Martin Maldonado provided great value for the Houston Astros in 2020.
The Houston Astros have been a dynasty for the last four years but have struggled to find that last long-term piece on the defense — the catcher. The franchise has battled to find a long term catcher, first with Jason Castro and then with Brian McCann. Both guys were great defensively and were reliable, but in 2020, the Astros might have found a cheap replacement in Martin Maldonado.
Maldonado is in his second stint in the Astros organization after being acquired in 2018 from the Los Angeles Angels and then granted free agency. His second stint began when the Astros traded for the “Machete” in 2019 from the Chicago Cubs in exchange for Tony Kemp. The front office brought him back on a two-year deal last offseason.
Maldonado was announced to be the everyday starting catcher, but he didn’t really have much to beat out. His backups were Dustin Garneau and Garrett Stubbs. The 33-year-old played in 47 of 60 games in 2020, which is a great number of games to start behind the plate. You can’t have a guy start every game at one of the hardest positions on the body.
Maldonado had a fielding percentage of .995, which was second best in the AL in 2020 behind Christian Vazquez (.997). Even though the difference was only .002, Maldonado played in five more total games than the Boston Red Sox catcher.
Looking at his offensive struggles, Maldonado had a quick start and was looking like a new hitter, which he was. Catchers aren’t typically known for their great numbers at the plate, but more for their great defensive ability. Maldonado showed the best numbers ever in his career. Even for a small sample size, “Machete” was batting .215 with an OPS of .727 and was a reliable nine-hole hitter for a struggling Astros offense.
Even though these do not look like great numbers, in advanced analytics, this has been one of Maldonado’s best seasons at the plate. These statistics aren’t well known, but one that stood out was his Rbat, which is the number of runs better or worse than a league average players. The reason this stood out is because it was his first season having a positive number (1), while being negative most of his career. This number would’ve fluctuated in 162 game season though.
With a weird 2020 regular season came a weird postseason. The expanded playoffs led to no off days in between games, which would have been travel days, so a lot of work was placed on Maldonado. The Astros wall behind the plate appeared in every playoff game this year; even when Dusty Baker gave him the day off, Maldonado was needed as a replacement for Garneau. “Machete” was second best in the AL among catchers this postseason, right behind Tampa Bay Ray Mike Zunino.
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Although not known for his plate approach, one thing that stood out for Maldonado was his increase in on-base percentage. He’s never been a guy with a high OPS or batting average, and his numbers in the Wild Card round and ALDS weren’t great, but he got on base at a .389 clip in the ALCS. That insane jump was good to see, but the Astros became the kings of leaving runners on while he only touched home three times.
The Astros don’t really have great backstops in the upper minor leagues, so might as well juice everything you can out of Maldonado. Garneau has cleared outright waivers and is now a free agent. The defense ability isn’t there with Garneau or Stubbs, but both are cheap backups.
Maldonado is under contract for one more season and then will become a free agent. Depending on how well he is defensively next year, we could see a cheap contract headed his way as he grows closer to retirement. His grade is based mostly on the fact that he was a great wall behind home plate, and that his offensive numbers didn’t reflect perfection, yet still held more value than recent years. This letter grade could’ve fluctuated on people’s opinions, but the impact of Maldonado was extraordinary in 2020.