Fresh off a multiweek stint on the injured list with right knee soreness, Astros catcher Jason Castro has quickly made an impact, particularly in pressure-packed situations. In two days since being activated, Castro smacked a leadoff double to start the bottom of the ninth inning in Friday’s dramatic win over the D-backs, and he laced an RBI single to start the 10th on Saturday.
“I think that's great,” said Astros manager Dusty Baker, who was asked about Castro’s clutch hits late in games. “It's a bit surprising, because he was out for a while and he didn't have a bunch of rehab games. But he's coming through for us, big time, and this is what we need.”
For Castro, this season's offensive performance has been a tale of two halves. Before the All-Star break, Castro had a slash line of .232/.382/.366, which made for a very respectable .748 OPS at the catcher position. But from the All-Star break until landing on the IL on Aug. 29, Castro's numbers plummeted to .114/.188/.273, or a .460 OPS.
Castro recently told reporters that he had experienced increasing pain during that period in his right knee, which he’s had surgically repaired four times. Castro said it wasn't one specific injury, but more generalized swelling and bruising, and he needed to shut things down for a bit and give it time to rest.
While the sample is certainly small, the early indications are that the time off may have worked exactly as intended.
“You can't always come through, but he has the last couple times, and that adds to his confidence level for the next time,” Baker said of Castro.
For defensive purposes, Martín Maldonado remains Houston’s primary catcher. But in addition to being able to give Maldonado some days off, Castro’s presence gives Baker the option to pinch-hit for Maldonado in close/late situations without using up a pinch-hitter and then having to insert a backup catcher. This allows him to potentially save his non-catcher bench options for other situations. In theory, that versatility might even allow the Astros to carry an extra pitcher on the roster.
In 2021, Castro has flourished in that type of role. Off the bench, Castro has a slash line of .364/.462/.500 (.962 OPS), and his line in “close and late” situations is even better at .361/.465/.583 (1.048 OPS). Close and late is defined as plate appearances in the seventh inning or later with the batting team tied, ahead by one or having the tying run at least on deck.
Given Maldonado's clear limitations as a hitter, as shown in his .171 batting average and .566 OPS entering Sunday, a healthy Castro could be sneaky important to the AL West-leading Astros as they wind down the 2021 regular season and prepare for another postseason run in October.