Castro Moves Up

l megdal 5 Castro Moves UpA day game after a night game is normally the province of a baseball team’s backup catcher. Why, then, was Brian Schneider, the man Omar Minaya described as his “regular catcher” when the Mets acquired him this winter, in the starting lineup for the July 10 day game against the Giants?

It’s because Ramon Castro, whose strong bat has been a big part of New York’s recent success, had played the night before—a far more regular occurrence since Jerry Manuel took over as manager from Willie Randolph.

“It does feel better to be playing more,” the 32-year-old Castro said as he put on his uniform in front of his locker Thursday afternoon, prior to New York’s game against the San Francisco Giants. “I am getting to see more pitches. It’s helping my hitting.”

Further evidence of that came Wednesday night, when Castro, the longtime backup for the Mets, and prior to that, the Marlins, clubbed a three-run home run off of a Jonathan Sanchez slider to help pace the Mets to a 5-0 victory.

The home run wasn’t the part Castro was focused on the next day; it was the slider. Most of Castro’s home runs with the Mets have come on fastballs, he said.

“But when I get to see more pitches, I have a better chance to hit the slider,” he said.

It is undeniable that Manuel has taken greater advantage of Castro’s offense than Randolph did. From the moment Castro came off of the disabled list on May 10, Randolph started Castro in just 12 of 34 games until the manager was fired. This came on the heels of a 2007 when Randolph gave Castro just 35 starts all season. But since Manuel took over, Castro has started in 10 of 22 games.

“Manuel’s a great manager,” Castro said, drawing a smile from his next-door locker neighbor, Jose Reyes. “I’m playing more.”

It wasn’t exactly a risky move to find more room in the lineup for Castro, particularly in an offense-starved lineup like New York’s. Last season, Castro received 144 at-bats, while starter Paul Lo Duca claimed 445—odd, since Castro put up a .285/.331/.556 line, and Lo Duca sported a .272/.311/.378 mark. To put that in perspective, Lo Duca’s offense was 20 percent below league average, while Castro’s was 27 percent above league average.

Castro turned down several other starting opportunities this past winter, when he was a free agent, in order to return to New York.

“I like it here,” he said. “This team gave me a chance when the Marlins took me off of their roster. I wanted to make it here.”

Once again, Castro had been losing out on playing time to a lesser offensive player. In 2008, Brian Schneider’s line was .250/.326/.300 entering Thursday’s game, good for production 30 percent below league average. Castro in 2008 is at .274/.354/.466, and under Manuel, .265/.324/.500.

To put his .819 OPS in perspective, only seven starting catchers in baseball have a better mark—and four of those are All Stars.

Of course, Brian Schneider is known primarily for his defense. But here, too, Castro isn’t awful: he has thrown out 4 of 13 runners in 2008, a 31 percent mark, better than the league average of 25.9.

“I’m working on everything,” Castro said. “I need to stay ready.”