While A.J. Pierzynski struggled through much of the 2010 season, Ramon Castro succeeded. While a heap of previous White Sox backup catchers have had poor offensive seasons in past years—Castro being one of them in 2009—it was Castro who finally broke the White Sox backup catcher curse to have a good offensive year behind Pierzynski.
Pierzynski had struggled offensively in previous years, but he never had any legitimate competition for playing time from a backup catcher. That is, until this year.
But, despite Castro’s offensive prowess earning him the nickname “Blastro,” he didn’t see more playing time than previous White Sox backups. Granted, Castro missed the first month of the season, but he only played 37 games—the same number in which Toby Hall appeared in 2007 and 2008. The last White Sox backup to play more than 40 games was Chris Widger, who did so in 2005.
So there are a few questions to answer about Castro’s 2010: 1) Should he have played more? 2) Can he be more than a backup catcher? 3) Should the White Sox pick up his option? And 4) If he is brought back, in what capacity should it be?
Stats and stuff
- fWAR: 1.1
- FanGraphs page
- bWAR: 1.0
- Baseball-Reference page
A bruised right heel kept Castro from playing with the White Sox until May 6. He looked like the same player he was in 2009 (.184/.262/.382) early on, posting a .158/.238/.316 in seven games in May.
But as the White Sox took off in June, so did Castro. Thanks to a solid month at the plate by Pierzynski, Castro only played in five June games, but in those games he raised his season OPS from .554 to .885.
He started to play more in July and August, starting 13 games with a .998 OPS in those months. Castro struggled through the season’s final month, though, posting a .388 OPS in September.
While that last month put somewhat of a damper on Castro’s season, it didn’t take away from his final .278/.328/.504 season slash line.
The eight home runs Castro hit in 2010 were just four fewer than the 12 hit by all White Sox backup catchers in the five years since Pierzynski came to the White Sox. In fact, of the 20 home runs hit by backup catchers during the Pierzynski era, 12 of them have come off the bat of Castro.
The knee-jerk reaction to Castro’s season was that he had success because all he did was face left-handed pitching. While Castro murdered lefties (.406 wOBA), he only had 38 plate appearances against southpaws.
In fact, much of Castro’s success came against right-handed pitching. In 90 plate appearances against righties, Castro posted a .341 wOBA, 35 points higher than Pierzynski’s .306 clip against right-handers.
Referring back to the first question I posed (should Castro have played more?), yes, he should’ve seen more playing time, at least against left-handers. Pierzynski posted an anemic .288 wOBA in 121 plate appearances against lefties, and while Castro’s sample size was very small, he should’ve at least been given the chance to fail as opposed to the almost guaranteed failure of Pierzynski against lefties.
But what about handling the pitching staff?
This is a common qualm raised by Pierzynski supporters who didn’t think Castro should play more. And, on its surface, that pitchers had a 3.95 ERA with Pierzynski behind the plate as opposed to 4.48 with Castro is a point in Pierzynski’s favor.
Castro wasn’t Freddy Garcia’s personal catcher, but he caught Garcia 14 times—double the next-highest total (six starts for Gavin Floyd). Pierzynski caught Garcia 12 times.
Let’s compare the numbers side-by-side:
Garcia with Castro: 77 IP / 22 BB / 48 K / 11 HR / .858 OPS / 4.79 ERA / .328 BABIP
Garcia with Pierzynski: 71 IP / 18 BB / 36 K / 10 HR / .708 OPS / 3.68 ERA / .246 BABIP
I’m not a huge fan of ERA, but it’s all Baseball-Reference has in its catcher splits. Looking at the things Garcia can control—walks, strikeouts, and home runs—those numbers aren’t significantly different, especially in a small sample size of ~70 innings. His BB/K with Castro was 2.18, with Pierzynski, it was 2.00. That’s the only slightly significant difference for the things Garcia could control.
What Garcia—or Castro—couldn’t necessarily control was that .328 BABIP. That’s high when considering Garcia’s .291 career BABIP, and is odd considering Garcia’s .246 BABIP with Pierzynski behind the plate.
Did Garcia just get lucky with Pierzynski behind the plate? Was his command worse with Castro catching, leading to harder-hit balls and a higher BABIP? And did either catcher really have anything to do with those differences?
A lot of Garcia’s successful starts in 2010 were predicated on luck. FanGraphs’ tERA—a stat that implements the components of FIP along with batted ball data—shows that Garcia (5.44 tERA) was hit fairly hard in 2010. That’s not surprising given his 21.1 line drive rate.
Let’s take Garcia’s worst starts in terms of results this year. I’ll say he had six, using games in which he failed to go six innings and allowed four or more runs as a cutoff. That gives us this list of outcomes and catchers:
April 15 (7 ER/3.0 IP): Donny Lucy
May 23 (7 ER/2.1 IP): A.J. Pierzynski
June 15 (4 ER/5.2 IP): Ramon Castro
July 24 (5 ER, 1.1 IP): Ramon Castro
August 10 (6 ER, 2.1 IP): Ramon Castro
August 15 (5 ER, 5.0 IP): Ramon Castro
So Castro was behind the plate for four of Garcia’s six bad outings (three of five, if you want to drop June 15), and that’s why you see the ERA gulf between Castro and Pierzynski.
But were those bad starts by Garcia really Castro’s fault? Could Pierzynski’s magical game-calling abilities prevented those bad outings?
No. Absolutely not. Pierzynski can’t wave a wand and give Garcia his stuff back when he didn’t have it. Those bad outings by Garcia were because he was throwing Ed Harris-style junk and opponents were crushing it. They had nothing to do with Castro’s game-calling abilities.
And that’s usually the case with catchers. Sure, some catchers do work better with pitchers than others, and sure, some catchers are more observant of hitters’ holes within at-bats.
But there’s far too much emphasis placed on Pierzynski’s ability to handle the pitching staff. In a larger sample size, Castro likely would not have raised the White Sox’s staff ERA. To say he would have would not only be an unfair knock on Castro, but an unfair knock on Don Cooper and the White Sox’s advance scouts—who, remember, do a lot of game-planning for opponents to help the team’s catchers.
The point here is this: Pierzynski’s supposed ability to handle the White Sox’s pitching staff is not exclusive and should not be used as a reason as to why Castro did not play more.
Can he be more than a backup?
This breaks down into two questions. First, can he be a starter?
No. Castro has played more than 81 games once in his career, that being in 2005 with the Mets. He broke into the big leagues as a backup, and for someone who will be 35 on opening day next year, he’ll stay a backup.
But secondly, can he handle an increased workload to 60 or so games as a sort of platoon player?
This a question the White Sox will want to address this offseason. If Castro’s $1.2 million club option is exercised, should he be given an increased workload to go along, say, Tyler Flowers?
That Castro will be 35 next year doesn’t help his case. But he has a history of being an on-and-off good offensive catcher, producing average or above-average offense (by wRC+) in six of his 11 seasons in the majors.
Maybe 60 games is pushing it in terms of a workload, though. Castro hasn’t caught 60+ games since catching 99 in 2005. His recent high was 57 in splitting time between the Mets and White Sox in 2009.
Somewhere in the 50 range might be realistic, which would put him in a very normal range for a backup catcher. So if Castro is brought back—which, at $1.2 million, I don’t see why not—the capacity in which he should be brought back would be that of simply a normal backup catcher.
Obviously, someone is going to have to fill those other 110 games, whether it be Pierzynski, Flowers, or someone outside the organization. A true platoon with Castro won’t work, but a catching system with Castro as a true backup should work.