Saturday was the worst day of the weekend. Not only did the Cubs take a beating from the freakin’ Cincinnati Reds (… again) – eliminating any hope of finally getting that division series-win on the road – but Nick Castellanos’ hitting streak also came to an end.
Before that game, Castellanos had hit safely in all nine contests with the Cubs, featuring six doubles, four homers, and 15 hits overall. But on Saturday, he went 0-5, with three mortality-proving strikeouts and two groundouts pulled to the left side of the infield. Sigh. It happens. And, indeed, even if he didn’t follow up that dud with two more hits on Sunday (which he did), he’d still have been an absolutely epic pickup for this Cubs team. Maybe moreso than we ever realized.
At FanGraphs, Dan Szymborski discussed how the move for Castellanos might’ve been the best possible addition for the Cubs – in particular – more than anybody else (emphasis added):
“The addition of Nicholas Castellanos is hardly a pickup on the level of a Greinke or a Bauer, but it was made at exactly the right time by exactly the right team. The move has resulted in getting Heyward more time in center field — ZiPS always thought Heyward was wasted a bit in right field — and taking time away from the disappointing Albert Almora Jr. As a consequence, ZiPS projected the Cubs would get a larger benefit from a Castellanos acquisition than any other team in baseball.”
As Szymborski later points out, the Cubs’ playoff odds on the morning of July 31st stood at 73.4%, with the Cardinals (49.9%) and Brewers (42.5%) not far behind. Today, though, the Cubs’ odds (86.1%) have risen significantly, while the Cardinals (40.6%) and Brewers (30.4%) have each taken hits. That’s not all because of Castellanos, but, I mean … come on. Can anyone doubt his uniquely impactful footprint on this lineup?
Together with Jason Heyward, Castellanos has given the top of the Cubs lineup a completely different look. Both are good, patient hitters, but they’re also more likely to make contact and use the gaps for doubles than they are to sell out for home runs or risk over-patience for walks, like many of the rest of the Cubs hitters (there’s nothing individually wrong with that! But a balanced lineup is a good lineup).
And that sort of goes to Szymborski’s broader point, right? While FanGraphs might’ve more specifically referenced Castellanos’ positional fit on this roster (and from whom he’d be taking at-bats away), the type of hitter he’s become is just as well-fitting.
For example, since joining the Cubs, Castellanos has swung at 80.3% of pitches in the zone, second most on the team behind only Kris Bryant (minimum 30 PAs). And his 84.9% zone-contact rate is also second-highest, behind only Jason Heyward. With those numbers in mind, is it any surprise to learn that Castellanos has a team-leading 51.4% hard-hit rate during that stretch? It shouldn’t be. He’s correctly identifying strikes and making contact with those pitches *at the same time* as much as anybody on the team and it’s resulting in the frequent demolition of baseballs.
(As you can imagine, his 11.4% soft-hit rate is also the lowest during that stretch, which, when combined with an also team-low 34.3% ground ball rate and exactly zero infield pop-ups, well, you can understand why we’re geeked on his production – it’s supported by really strong peripherals.)
Speaking of that overall production, here it is … Nicholas Castellanos’s slash line in 49 plate appearances since joining the Chicago Cubs: .370/.408/.761 (196 wRC+).
In a little under two weeks, Castellanos has been nearly 100% more effective than a league average player at the plate. But just as importantly, as Szymborski points out, Castellanos has been taking at-bats away from a league-average player. Albert Almora Jr., whose time has been eaten the most by the addition of Castellanos, has a 70 wRC+ this season (30% worse than a league average player), which makes the trade that much more impactful. Obviously, there’s some defense and baserunning to factor in as well, but it’s hard to deny how well this has worked out for Chicago so far.
I have no idea if Castellanos will keep up this level of dominance the rest of the way, but even if he doesn’t, this is going to be a big win for the Cubs. With a huge opportunity to improve their offensive production in the outfield, they didn’t just fill in the hole back to sea level, they built a mountain on top of it.