Strong Up The Middle?
by Jim Silva
The Astros are one of the youngest, most exciting teams in baseball in spite of their ugly start, but their catching is neither particularly young, nor especially exciting. In fact, (yawn), their current catching cohort of Jason Castro and Evan Gattis might be the biggest weakness the Astros have. That puts the Astros in a tough spot. Do they dance with the one that brought them or find a prettier date to go to the fancy dress ball (where the fancy dress ball is the post-season)? As the Astros surge and make themselves appear relevant again, the trade deadline gets closer and Jeff Lunhow will need to decide if this season is a wash, is their catching enough, or do they have a shot at a playoff run that will be worth trading for an upgrade at catcher. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves – first a look at the current state of catching in Houston.
Jason Castro was once young and exciting as he won a berth in the All Star game in 2013 at the age of 26. When your catcher makes the All Star game that is something to get excited about. There is an aphorism about being strong up the middle, which says essentially that your team will be as good as your catcher, middle infielders, and center fielder, so you can see why the Astros may have shown a bit of enthusiasm about young Mr. Castro. But Jeff Lunhow is not one to fall in love after one good date, and when Castro’s bat went the way of Pterodactyls and Betamax, the Astros GM went and traded for Evan Gattis, who was at the time, young and exciting, although only marginally considered a catcher. In fact, Gattis spent his first year with the Astros not catching and it looked like he had hung up the tools of ignorance for good, but catching is hard to find – even marginal to bad catching, so Gattis put on the steel cup and the other accoutrements of the job and started squatting again this season, at least from time to time. It wasn’t so much that all of a sudden Gattis learned some tricks from Johnny Bench as Castro learned some from Mario Mendoza, i.e. how to hit around .200, and that is where things stand today.
What happened to Castro? Well, for starters, his glove is still excellent. He currently leads MLB with nearly 13 runs saved – most of that comes from his excellent pitch framing. His arm is usually around league average, although he has been awful this season allowing 18 steals in 22 attempts. His career caught-stealing rate is 26% where league average is 28%. Bottom line, he is near the top of the class for defensive catchers. What made him an All Star in 2013 was adding the bat to the arsenal. Seemingly out of nowhere he put up 4.1 points of offensive WAR (Wins above what a replacement level player would contribute). He had never, and has never ventured out of the single oWAR except for that shining Camelotesque 2013. Expectations are not your friend – once you’ve done something once, everyone expects you to do it again since it appears to be part of your skill set. Another reason that Castro’s hitting inspired people to say, “Yep, knew he was going to hit like that in the bigs,” was his success in the minors. His career minor league slash line is .293/.382/.422. He looked like a guy who would get on base with doubles power and at least a decent average. Package that with his framing ability and a solid arm and you have a perennial All Star, right? Even before his breakout 2013, Castro looked like that would be the norm for him in the majors. He drew walks and hit enough to make it so the Astros could plug him in and forget about him. Unfortunately, since 2013 Castro’s numbers have dropped each season to the point where he is now batting in the low .200s. In 2014 and 2015 he hit .222 and .211 respectively and today carries a .209 average. In the past two seasons he didn’t draw enough walks to push his on-base percentage close to .300. At least this season he is walking more which has boosted his on-base percentage to .333 so far. Bottom line: he is making way too many outs and now looks like a catch and throw backup or at best a glove first catcher who can hit a homerun from time to time. That is not what the Astros thought they were getting when they took him with the 10th pick of the 2008 draft or when they saw him wear the Astros’ jersey in the 2013 All Star showcase.
Evan Gattis is what he is – a power-hitting, uh power hitter. Yep, that’s what he is. He hits home runs – 81 of them in his first 1593 major league plate appearances. The problem with Gattis is that he doesn’t seem to get much of a chance to wear a glove that isn’t for batting and that depresses his value to a team quite a bit. In 2015, at the age of 28, it had already been decided that not only was Gattis not even an emergency catcher (zero games behind the plate), but he was only an emergency left fielder (11 games in left), which left him as a young designated hitter. There is very little room for decline if you are already at the very end of the defensive spectrum. His bat, and only his bat, would decide his fate. Good thing he hits lots and lots of home runs, eh? Well, yes, but there are problems. Problems like not getting on base. His on-base percentage for each of the last three seasons has been damning – .291, .317, and .285 respectively. Much like Mr. Castro (Jason, not Fidel) Gattis makes way too many outs. Castro has the advantage of a stellar glove where Gattis had no glove at all, or did he?
Someone in the Astros stat head room (that’s gotta be a thing, right?), must have looked at Gattis’ pitch framing numbers from his time in Atlanta and noticed that he was actually a pretty solid pitch framer, having saved 6.1 and 3.5 runs in 2013 and 2014 by his framing efforts. In fact, in 2013 his relatively soft hands saved his team 6.2 runs – solid work from a guy who can crush the ball. In 2014 his throwing cost him and he only saved 0.9 runs, which is not good work for a defensive catcher, but again, if the guy can smash the ball why not use him back there as your backup catcher? Apparently the Astros agreed as they have been using him and his essentially neutral D this season. His throwing in the 14 games behind the plate has been surprisingly good as he has nailed six of the 13 runners attempting to steal on him – well above league average in a small sample size. The only problem with this situation, which would seem like a win if he can play at least neutral defense behind the plate, is the apparent death of his bat. He is still hitting the ball hard when he makes contact; unfortunately he is striking out at the rate of 25.7%, after a 2015 rate of 19.7. This has led to a batting average of .212, which is unacceptable, especially when his increase in walks has only bumped his on-base percentage to .286 so far.
Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. That seems to be where the Astros are in the catching department. Castro is an excellent defender with a hole-filled bat, while Gattis is at best a neutral defender with power who doesn’t get on base enough to warrant his playing time. Max Stassi is the guy who you’d think would get the next chance to be the backup catcher, should the Astros decide an all catch/no-hit approach is the way to go for the second half. Stassi really can’t hit. He can’t hit major league pitching, he can’t hit minor league pitching; he can’t hit in a boat or in a moat; he just plain can’t hit as his career minor league slash line of .244/.310/.413 attests. He has a reputation for being a good defensive catcher, but his career caught stealing rate of 28.5% is just solid. His overall defensive statistical totals look good so I have to assume he is a good pitch framer, but I can’t see the Astros seeing him as part of a championship club.
There is another guy at triple-A, Tyler Heineman. Heineman is in his first full season at triple-A and has eventually hit everywhere he has played leading to a career minor league slash line of .285/.364/.402. With a 39.4 career caught-stealing rate in the minors it looks like the arm is there. Based on his development pattern to date, it would be nice if the Astros could leave him at triple-A for at least a full season. Do the Astros have enough time to wait?
Their catching is a place where they could improve. If the Astros intend to improve it somehow, there are currently two avenues to get the job done: promote one of the minor leaguers or trade for a veteran they know can do the job. Everybody is looking at Jonathan Lucroy who is back from wherever his game went last season. But the Brewers will ask for the moon and a planet with an atmosphere to trade him, as they should. Instead of looting their minor league system to get a Lucroy-level catcher, the Astros should look at someone like Stephen Vogt. Vogt isn’t a great catcher but he is essentially league-average as a defender with good throwing numbers (34% caught stealing rate this season) and he isn’t off to his best offensive season. That said, he won’t be costly to obtain, he will hit better in Houston than in the cavernous Oakland Alameda County Coliseum, and he is already hitting better than the catchers the Astros are running out there everyday. Another advantage that Vogt brings to the table is his positional versatility. Vogt can play left and first base. It doesn’t have to be Vogt, but Lucroy will be incredibly expensive and the Astros catching won’t kill them as is.
Whatever the Astros decide, it had better happen in the next few weeks. If they decide to stand pat, then fine, but if they want to look toward next season, they need to get Gattis right and ship him to a team that needs a DH. I doubt many teams see him as a catcher anymore since the Astros didn’t use him there last season. Once they move Gattis they have a chance to look at their two triple-A backstops before the off-season so they can decide if there is anything there worth using as something other than a “break glass in case of emergency” catcher.