By Russ Walsh
When the Phillies signed free agent Nick Castellanos for five years and $100 million in March 2022, I admit I really didn’t know much about him. If pressed, I would have told you that the guy was a really good hitter who was a liability on defense. It seemed to me that the Phillies had just acquired another designated hitter type to add to the designated hitters they already had playing in the field: Rhys Hoskins, Kyle Schwarber, Alec Bohm, etc. I took solace in the fact that Castellanos had a tremendous 2021 season in Cincinnati’s Great American Ball Park, smashing a career-high 34 home runs, in a ballpark similarly set up for the long ball as Philadelphia’s Citizens Bank Park. Maybe he could platoon with Schwarber in left and DH on the other days and all would be ok.
Then I watched a few games, saw Castellanos bat and I got worried. In a world where players swing and miss a lot, Castellanos seemed to swing and miss a whole lot. What many pundits described as his “superior bat to ball skills” were nowhere in evidence. I saw a guy with a “swing first” approach, swinging at anything the pitcher threw him. With two strikes, any slider off the outside corner would send Castellanos lunging and flailing and back to the dugout. I thought he had the longest, most awkward swing I had ever seen.
On further study, I realized what was so unusual about Castellanos’ swing. He attacks the ball as if he were playing cricket. He looks more like he is protecting a wicket than hitting a baseball. His first move with the bat is down toward the ball. He swings with an inside-out motion where his top (right) hand is dominant. The swing is the reason he can generate lots of power to the opposite field. It is also the reason he swings and misses so often at outside pitches. When Castellanos does not hit the ball to right field, he seems to hit an extraordinary number of balls down the left-field line, sometimes easy bouncers to the third baseman and sometimes doubles into the corner.
In 2022, things went from bad to worse when Bryce Harper went on the injured list with a bad throwing arm and Castellanos was forced to become the everyday right fielder. He looked ungainly in the field, and while to his credit, his all-out effort and hustle were apparent, his defensive skills did not bode well for an already porous Phillies outfield defense. While routine plays in the gap may have eluded him, however, he did show an ability to come in on the ball and make spectacular sliding catches, perhaps most improbably to save a World Series game.
The hitting woes were season-long, however, with both batting average and power numbers way down. For the season, Castellanos hit just. 263 with a paltry 13 home runs and a 97 OPS+. Always a stand-up guy, Castellanos talked openly to reporters about his difficulties in adjusting to a new team. He said he struggled to adjust to a new city and new teammates. It didn’t help that, because of the lockout, he had very limited Spring Training after signing with the Phillies on March 22. And then his wife gave birth to a son early in the spring.
Phillies president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski also said that Castellanos dealt with some injuries throughout last season, including a wrist contusion and a pulled oblique muscle, that limited his effectiveness at the bat.
After last year, Castellanos said that he looked forward to the off-season and Spring Training 2023.
“I would say it’s just balancing everything,” Castellanos said. “Now having two kids at home and then also just being able to navigate, being able to understand everybody’s personality, who they are, how they work, I can get back to being what makes me great and understand how to use [those resources] to benefit me.”
Indeed, no Phillies player worked harder than Castellanos this Spring Training. He had daily sessions with hitting coach Kevin Long. The main goal: be more selective at the plate, while still maintaining his “swing first” mentality. It seems to have worked.
Castellanos has become an offensive leader for the Phillies. He is among the league leaders in doubles (he had always been a doubles machine), his average stands at .308 as I write this, and his OPS+ is up 35 points to 132. Even the most casual observer can see that he is not chasing the outside slider as much as he did in 2022.
While Castellanos will never be mistaken for Roberto Clemente in right field, his all-out effort and knack for making the seemingly impossible play have endeared him to the Phillies faithful. He stole a home run from Houston’s Alex Bregman earlier this year and has made several over-the-shoulder running catches in the alley.
Of course, there are also the times when he overthrows the cutoff man or drops an easy fly ball, as he did in San Francisco on Monday night. But overall, Castellanos, with his hustle, sincerity, dedication to improvement, and willingness to take personal responsibility, has won over this fan. He still swings like a cricket player though.
Russ Walsh is a retired teacher, diehard Phillies fan, and student of the history of baseball with a special interest in the odd, quirky, and once in a lifetime events that happen on the baseball field. He writes for both the SABR BioProject and the SABR Games Project and maintains his own blog The Faith of a Phillies Fan. You can reach Russ on Twitter @faithofaphilli1