In Friday’s game against the Oakland A’s, the score was tied heading into the bottom of the seventh. Myles Straw singled to start the inning, bringing Martín Maldonado to the plate. An A’s righty is on the mound, and due to the three-batter rule, he cannot be switched out for a lefty. With Jason Castro available on the bench, Maldonado remains in the game and grounds out. The Astros would not score in the inning and would eventually lose the game.
The season is young but the misuse of the Astros’ two catchers has been glaring. Through nine games, Maldonado has started seven, while Castro’s appeared in just two. The split in playing time has gone according to plan. The plan is misguided.
Maldonado is an adequate hitter (for a catcher) against lefty pitching and Castro is more than adequate against righties. Both are rock solid defenders behind the plate. Each could start for several other teams. They complement each other seamlessly, so one could easily replace the other mid-game. Despite having this uncommon luxury, the Astros have shown no willingness to exploit it.
Maldonado, who entered spring training as the Astros’ starting catcher, produced surprisingly good numbers in 2020. The driving force behind that production was an absurd 16.4 percent walk rate. Against right-handed pitching, it was an even 17 percent.
From 2016 to 2019, Maldonado’s walk rate against righties was 6.3 percent. For his career, it’s 7.3 percent. Though Maldonado improved his chase rate against righties in 2020, a 17 percent walk rate is simply not replicable, and without it, he’s objectively inept versus righty pitching.
This is where the left-handed Castro should come in. Castro lost out on much of 2020 due to injury, but two years ago, he was tremendous at the plate. Against righties in 2019, Castro finished third in wOBACON and first in xwOBACON among all catchers, per Statcast. In regard to the latter metric, Castro ranked above many notable backstops: Gary Sánchez, Mitch Garver, Willson Contreras and J.T. Realmuto, all of whom were in the Top 10.
Castro’s Achilles’ heel has long been southpaw pitching. This isn’t exactly where Maldonado comes in, as hitting lefty pitching isn’t a clear strength for him, but he does profile better against them than Castro does and has at least produced spurts of promising results.
It’s understandable that Maldonado has received the lion’s share of playing time thus far. Of the nine starters the Astros have faced, six have been left handed. Additionally, starter Zack Greinke prefers to throw to Maldonado.
What isn’t understandable is Castro’s lack of playing time when the opportunity has clearly been present. Saturday’s game against the A’s is a prime example. A tough righty, Frankie Montas, was on the bump. Montas has struggled with lefty hitters throughout much of his career and has excelled against righties, and yet—with Greinke not starting—Maldonado was penciled into the lineup.
There were no reports of Castro dealing with an injury or anything related to COVID-19. He was available to start.
Maldonado put in a strong defensive performance but unsurprisingly failed to make an impact offensively. What’s especially egregious is what happened (or rather, didn’t happen) in the bottom of the seventh inning.
The Astros, trailing by five runs and down to their final eight outs, have a runner on base against A’s reliever Sergio Romo. Due to the three-batter rule, Romo, who is notoriously tough against righty hitters, must face the the 9-hole, which in this case is Maldonado. At this point in the game, every out is crucial for the Astros, but that didn’t deter manager Dusty Baker from leaving Maldonado in the game and Castro on the bench.
Maldonado struck out. With two outs, the Astros managed to drive in two runs before the inning’s end, but ultimately lost the game.
None of this is to say the Astros wouldn’t have lost either game on Friday or Saturday had Castro had pinch-hit for Maldonado in either occurrence, or if he had even started Saturday’s contest altogether.
The bottom line is Castro has a capable bat and can meaningfully contribute on both sides of the ball. He can be substituted for Maldonado with little to no defensive value lost while, in most circumstances, providing a significant boost offensively.
Conclusions can’t be drawn from merely nine games, but even before the season, a Castro/Maldonado platoon made the most sense. Now, with obvious, critical pinch-hitting opportunities having been wasted in multiple games, it’s difficult to see Castro’s role on this team as anything but strictly a backup. Change is certainly possible, but the Astros, specifically Baker, would do well to implement this change sooner rather than later.