A late July acquisition has provided stability to a position for the Astros that needed a boost.
Martin Maldonado‘s first game as an Astro occurred on July 27th against the Rangers at Minute Maid Park. He was only a pinch hitter, but he did drive in a run on a day when Houston lost 11-2. It wasn’t a particularly memorable debut for Maldonado or a game worth remembering for the Astros.
That said, Maldonado has endeared himself to Houston’s fanbase since his arrival. First, the nickname of “Machete” is sort of intimidating for a baseball player and reminds me of Danny Trejo, which is based on the movie Trejo starred in called Machete back in 2010. If a baseball player has a cool or intimidating nickname, odds are that the home fanbase will like them. Another, and more important, reason is the stability he brought to the catcher position.
When the Astros acquired Maldonado from the Angels for minor league left-hander Patrick Sandoval, the trade was for a defense-first kind of catcher. A catcher than can help a pitching staff and control the running game. When he was finally given the opportunity to catch full-time last season, Maldonado won his first Gold Glove. The offense was a secondary factor. Maldonado, after all, had a career .642 OPS in 1,565 plate appearances through the 2017 season. Before his trade to the Astros, the age-32 catcher had a .616 OPS with the Angels this season. Out of all catchers with at least 100 plate appearances in 2018, Maldonado is currently 38th with a .654 OPS. For context, there have only been 61 catchers who accumulated at least 100 major league plate appearances thus far in 2018.
Ironically, Maldonado has been a surprise with the bat during his time in Houston. In his 44 plate appearances, the veteran catcher has a .904 OPS with three home runs with an additional five extra base hits. Out of his ten hits, only two were not either a home run or extra bases. That’s not bad for a player with a career .644 OPS. Now, I wouldn’t expect this type of production with the bat to continue. We sort of know by now based on his career what type of hitter Maldonado is at this point. But small samples can be insane, and Maldonado is in the middle of surprising small sample.
For a fun example, let’s compare “Machete” with a popular catcher, Marlins’ J.T. Realmuto. Since July 27th, Maldonado has a .904 OPS while Realmuto has a .621 OPS. Now, does that mean Maldonado is a better catcher offensively than Realmuto? Of course not. It just proves in small samples that players can do some unexpected things. The Astros were fortunate that Maldonado’s hot stretch of hitting occurred when the lineup was struggling throughout August.
Like I stated three paragraphs above, Maldonado was primarily acquired for his defensive ability and how he handles the pitching staff. In an article by Jordan Horrobin of MLB.com back on June 8, 2017, Angels manager Mike Scioscia provided the following quote when describing Maldonado, who was in the middle of his first full season as a starting catcher last season.
"“When a catcher has that passion, when a pitcher can feel that that catcher is as invested in this game as the pitcher is, there’s a trust factor built up,” said Angels manager Mike Scioscia, a two-time All-Star catcher. “And when you can be more decisive as a catcher, that makes your pitcher more decisive.”"
Out of all the positions on the baseball field, catcher is the most difficult to completely, and accurately, quantify. Sure, we can measure a catcher’s offensive performance. There are even metrics to quantify defense and even pitch framing. There is also that “trust factor” that needs to be established between a catcher and the pitching staff.
By the way, Maldonado is also in the top-twenty catcher by framing runs. R.J. Anderson wrote an article for Baseball Prospectus back in 2013 that look further into Maldonado’s defense-first reputation and prowess. Here is a description of Maldonado at the time, and still applies today in my opinion.
"Watch one of Wily Peralta‘s starts with Maldonado and keep track of how many pitches it takes before your eyes no longer focus on Peralta and his devilish sinker, but on Maldonado and his angelic movements behind the dish."
Angelic movements, huh? I can believe it based on the short amount of time I’ve seen Maldonado catch. His defense behind the plate is one reason why Maldonado has stuck around the major leagues despite a weaker bat. Combine this strength with his ability work well with his pitching staff, then it becomes abundantly clear that Maldonado has value beyond Wins Above Replacement.
During his brief time with the Astros, we’ve seen Maldonado establish those relationships with the pitching staff. You can see it in how he works with Charlie Morton, Lance McCullers, and Justin Verlander. Along with the emergence of Max Stassi as a capable major league catcher, the Astros are in good shape at the position until Brian McCann returns. Once he comes back though, team management will have an interesting catcher decision to make to finish the season.