano has hard stuff but has been a sinkerball pitcher who relies on contact. Romano changed his arm angle last season to get more action on his pitches, including his changeup.

Out of Minor League options, Romano is back to try and win a spot.

“I’ve been working a lot on those front hip pitches with the lefties and being able to put that slider on the back foot like I want to,” Romano said. “I’ve always been a contact type of guy even though I threw really hard in the Minor Leagues on my way up. Now I’ve learned there’s a lot more that goes into pitching. It’s not just throwing. There are other principles that go into it. I’ve been working a lot with [Johnson] and having [Eric Jagers, assistant pitching coach] here as well.”

Worth noting

• Outfielder Shogo Akiyama has left camp to tend to a personal situation that is not COVID-19 related, the club said. Akiyama will not be in the lineup for Sunday’s Cactus League opener vs. Cleveland.

• Bell said that reliever Lucas Sims, who missed some offseason throwing with right elbow tightness, remains on schedule to catch up and should be ready by Opening Day.

• Pitcher Brandon Bailey had successful Tommy John surgery on his right elbow Friday and will miss the 2021 season.