KISSIMMEE, Florida — Although he'll turn 28 this June, Jason Castro has really only played two full seasons in the major leagues.
The Houston catcher is still learning how to outsmart opposing pitchers.
"With the way baseball is at this point, there's so much information and video and ways that the opponents can try to gain a competitive advantage by studying you as a player basically, breaking you down," Castro said. "Adaptation is kind of your best tool to combat that. Being able to adjust to what your opponent is trying to do to you is really your best offense."
Castro was an All-Star in 2013, when the Astros lost 111 games. Houston finally began making some strides last year, but Castro's offensive numbers dipped significantly. He's hoping this will be the season when everything comes together — and he can establish himself as a standout catcher both offensively and defensively.
Castro made his big league debut in 2010, then had to miss the whole 2011 season because of a torn knee ligament. There were knee issues the following two years as well, but in 2013 he was able to play 120 games, hitting .276 with 18 home runs and earning an All-Star nod.
That's the level the Astros would like Castro to return to after his offensive performance regressed in 2014. He batted .222 last year, and although he hit 14 homers, he struck out every 3.39 plate appearances, the fifth-worst ratio in baseball.
Houston's 70-92 season in 2014 came on the heels of three straight years of at least 106 losses. There is clearly some talent on the roster now. Jose Altuve won a batting title last season, while Chris Carter hit 37 home runs and George Springer added 20 in only 295 at-bats.
The Astros added another power hitter in the offseason when they acquired Evan Gattis from Atlanta. Gattis was a catcher last year, but he can also play the outfield, so that deal wasn't necessarily a threat to Castro's spot.
New manager A.J. Hinch sounds eager for Castro to contribute through what figures to be his physical prime.
"He's a player that's an important player on our team, and he needs to be himself. He can have an impact on both sides of the ball," Hinch said Monday. "I really believe that he's settling into an important few years of his career. ... As he's getting older and more mature and more comfortable in the league, and getting into his rhythm and game plan on catching and hitting, he's in a great spot to have a great impact."
Although Castro's hitting slipped last season, the Astros were encouraged by his defensive performance. Castro says he only recently began to understand the value of pitch framing — the art of helping your pitcher receive more called strikes.
Now it's Castro's bat that's being questioned after his average plummeted and his strikeouts increased. He's hoping he'll do a better job adapting on the fly at the plate this year, and perhaps be a more complete catcher than he was during his All-Star season in 2013.
"I'm able to adjust more than I was last year, just from a mechanics standpoint, so I'm real happy with that," he said. "Continue to just really improve on some of the things I learned, really for the first time, defensively last year, with a lot of the different aspects of receiving and blocking balls and that kind of stuff."
Two years ago, Castro was one of few bright spots on the team with baseball's worst record. Now, there's more talent around him, which in a way makes Castro's performance even more important.
"He's been a key part of the team ever since I got here," said general manager Jeff Luhnow, who took over before the 2012 season. "He had his All-Star year a couple years ago. Last year we saw some major strides defensively with his game, which were important, and the offense slipped a little bit, but I think that if you can somehow get the offense from 2013 and the defense from 2014, you've got one of the better catchers in the game."
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