Jason Castro has only played sparingly in 2021. When the Astros’ 2008 first-round pick returned to Houston on a two-year deal in January, the expectation was for Martín Maldonado to remain the primary catcher. More than 90 games into the season, however, the split in playing time has been noticeably lopsided. This wouldn’t be an issue if Castro hadn’t produced when called upon, but he has.
In 23 starts — 104 plate appearances — the Stanford product has a terrific .382 OBP and has maintained his excellent double-digit barrel rate of the prior two seasons. Overall, his wRC+ is comfortably above-average at 121. Even when accounting for the small sample size and a likely inflated OBP, this level of offensive output isn’t terribly surprising.
Castro became a barrel fiend during his time with the Minnesota Twins and hit 13 home runs in 275 plate appearances in 2019. Combined with his longstanding ability to draw walks and his propensity to strike out, it could be argued that the 34-year-old veteran is a legitimate three-true-outcomes masher.
Considering how low the bar is for catchers at the plate, a TTO profile is a quality one, especially for left-handed hitters like Castro who more often than not have the platoon advantage.
In terms of defense, Maldonado is lauded as one of the better backstops in baseball. His talent and savvy behind the dish is what’s kept him in The Show for 10 years now. But the simple truth is the right-handed hitting Maldonado is a borderline liability with the stick, as evidenced by his career numbers as well as his current xwOBA of .257, which is 1st percentile among all hitters per Statcast.
Here’s the thing: Castro is also a capable defender. His frame rate is above-average and it has been for several years. He has an abundance of catching experience like Maldonado does. And yet, despite possessing a superior overall profile, manager Dusty Baker has started Castro roughly 30 percent of the time when he’s been healthy.
There is something to be said for Maldonado’s catching prowess and how it can’t exactly be quantified when it comes to elevating young pitchers — of which the Astros have many — but at the same time, a 70-30 split in starts is rather extreme when all factors are considered.
Then when adding in the fact that Castro has pinch-hit for Maldonado just 10 times, the situation in general is fairly egregious.
Too often has Baker let Maldonado face right-handed pitching late in games when the club is either tied or losing and is in need of offense. What happened on June 28 against the doormat of baseball, the Baltimore Orioles, is a prime example.
Down by two entering the bottom of the seventh inning, the Astros tied the game after a flurry of walks. The Orioles then made a pitching change and brought in Tyler Wells, a righty. Following a Robel García punchout, Maldonado came up to bat with two outs and the bases still loaded. At this juncture, the game was at a critical stage. Due to the three-batter rule, Wells could not exit the game, which made it the perfect time to pinch-hit Castro.
Baker passed on the opportunity and left Maldonado in. The result was a strikeout. The Astros would go on to lose the contest after Brandon Bielak allowed multiple runs in his second inning of work in the ninth.
While it wasn’t a guarantee that Castro would’ve reached safely in the seventh to give the Astros the lead, there was a significantly better chance of him getting on base than Maldonado. In that event, Ryan Pressly could’ve pitched the ninth to secure the victory.
Giving Castro an inadequate amount of starts is one thing, but Baker routinely refusing to take advantage of his righty-lefty catching tandem is another, whether it be fallacy or plain negligence.
Going into the second half of the season, the Astros’ skipper would be wise to at least even things out. If the Oakland A’s continue to keep pace in the standings, every game could be crucial for the Astros to win the AL West. Castro receiving more playing time would likely improve the team’s chances of achieving that goal.