The Astros’ Best Position Player

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.



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Matt Klaassen reads and writes obituaries in the Greater Toronto Area. If you can't get enough of him, follow him on Twitter.


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Steve
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Steve
3 years 1 month ago

The ‘Stros best position player is the ball boy. Dude’s been a + WAR player.

Charlie
Member
Charlie
3 years 1 month ago

Astros philosophy: “Don’t spend.”

Astros resulting future: Decreased revenue –> Elongated process to compete

Astros template to follow: Oakland

The fallacy of promising a perennial contender by sacrificing the most important asset, a MLB season, should not be accepted by any fan base.

Steve
Guest
Steve
3 years 1 month ago

I wouldn’t say their philosophy is “don’t spend,” I’d say their philosophy is more along the lines of “don’t spend a lot.” You’re welcome. :)

Jim
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Jim
3 years 1 month ago

I think it would be more accurate to say “Don’t Spend….on mediocre veteran Free Agents who might help you win 2-3 more games if everything goes well”….So much of the backlash against the Astros rebuilding plan seem to come from agents who can no longer use Houston as a landing spot for fading veterans to get a final payday when the front line teams no longer want them….

Charlie
Member
Charlie
3 years 1 month ago

No, spend on mediocre veteran free agents (by veteran, I assume you mean post arbitration years – maybe 30-32 years old?) because of a variety of positives. 1) Potential trade netting more minor league talent and 2) Adding more MLB value to potentially hit the upper end of a win curve. Punting future seasons, which is exactly what they would be doing by trading cost-controlled players, is not only statistically irrationale, but potentially detrimental.

The goal is to put the best MLB team on the field. If the Astros believe an upcoming prospect has will better the team, then certainly signing the free agent would decrease the product on the MLB team.

Witholding money, simply to withhold due to a perceived timeline, can do significant damage on longterm goals – both in terms of revenue and on-field-talent.

Charlie
Member
Charlie
3 years 1 month ago

Also, let me clarify “spending.”By spending, which I should have said in my previous post, I mean short term, cost-friendly contracts that don’t hinder future baseball operations.

MakeitRayn
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MakeitRayn
3 years 1 month ago

Yea this is stupid. I much rather watch Wandy, Norris, Pence, Lawrie, and Melancen battle it out for 70 wins, and keep them around than to wait for Castro, Altuve, Appel, Singleton, Correa, Springer, and Deshields Jr to possibly do anything.

Scraps
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Scraps
3 years 1 month ago

The Astros != the Marlins.

Josh
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Josh
3 years 1 month ago

A’s never try to be the worst or really god awful. They always sign veterans and players that can produce to keep them watchable. Not very similar in strategies.

Kev
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Kev
3 years 1 month ago

They did spend on several low-priced free agents. They just traded everyone last year who was making a decent bit of coin, hence their low payroll.

Crane was actually willing to spend more, but his GM Luhnow that he didn’t need it. The Astros farm system is just about at saturation in terms of depth and to get a top-flight prospect back, you have to buy an expensive free agent. That would obviously be a bad idea for Houston at this point.

Houston isn’t following the Oakland blueprint, at least in terms of payroll. Both Crane and Luhnow have stated that the payroll will be similar to Texas’ when their top guys are settling in.

Matt
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Matt
3 years 1 month ago

Who is their all-star this season?

Matt
Guest
Matt
3 years 1 month ago

Won’t be Castro. Has Wieters, Mauer, Santana all ahead of him. Sal Perez also.

Matt is talkin' to himself again
Guest
Matt is talkin' to himself again
3 years 1 month ago

I don’t think Sal Perez will be sniffing the All-star game unless he buys a general admission ticket…

illinibob
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illinibob
3 years 1 month ago

Weiters hitting .225. Castro will be Astros rep at AS game

Jay29
Member
Jay29
3 years 1 month ago

Castro is #2 in WAR among AL catchers, for what it’s worth.

reillocity
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reillocity
3 years 1 month ago

Don’t be surprised if Altuve gets the backup 2nd base spot by finishing 2nd to Cano in the players’ vote. Altuve is very popular among the players, much more so than say Pedroia for example. Castro would clearly be a manager’s add as a 3rd catching option (or 4th if someone drops out of the game).

reillocity
Guest
reillocity
3 years 1 month ago

I sense a miniature FanGraphs meltdown if/when Altuve and Castro both make the 2013 All-Star team. Two Astros!?

pudieron89
Guest
3 years 1 month ago

A balding pedophile isn’t popular among athletes? you don’t say!

Scraps
Guest
Scraps
3 years 1 month ago

Um, Pedroia’s brother was accused of pedophilia.

Scraps
Guest
Scraps
3 years 1 month ago

Oh, I forgot: You moron.

MakeitRayn
Guest
MakeitRayn
3 years 1 month ago

What does his religion have anything to do with it? Typical ignorant, prejudice RedSox fan.

Richie
Member
Richie
3 years 1 month ago

Good grief, now we’re trading 25-year-olds due to ‘how far we are from contention’?!? Of course Castro can still be a legitimate MLB starter if the Astros rebuilding program goes according to schedule. Doesn’t mean he’s untradeable, but no reason to actively shop him. He’s one of the guys you figure on keeping around.

Charlie up above noted the revenue reason for not just punting seasons. There’s also a production/rebuilding cost to treating your employees as cattle. ‘Really work hard so we can trade you elsewhere!’ does not encourage your players to put in the extra work on days where you really really just don’t feel like it. The odd veteran (e.g., Erik Bedard) who signs with you in return for playing time with which to rebuild his career? Fine. A young player who produces? That’s reason to work him into your long-range plans, not shop him around.

KDL
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KDL
3 years 1 month ago

I don’t know. If I played for the Astros and knew that playing hard and well could/would lead to a trade to any team that isn’t the Astros…I think that might just encourage me to put in that extra work. I really don’t buy the “treating your employees like cattle” argument.

True, you can’t be ridiculous about (see: Loria, Jeffrey) moving people willy-nilly. That will have a negative impact.

But the Rays have seemed to do okay with their strategy of trading most players (esp. pitchers) as they reach the end of arbitration years. And I’ve not gotten the impression that most players are not fans of what the Rays as an organization are up to.

Mat
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Mat
3 years 1 month ago

Ensberg was a boss.

Charlie
Member
Charlie
3 years 1 month ago

That 2005 year will be in my head for the rest of my life.

BiggioHOF
Member
BiggioHOF
3 years 1 month ago

I’d hold on to Castro. He’s a LH bat with developing pop at a premium position, plus catcher is generally thought to be the weakest position in the organization, as far as depth and upside go.

I thought Altuve should have gone last season. I know he’s cheap. I know he’s under club control for a while. I know he’s fun to watch. However, I believe his stock peaked and we missed an opportunity last year. He is what he is. Limited pop, limited strikezone discipline, limited range. Maybe give Villar or Fontana a shot at 2B, or we can continue down the “what-to-do-with-Jimmy-Parades” road and try him at 2B again.

Jay29
Member
Jay29
3 years 1 month ago

The problem with keeping Castro is that he’s only a couple years from free agency, whereas the Astros might be competing in 2 or 3 years. That means if they trade him for prospects as he approaches a possible payday (e.g. after 2015 season), the prospects that come back won’t be ready to contribute right away.

But if they trade him this offseason, it only increases the stockpile of prospects for the (they hope) contending ~2015-2018 teams.

supershredder
Guest
supershredder
3 years 1 month ago

There is also some guy name Delino DeSheilds, Jr. stealing as many bases as Billy Hamilton in the minors.

Terence
Member
Member
Terence
3 years 1 month ago

Uh, DDJ has 18 stolen bases this season. Hamilton has 47.

Scraps
Guest
Scraps
3 years 1 month ago

Approximately!

Donito
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Donito
3 years 1 month ago

Well aware of DDJ, thanks, just not a believer.

He’s running far less this year, his power has regressed (which should be the exact opposite, being in Lancaster), and I’m not sure he sticks at 2B. And if he doesn’t stick at 2B, where does he play? Springer has CF locked up and then you have guys like Santana, Tucker, and probably even Aplin and Wates who are established OFs who’d be ahead of DDJ in an org depth chart.

Even if DDJ does stick at 2B, I believe, by the 2015 rankings, Tony Kemp will be ahead of DDJ in the org depth chart.

Would be thrilled to be wrong.

reillocity
Guest
reillocity
3 years 1 month ago

Castro throws well and has improved a bit at blocking since a dreadful 2012 at it but is a poor receiver who struggles to catch pitches cleanly and does a lackluster job framing borderline pitches. Offensively there has been a noticeable to the eye increase in the amount of carry to his flyballs that dates back to last September, and I would suspect it is an offshoot of some combo of transferring more backswing to the ball via changes to his swing path, a small bat speed increase, or healthier legs. He may actually be underperforming his offensive talents now given the near complete absence of competent major league bats behind him and that he only recently seems to be catching up with lefthanded pitchers in terms of his offensive production against them.

illinibob
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illinibob
3 years 1 month ago

I think his pitch framing is noticeably better this year.

reillocity
Guest
reillocity
3 years 1 month ago

* backspin, rather than backswing

Eminor3rd
Guest
Eminor3rd
3 years 1 month ago

lol Morgan Ensberg

supershredder
Guest
supershredder
3 years 1 month ago

It’s Castro, duh. I already voted for him 35 times for the All-Star game.

supershredder
Guest
supershredder
3 years 1 month ago

I think this article puts a little too much stock in the “Astros won’t be competing for another twenty years and need to build up the farm system” belief. The Astros have an outstanding minors system and are under no pressure to keep flipping Major League players with value to compile prospects. Luhnow has even said that this year they aren’t really targeting those types of trades (unless somebody makes a ridiculous offer, of course). Truth is this team may be competing in 2015 and Castro could be a valuable part of that. Especially when you consider that there is not much depth of Major League ready talent at the catcher position for the Astros. Someone is going to have to overpay for Castro (which is possible) to acquire him this summer, in my opinion.

Jake
Guest
Jake
3 years 1 month ago

“Given his past performance, Castro is probably over his head.”

You’re basing this on a 67-game callup as a 23 year-old and <300 PA in a year where (a) he was returning from a season-long injury and (b) he was banged up? I agree that there will likely be a small bit of regression this year, but I don't think there is enough past performance data to make a statement like this.

brendan
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brendan
3 years 1 month ago

I think the author is referring to his MiLB track record as well.

Raidas77
Guest
Raidas77
3 years 1 month ago

This article seems to look at the year Castro is having and comparing it to amateur and minor league scouting reports, so it must be an outlier. He’s obviously changed something in his swing as he is hitting for more power and striking out more.

If you look at this year only, you might think his power is an anomaly. But if you pull out the magnifying glass and look at the last month of the 2012 season, Castro raked. This year in spring training he raked and then continued into the season.

Kimbal Binder
Guest
Kimbal Binder
3 years 1 month ago

Altuve is money. Signed, able to play every day, decent glove and a bat and speed enough to stay on the keystone. He is 23 years old and may yet develop a propensity to walk more as well. Lots of prospects are still in the minors at this age. Unlike Starlin Castro, he is not devolving even if his OBP is a little low for the top of the lineup. Once the Astros actually have a major leaguer at every position, he will be scoring more and may walk more often as well. If I was in the Astro front office, I would work on his defense and batting eye. He is too quick to have the fielding numbers he has, not sure if he needs help with positioning or not. But as long as you do not expect 15-20 homers a year and 30 steals at a good percentage comes with close to a .300 average? A great 9 hole hitter in a great lineup and a decent 1-2 hitter on a mediocre club.

Ben Melman
Guest
Ben Melman
3 years 1 month ago

The primary responsibilities for a catcher are to call a game and handle a pitching staff. Next comes his defense. Any good hitting is a bonus.

This article had a sentence or two about his abilities in those areas.

Know why the Pirates have turned it around? How about their pitching staff? Funny, how that happened when Russell Martin showed up.

Why are the Royals ranked as the 1st or 2nd best pitching staff in the AL? I’d say Salvador Perez – next in line to Yadier Molina…..and can we talk about how well all the young Cardinal pitchers are doing?

Analyzing a catcher by how he hits is the difference between geeks that never payed competitive baseball, and people that did.

BiggioHOF
Member
BiggioHOF
3 years 1 month ago

“….is the difference between geeks that never payed competitive baseball, and people that did.”

HAHA

Fangraphs,

Could you please update the database to include Ben Melman, I can’t seem to find him.

Scraps
Guest
Scraps
3 years 1 month ago

How about their pitching staff? Funny, how that happened when Russell Martin showed up.

The Pirates throw the fewest strikes of any team in baseball, did you know that? Maybe Russell Martin taught Pittsburgh’s staff that novel approach. Of course, Pittsburgh’s staff this year had the fewest hits on balls in play; maybe Martin taught the defense some tricks when he showed up. Maybe some other explanation is the case; I don’t know, I never played since high school.

Ryan D.
Guest
Ryan D.
3 years 1 month ago

I think Castro is a piece to build around and being a Stanford man doesn’t hurt. I think many don’t realize that the Astros will be back sooner rather than later. So thanks, but we don’t you guys trying to sell off one of few solid assests.

Also, Castro may be an overdraft, but I bet most teams from that round would take him over their pick right about now.

Donito
Guest
Donito
3 years 1 month ago

No joke!

I remember “experts” skewering the Astros for “going cheap” and taking Castro over Smoak.

I’ll take Castro over Smoak every day of the week and twice on Sundays!

Ryan D.
Guest
Ryan D.
3 years 1 month ago

At least they avoided the two Beckhams that suck and Ed Wade was running the draft. Cue Fangraphs nerds ripping Ed Wade…..

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