During a game Friday night between the Detroit Tigers and the Houston Astros, Nicholas Castellanos hit a three-run dinger to take a 3-1 lead over the American League-leading ‘Stros. As Castellanos rounded the bases, Tigers’ play-by-play announcer Rod Allen quipped, “when did he become ‘Nicholas,’ anyway? I wonder if he was a better hitter as ‘Nicholas’ or ‘Nick.'” To answer this specific question, Castellanos started going by “Nicholas” in official scenarios before spring training this season, and he is on pace to have the best season of his career under the new moniker.
Castellanos is not the first player in the history of sports to keep the fans on their toes by changing his name in the middle of his career, and he is by far not the most famous. Some guys, like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar make the change for religious or cultural reasons. Some, like Giancarlo Stanton or Melvin Upton, Jr. make the change because it’s the one their parents originally gave them. Some, like Chad Ochocinco (who changed his name back to Chad Johnson later) or World B. Free are just adopting an attribute from their careers.
But does the name change have any effect on their game?
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, formerly Lew Alcindor, only played two NBA seasons under his birth name. After taking his Muslim name in 1971, he played the rest of his career as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Even though his first two seasons saw averages of 30.2 points, 15.3 rebounds, a Rookie of the Year Award, an MVP for both the regular season and the Finals, and a scoring title, he saw his other 5 MVPs, 17 All Star Selections, 5 NBA titles and other accolades (such as being the highest scorer in league history). The name change worked out for him, but he probably would have been one of the best to play the game either way.
In the same sport, but not quite the same level of prestige, World B. Free, born Lloyd Bernard Free, is not quite as clear cut in his career splits. He changed his name following the 1980 season due to his “All-World” nickname, which he received thanks to his absurd athleticism and 44 inch vertical. He gained his first All-Star selection in his final year as Lloyd Bernard, and his overall statistics are better, though only marginally. He scored a little less than a point less per game (19.8 opposed to 20.6), but he did it more efficiently and on less shots. He also averaged more rebounds and better defensive statistics. I bet the Golden State Warriors, where he spent the majority of his post-name change years, would have traded World B. for Lloyd Bernard.
Giancarlo Stanton, who changed his name from Mike following the 2012 season, gives us a fairly equal sample size on both ends of the name change since he is just entering the prime of his career. there are less than 65 games separating his pre and post name change splits. Still, his name change didn’t really do much to contribute to his on-field success. His batting average is exactly the same on both sides of the split, his on-base percentage has increased by less than ten points, and his slugging by only 6 points. He does have about 30 more home runs and 80 more RBIs after the name change, which is not because of the increase in games because he averages almost .05 more home runs per at bat. So it looks like the change to the first name his parents gave him added to his power, but not much else.
I know I included Chad Ocho Cinco, changed from Chad Johnson after 2007 and then back to Chad Johnson after 2012, and Melvin Upton Jr., who ditched “B.J.” in 2015, in the intro, but neither of those guys really have the prowess in their respective leagues to really be noted. Chad got his only two All-Pro selections in his first stint as Johnson, so the change didn’t do much for him. As for Melvin, he, too, was marginally better as B.J., so he’s in the same boat as Chad.
It looks like if you want to get your career back on track, or to launch it into a new stratosphere, a name change isn’t the change that is needed for an athletic career.
For more players that changed their names during their careers, this SI article is pretty interesting.