If nothing else, the Cincinnati Reds can be fun to watch. Coming into this year, I was fairly high on them; although the bullpen is a problem, the top of the rotation is solid and the lineup has good potential to mash. Along with that, they also likely play in the weakest division in baseball. The rotation hasn’t quite delivered, but the lineup, however, has at least partially delivered on its potential. There have been some pleasant surprises so far in Tucker Barnhart and Tyler Naquin, and some serious disappointments (Eugenio Suarez is currently the 8th worst qualified hitter in the league). But above all, two sluggers, Jesse Winker and Nick Castellanos, have shown that they could be legitimately elite hitters for the Reds.
As it stands, Winker and Castellanos have been the second and third best hitters in 2021, with 189 and 181 wRC+ marks, respectively. Only Vlad Jr. has outpaced the two Cincinnati sluggers (195), and the next closest behind Castellanos is Kris Bryant who has posted a 165 mark. In short, two of the absolute best hitters in baseball are on the same team, and their performances look like they could be the real deal. An important aspect to consider in this though is that neither of these Cincinnati performances came out of nowhere. Both Winker and Castellanos have always been good hitters, but this year they’ve taken it to another level.
Going back to 2016, Castellanos’ last 3 full seasons in Detroit were solid, well above average offensive performances. Then, in 2019, following a midseason trade to the Northside of Chicago, the outfielder turned it up a notch. In 51 games as a Cub, he posted a 154 wRC+ (.321/.356/.646) and hit 16 of his 27 home runs that year in the short stint. Last season, his first in Cincinnati, he came out of the gates in July/August of 2020 with a 135 wRC+ over 144 plate appearances. Castellanos finished the shortened campaign (disappointingly) with right around league average production, with a slash line of .225/.298/.486 after an impressive start. Even with the disappointing finish, the Reds’ slugger showed continued flashes of being an excellent hitter.
Now, he’s sustaining levels higher than we have seen from him; it’s also June, which means we’re through a good portion of the season and Castellanos stands as the third most productive hitter in the land. In the grand scheme of things, it’s still a small sample, and that’s a fair point, but it’s likely far enough to consider Castellanos among the game’s best hitters. His slash line as of now is a hard-to-believe .359/.415/.627, he’s also boasting an impressive .443/.417 wOBA/xwOBA combination, all of these numbers would be significant career highs for the Castellanos. There’s a whole lot of red on his Savant page as well, which isn’t everything of course, but it’s certainly never a bad thing. He ranks in the 76th percentile in exit velocity and 92nd in Hard-Hit%; additionally, Castellanos also finds himself towards the very top of the xwOBA, xBA, and xSLG leaderboards, sitting at the 96th percentile or better in all three metrics. Beyond that, the outfielder seems to have made some changes to his approach, with a walk rate (7.9%) matching his career-high to go with a career-low strikeout rate (18.3%). These are always good progressions to see, and they tend to stabilize relatively quickly. On the whole, Castellanos is swinging more often than he has in the past, and apparently, it’s working quite well. The outfielder is on his way to setting career bests in nearly every offensive category and has already surpassed his career-high in fWAR (3.0) through a couple of months of play. Castellanos has pretty much always been a good hitter, but he has made some changes to separate himself from the pack even further.
Castellanos’ teammate, Jesse Winker, is following many of these same trends. Since his arrival in 2017, Winker has been a solid offensive producer from the start. 2020 was his first “full” season (54 games), and he did not disappoint, posting a 146 wRC+, including a torrid first month in which he put up a whopping 191 mark. Much like his teammate, however, Winker has taken another step this season. His current 189 wRC+ ranks 2nd in all of baseball, vaulting over his aforementioned teammate following yet another three home run game for the slugger. He’s doing this in an interesting way, too. Winker has dropped his walk rate by a lot (-6.7%), which could be a little concerning, as discipline has always been one of his strengths; however, he’s also dropped his strikeout rate by a similar amount to mitigate some of the issues. It also helps that he has continued to hit the ball hard with the best of them, sitting in the 83rd percentile or better in barrel rate, exit velocity, and Hard-Hit%, coupled with excellent x-stats as well.
Perhaps the most notable aspect of Winker’s game this year is his propensity to destroy fastballs. Thus far, Winker has an impressive .527 wOBA against heaters. This may not be much of a surprise, as good hitters tend to punish fastballs, but this is a rather sharp contrast to his .376 mark last season, during which he actually hit offspeed pitches much better. Winker sees fastballs nearly 60% of the time, so producing better than ever against them is a great change to make. Winker is also hiding his platoon splits a bit better relative to his career, sitting right around league average against lefties for most of this year as opposed to a 76 wRC+ mark over his career. The split is still quite large, but that’s accentuated by a sky-high 214 mark against right-handers. Winker is also hitting more fly balls than in the past (up 5%), and of course, fewer grounders (down 6.8%). When you hit the ball as hard as Winker does, that’s typically a good thing. Much like his teammate on the other side of the outfield, Jesse Winker seems to have made some adjustments, and taken his offensive game to another level, coming from an already impressive starting point.
There are plenty of amazing hitters across the league, and it may not be the case that both Winker and Castellanos finish as two of the top three offensive players in the game. But both of these Reds have seen some changes in their game that have paid massive dividends thus far. We’re now a significant way into the season, and these Reds teammates are showing that they are legitimately great hitters. There now seems to be no reason to exclude Jesse Winker and Nick Castellanos from the conversation of the game’s best hitters.
They were already good, and they seem to have gotten much, much better.
Featured Image: Twitter @Reds