Quick, non-Astros’ fans: who has been Houston’s best position player so far this year? No looking. It is Jose Altuve, right? It has to be Altuve. He had such a good year last year. You think. And he’s small and fun! And, uh, also, you can’t think of the names of any other Astros position players. It’s got to be either Altuve or Morgan Ensberg. Oh, right.
Wrong. It is not Altuve, Ensberg, or even Craig Biggio. The Astros’ best position player so far this year has been their starting catcher, Jason Castro. Altuve has taken a step back from his 2012 performance (.290/.340/.399, 104 wRC+; .295/.328/.379, 92 wRC+ in 2013), but it is not all about Altuve’s problematic plate discipline and lack of power. After having his first seasons in the majors marred by poor hitting, fielding, and injuries, Castro is having a legitimately good year at the plate so far in 2013.
When Jason Castro was drafted 10th overall by the Astros in 2008, some considered him to be an overdraft. On the other hand, he was thought of as a relatively safe pick: not much upside, but a high floor catcher with good defensive skills. Castro showed decent plate discipline in the minors, but never hit for much power at all other than during his half-season in the High-A California League in 2009. Still, he was a Top 50 prospect prior to 2010.
Castro’s 67-game major league debut in 2010 was not very impressive. While his strikeout rate was not horrible (18.9 percent) and he could take a walk (10.1 percent, although that was very likely inflated by Castro hitting mostly eighth), but the lack of power from the minors followed him. One might have pointed to his BABIP (.250) as probably being random variation, but .205/.286/.287 (56 wRC+) was still really bad, even if Castro was a good defensive catcher (which was not obvious). It was a discouraging start, but Castro was just 23, and it was just half of a rookie season.
Castro missed the whole season due to an injury in the spring. In 2012, Castro did not get much too much playing time (only 87 games and 295 plate appearances), partly because he missed about 30 games with more knee problems, and partly because the Astros brought in Chris Snyder to share time with him (probably in part to reduce Castro’s load as he came back from his 2011 injury).
As far as his on-field performance went, Castro did show improvement overall. Basically, his BABIP regressed (.309) and he hit for decent power (.144 ISO), and he finished as a league-average hitter (100 wRC+, .257/.334/.401), which is good for a catcher. His fielding was problematic in 2012 according to multiple metrics, which was troubling and cut back into his value, but there was hope there.
Altuve rightly got most of the attention in 2012. While Altuve has been scuffling a bit this season, Castro has finally got a shot at being full-time catcher from the beginning of the year and has been pretty impressive for a catcher: .272/.327/.480, 119 wRC+. His walk rate has dropped to about league average at about eight percent. Part of the drop in walks is probably attributable to Castro no longer hitting in front of the pitcher in the National League. Actually, Castro is not hitting eighth at all — he has mostly hit third for the Astros this season, which is a sign that the team recognizes that he is one of its better hitters. (Castro’s backup, Carlos Corporan, has an even better wRC+ at 172, but it is in just 105 plate appearances and his heavily BABIP-influenced.)
In just 275 plate appearances, there is probably plenty of random variation going on. Castro’s .326 BABIP stands out, and that is part of what is holding up his .272 batting average despite an increase in his strikeout rate to almost 24 percent. The spike in strikeouts is something of a concern, especially since Castro’s contact rate has also dropped noticeably.
The decline in Castro’s observed plate discipline is offset by his increased power. His .208 ISO is not just due to his high rate of doubles (22 already this season, already his single-season career high by seven). Doubles rate tends to be subject to a fair bit of random variation, like BABIP. But Castro’s power surge is also backed up by a near doubling of his rate of home runs on contact. He already has 10, four more than he hit in 2012, and in 2013 he has fewer plate appearances.
Given his past performance, Castro is probably over his head. If he was a true-talent 119 wRC+ hitter he would be one of the better catchers in baseball. The Astros probably are not that lucky. ZiPs and Steamer both see Castro as a slightly below average hitter overall, but again, that is pretty good for a catcher. At 25, Castro probably does not have a ton of upside, but he is still on the uphill side of the aging curve. His fielding is something of a mystery, but he does not seem to be miserable. I am not sure this makes him better than Jose Altuve in terms of true talent, but he is probably right there.
Bringing up Altuve in relation to Castro raises a question that has been asked with respect to the second baseman: given how long of a rebuilding project the Astros appear to be undertaking, would it make sense to see what they could get for Castro in a trade? Castro does not have the projected surplus value that Altuve has, as Castro is three years older, goes to arbitration this winter (Altuve will not until 2014-2015), and has injury problems. Nonetheless, an average to even above-average player still under team control for three years after this one has trade value.
Castro has been a pleasant surprise so far for the Astros. Given how bad the team is on the major-league level, though even if he stays healthy, is Castro really likely to be on the next contender from Houston? If Castro continues to hit well and stay healthy, it might be tough in the short term to see him go, but, as with Altuve, it is one that the Astros probably need to consider. It was an issue they did not need to think about prior to the season, but it is probably still a nice one to have.