Jason Castro is unique.
I don't mean he's a unique flower standing against the spring rains or anything. He's unique because his particular skill set doesn't exist in baseball right now. Not exactly, anyways.
I've talked before here about Castro's defense. Did you realize he was fifth in the National League in stolen base percentage last season? What's more, of all the catchers with at least 500 innings behind the plate, Castro had the third lowest stolen base total. Runners just didn't run on him.
That doesn't mean Castro was without flaws. He has problems blocking balls in the dirt, which I'm sure he will work on as he matures in the position. We also don't have a great way of measuring how successful he was working with the pitching staff. But, for the most part, the numbers and our eyes tell us Castro is a very good defensive catcher.
That's right out of the gate, at 23 years old. That's fairly unique.
Castro also had an unusual skill set at the plate. Not only did he walk over 10 percent of the time (only 10 catchers did the same with at least 200 plate appearances), he also struck out over 20 percent of the time and had an isolated power number under .100. He had a pretty good batting eye, but he struck out a lot and didn't hit for much power.
Just look at the catchers last season who walked at least 10 percent of the time. Castro doesn't profile like any of them. Chicago's Geovany Soto didn't start playing regularly in the big leagues until he was older than Castro, but he also has more power and less defensive prowess. Colorado's Chris Ianettta played about the same amount, but was a year older than Castro when he did it. Ianetta also had more power and less defense. Milwaukee's George Kotteras was an older journeyman who had absolutely no defensive value for the Brewers, but who also hit nine home runs. Philadelphia catcher Carlos Ruiz has a similar walk rate and similar defensive numbers, but strikes out half as much as Castro. Even Mets rookie Josh Thole, though he profiles similarly with walk rate, is markedly different, with less strikeouts and defensive efficiency but a higher batting average/BABiP.
Where does that leave Castro? Well, he could end up like Pirates backstop Chris Snyder. The former University of Houston catcher played part-time for three seasons before almost getting 400 plate appearances in 2007. He had similar walk and strikeout rates and a good defensive reputation, according to FanGraphs Fielding Runs. However, Snyder's not a perfect comparison, because he's shown quite a bit more power than Castro has.
If not Snyder, then which other catchers are similar to Castro?
Well, what about Baltimore's Matt Wieters. Because of a few projection systems going crazy for the former Georgia Tech star, Wieters got a lot of hype before he'd even played in the majors for a game. He's failed to become the next Johnny Bench, but Wieters did have a decent 2010 season. His hitting was down from the expectations, but his defense was good enough to help him post a 2.5 WAR, despite hitting .249/.319/.377 with 11 home runs.
If you're looking for numbers which Castro might hit next season, that's a good place to start. 2.5 WAR would be a great total for the young catcher. Do you know how many Astros catchers have posted WARs of 2.5 or better (according to FanGraphs) for their entire careers with Houston since 1990?
Brad Ausmus put up an astonishing 9.9 WAR in 1,248 games. Tony Eusebio had 7.5 WAR in 575 games. That's it. Mitch Melusky came close in 2000 and Eddie Taubensee topped 2.0 in a short stint with Houston, but no other catcher did as well as Castro might next season.
I'd say that makes him pretty unique.
We won't know for sure what to expect from Castro. His floor is still probably something like Rob Johnson's career with Seattle. He's a great defensive player who never could hit, so he wound up as a backup. Or, Castro could end up like Cincy's Ryan Hanigan if he cuts his strikeouts. Hanigan is also a part-timer, but one who hit .300 last season with a .400 on-base percentage. The Holy Grail is probably someone like Atlanta's Brian McCann, who can hit 20 home runs in a season, plays excellent defense and gets on base 37 percent of the time.
There's a lot we don't know about what to expect from Castro. It's a long season and I'm sure his career trends will start to peek through by the end. For now, though, his future is cocooned in the big unknown. That's what makes him so unique. He doesn't have a good comparable player right now, but there are encouraging signs. For instance, did you know that in the last 50 years, only 11 catchers walked at least 23 times in their debut season at age 23 or younger? His peers in that group don't show a clear-cut path to stardom for Young Master Castro, but it does show us one thing for sure.
This year, let's hope he's also good.