Going Deep: Jason Castro Is Beasting Out

Ben Pernick takes a closer look at Jason Castro, one of 2019's most unexpected breakout sluggers.

I was tempted to name this article “The Resurrection of Castro,” but this J.C. was never winning many converts. Over the last several weeks, I have been eager to suggest Jason Castro in my weekly Buy & Sell article. To be honest, I actually finished multiple glowing write-ups on him. Then, without fail, just before I submitted to publish, I’d see that Mitch Garver would hit another home run, and I’d gently pat my blurb to sleep and put it back on the shelf. I was, in fact, originally going to write an article about how each of the Twins’ three catchers could all be Top 10 backstops offensively with full-time at-bats.  Their powers combined into a Catcherzord could give the Twins the baseball’s best catcher production by positional power rankings.

Still, even before Garver went down with that nasty injury (Thanks, Shohei Ohtani), I did believe that Castro would win the full time role and yield the most fantasy value, and the reason was simple: Castro is the only Twins backstop who is a true “catcher’s catcher.” His framing rates him among the best in the league, whereas Garver is below-average defensively and Willians Astudillo, while surprisingly solid behind the dish, just never seemed meant to be a primary option there with his versatility.

You already knew Castro was a good defender. What you might not know (or at least didn’t know a few days ago when I started writing this article) is that he has been one of the best offensive forces in the game this year. In fact, Statcast believes that so far, Castro has been the second-best power hitter in the game.  To me, this is crazy. His 27% barrel rate is second-best in baseball, and although his wOBA of .425 is great, his xSLG is even better at .706. Meanwhile, his weighted on-base (wOBA) is strong at .402, his expected wOBA is .450. That’s sixth-best in baseball, just behind J.D. Martinez and ahead of Aaron Judge.

Again, this is Jason Castro. Until earlier this week, he was unclaimed in my 10-team AL-only two-catcher league, and nobody thought this unseemly. Because it’s Jason Castro. The same Castro with six dingers in just 57 at-bats, slugging the ever-loving excrement out of the ball, and it’s not at all a fluke.

Did I mention this is Jason Castro we’re talking about here?

Jason Castro, 2019 .250 .282 .654 .748 .425 .470
Rank (342 qualified batters) 165th 64th 9th 2nd 9th 3rd

So far, Jason Castro hasn’t just been one of the best-hitting catchers in baseball. He’s been one of the best hitters, period.


The Making of Jason Blastro


I think most folks would ride the Occam’s Razor scooter and assume this must just be a funny statistical fluke, since Castro has a small sample size as a part-time bat with only 67 plate appearances (57 AB) to his name this season. And even boring regulars have hot and cold streaks, and Castro has a long track record of fantasy mediocrity. Well OK, to be fair, Castro was named an All-Star in 2013, when he hit .276 with 18 home runs, but that was six years ago, and he just could never again touch that one-year wonder offense. From 2014 to 2017, he averaged roughly a .215 AVG, .300 OBP, 12 HR and a 30% K rate each season with little sign of growth aside from increased walk rate. His last campaign in 2018 was undeniably his nadir, where he hit just .143/.237/.258 over 67 plate appearances before a torn meniscus ended his season, which quite effectively added injury to insult. It seemed his career as a regular was over, but instead of the fat lady singing, it was sung by a Jason Castrato.

But something is different in Castro this year, unlike another unlikely breakout, Hunter Pence, Castro did not publicly announce any swing change, but from the looks of it, he’s doing something very, very different.

Year      Avg eV (mph)     FB/LD eV (mph)    LA (degrees) Barrel/BBE% 
2016 89 93 11 10%
2017 87 91 13 7%
2018 87 92 8 5%
2019 94 101 17 27%

His 2019 exit velocity ranks 13th-best in MLB, and his fly-ball/line-drive exit velocity ranks fifth-best, which is super impressive, but the magnitude of his velo jump is what’s downright insane. It’s not so rare to gain some pop with a swing change, but you don’t usually see a player have a 7 mph jump in overall exit velocity, much less a 9 mph jump on fly balls, especially for a mid-career player. And the numbers bear out that there really wasn’t any way to see this coming. Before this year, he seemed to be spiraling into a downward trend but instead was just a pinball getting drawn further and further back before suddenly being launched into the barrel-shaped bumpers.

The increased launch angle, along with a career-high fly-ball rate of 45% indicate that he’s adjusted his swing for more loft and power, but somewhat surprisingly, it has not come much at the expense of contact, which is the usual price to pay. Sure, it’s down a few points, with his 78% contact rate being below his career 82%, but that’s right in line with recent pre-loft years. Especially in this ultra-powered run environment, trading off contact for barrels is a winning strategy for most players, at least ones with decent inherent power. And Castro barely gave up any contact for a gargantuan power boost.

The only player who tops Castro in slugging percentage and barrel rate is Gary Sanchez, a longtime Statcast darling, and a player Statcast considers unlucky. But it seems as if we’re reading a fiction titled Help! I’m a Gary Sanchez stuck in Jason Castro’s Body!, as their rate stats to date has been near identical.

Player AVG SLG wOBA eV (mph) FB/LD (mph) LA (Degrees)
Jason Castro .250 .642 .425 94 101 17
Gary Sanchez .263 .663 .420 95 101 25

The only major difference is that Sanchez has a greater launch angle, thanks to Sanchez’s insane 59% fly-ball rate. But while Castro hasn’t hit as many balls in the sky, he’s making the ones he has hit count. This level of greatness for Castro might not last, but let’s appreciate that for right now, it has.


A Lesson in Castrophysics


Often, when players have a huge surge in exit velocity, it’s due to a swing change, though he’s been mum on any changes to his game. But we do know he’s a studious hitter. While Jason was playing for Houston in his All-Star 2013, the Astro Castro had been working with hitting coach Craig Wallenbrock, and Castro  referred the soon-to-be-cut J.D. Martinez to Wallenbrock. As we know, JDM went on to become a breakout slugger, and owed his success to Wallenbrock’s swing changes. Of course, that was 2013, and for Castro, the magic didn’t last. In 2016, Castro did attempt a swing change for more power, focusing on studying video to improve mechanics. But he really didn’t yield results until this year, and it’s a mystery as to why.

Sometimes we expect immediate results from technique changes, but that’s not always the case. After an offseason swing change to save his career, Pence didn’t light the world on fire in spring, and it didn’t truly start kicking into gear until a month into the season. Castro didn’t get much time in 2018 to work out the kinks before his season-ending injury, and perhaps the extended layoff gave him a chance to physically recover from the wear and tear of catching every day and time to study how to get his mojo back. It’s not uncommon for catchers to develop their offense later than other position players, since catchers have to focus so much on defense, framing and game-calling early in their careers.


A Look at the Splits


The only recent Castro quote that attributes his success to anything specific is that he feels fresher from getting days off and being cycled in and out of the lineup. Of course, now with Garver out, Castro is going to get fewer breaks and as a result could get worn out more. But then again, La Tortuga is still around to at least give him needed breaks on defense.

Still, one could argue that when the Twins had their three-headed catching monster, they could deploy the optimal matchups in Castro’s favor. After all, Castro has historically had a rather strong platoon split, hitting just .200 with 11 homers (8 per 500 PA) and a 47/204 BB/K, 31% K rate and 7% BB rate in 667 career plate appearances against lefties and .242 with 68 homers (16 per 500 PA) and a 26% K rate and 11% BB rate in 2,142 plate appearances against righties. That’s probably why he only has seven forgettable plate appearances vs. lefties this year, and all of his homers have come off righties. Still, even if he hit .000/.000/.000 against every lefty he faced while hitting like this against righties, he’s still be a considerably better hitter than in years past.

Castro has also improved by hitting the pitches that had plagued him most. According to pitch values, the past few years, Castro struggled most against fastballs, with a -5 wFB in 2017 and -3.7 wFB in 2018, but this year he’s feasted on them most with a 5.5 wFB. This could be Castro’s Dan Vogelbach moment, where by crushing fastballs the hype gets crazy, but the surge is halted once the pitchers find a weakness to exploit.

With Vogelbach, he hit a slump once pitchers realized he was unable to hit a slider. Castro has hit well against every pitch but the curveball (-1.1 wCB). Still, that’s hardly a glaring flaw, and having a weakness against just one pitch isn’t that exploitable (unless it’s a fastball), so he’ll probably be fine. And of course he won’t continue at this rate, with his absolutely unsustainable 37% HR/FB rate and current pace of 50 home runs per 500 plate appearances. But he can still regress a fair amount and still be a 20- to 25-home run catcher. That’s something he has never done in his career—not even in his All-Star year—something that would make him a surefire Top 10 catcher in today’s game.


Going Forward


While the Castro Valley native (Yes, that’s really his hometown; How cool is that?) won’t keep this pace up—a point I’ve repeated for a reason—the fact that he’s actually underperforming his expected stats should soften the fall. It’s rather mind-boggling that in the midst of what is shaping up to be his best season, Statcast considers him to be unlucky. Perhaps part of the reason he’s not quite living up to his expected stats is that so far this year, Target Field has played as a pitchers park—ranked 28th in runs (.746) and 25th in home runs (.738), and about equally rough on lefties and righties.

This could be mostly due to cold early-season weather though and regress a bit, as last year Target Field was ranked 16th for runs and 20th for home runs. Then again, it’s not like all Twins are impacted equally, as while Castro was the 37th-unluckiest batter (using wOBA-xWOBA differential), his batterymate, Garver, prior to injury, was the luckiest batter in baseball—something to also consider for those concerned about Garver’s future supposed takeover.

Speaking of which, assuming Garver does return in a month or two, which isn’t quite a sure bet, the question will inevitably arise of what the Twins will do with all of these slugging catchers. A trade could certainly happen, though I doubt the Twins would deal Castro during his breakout, Garver with his halted stock, or fan favorite Tortuga. I think it’s more likely that they’ll trade C.J. Cron, as teams seem to just love getting rid of Cron for some reason. He’s a brick wall defensively, so Garver probably wouldn’t be a big downgrade at first and would keep him healthy, while Astudillo could continue to keep Castro fresh and be a second Marwin Gonzalez around the diamond. And that’s assuming team Methuselah Nelson Cruz stays healthy at DH. Even if Castro hits the inevitable slump, it seems clear at this point that his playing time is about as safe as any other catcher’s.

If you’re buying Castro now, unfortunately you can’t take his production to this point to the bank with you. But as my Dad always told me, “Huge surges in exit velocity don’t grow on trees,” so I expect plenty more long balls in the future and even more walks as pitchers realize he should be more feared as a hitter on an already homer-heavy Twins team. Fantasy owners may overlook him, as the catcher position has actually become less of a dumpster fire this year, with many former scrubs finding their footing. But I think Castro’s establishing his 2019 offensive upside among the elite catchers, and he’s already reached the point where he should be considered as a must-add in 12-team leagues, and I’ll go so far as to say 10-team OBP leagues should snag him too. In a world where a 20-home run catcher is harder to find than reasonably priced avocado toast, only one man can be picked up off the scrap heap with upside this Castronomical.

(Photo by Keith Gillett/Icon Sportswire)

Ben Pernick

I've been writing for Pitcher List since the beginning, and have been a fantasy baseball addict now for 20 years. I grew up as a Red Sox fan in New York, but now I declare allegiance only to my fantasy teams.

16 responses to “Going Deep: Jason Castro Is Beasting Out”

  1. Nick Gerli says:

    While it certainly seems like something might be in the water in Minnesota with all these power breakouts, I’m having trouble buying Castro.

    You mention that his swing change in 2016 didn’t yield results until now, but that’s not really true. He had a pretty long stretch of success in 2016 only to come plummeting back down to earth.


    We’ll have to see if he can sustain it. Count me as skeptical.

    • Ben Pernick says:

      Hey Nick, that’s is a good point considering the season-long production, and worth noting his 11 homer years were with under 400 PA. His peak is higher than the 2016 campaign, and I wonder how his 2016 exit velo during his surge was also boosted, as it’s the velocity/barrel rate more than the expected stats that has me optimistic. Let’s bet on it!

  2. Jake says:

    Would you drop James McCann for Castro? OPS, AVG, HR, S, RBI, R are the cats

    • Ben Pernick says:

      I would, yeah. Like McCann for deeper leagues but he just doesn’t have that same HR pop.

  3. Bart says:

    Would you drop Wilson Ramos for Castro in 6×6 (R,HR,RBI,SB,AVG,OBP)?

    • Ben Pernick says:

      I would yeah, Castro getting that OBP Ramos couldn’t. Ramos groundball rate concerns me though I’m sure he’ll be better than this.

  4. Jack says:

    As much as I want to buy in on La Tortuga, Narvaez (back when he was available), and now Castro, I was one of the unfortunate ones to have drafted Willson Contreras on draft day. Now I do realize this isn’t anything to complain about, but the fact that nobody seems to want to talk trade with me is, at least a little…no?

  5. Ontilt1377 says:

    Been holding Astudillo all year in my C spot (used Vazquez when he went to the IL). Would you drop Astudillo for his teammate Castro or hold? 14 team 5×5 -1 catcher league.

    • Ben Pernick says:

      It’s tough as I love Astudillo but playing time is king and I think Castro will get more and would go with him.

  6. Swfcdan says:

    And guess who just added Castro once his Garver hit the shelf…nice timing for this post! I actually was getting excited for Garver, now this is interesting too. Dropped Ramos early on after it was clear he was in a funk, definately works out sometimes to gamble! OBP league too.

    Lastly I traded Castellanos and E5, for G Polanco and M Perez. Had a CI glut and needed OF improvement. Also see potential in Perez and both could now be keepers (cheaper contracts). Also think Polanco is on verge of a big breakout and Castellanos looks lost in that miserable lineup. Smart deal or not?

    • Ben Pernick says:

      Yeah I think it’s a smart move but I’d keep an eye on Ramos’s flyball/groundball rate. I was expecting a Castellanos regression but not this far.

  7. Sad readers of Ben says:

    mork calling orsen, come in orsen

    What happened to Ben, he deserted us in our time of need.

    • Ben Pernick says:

      Sorry I’m hosting a bunch of shows for the New York Comedy Music Festival this weekend and am very sleep deprived but will try to get to these questions and stuff!

  8. Storm J says:

    Late to the party but I just added Castro in my 16 team OBP league. Dropped Alfaro. Bad move?

    • Ben Pernick says:

      Hey Storm J, Not a bad move at all! In an OBP format I think that’s a no-brainer, I’d make that move even in an AVG league and in OBP Castro is an asset and Alfaro is a liability.

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