Despite a good start to the second half, Martin Maldonado has not been a serviceable hitter for most of the year – except when he gets this pitch.
Some credit is due for Houston Astros catcher Martin Maldonado. He is not the same hitter he was to start the year. The front office has had faith in him all along and that probably wasn’t going to change given the impact he is having on their young pitchers, but after being arguably the worst hitting catcher in MLB to start the year, he has been tearing the cover off the ball since the calendar turned to July.
Over the past 4 weeks (at the time of writing), Maldonado has an OPS of .817 despite not walking once. He’s slugging .519 in that timespan compared to .357 on the season as a whole, and he’s already 5 for 15 in August. That said, even if he finishes 2022 on a high note, it will almost certainly not be enough to bring his season totals to an above-average level. His offensive start was so rough that he’s still hitting well under .200 and has an OPS+ under 70 despite his recent hot stretch.
There is one single area, though, where he has been an impactful hitter all year. He doesn’t have a good strikeout-to-walk ratio. He’s not outstanding in high-leverage spots. His slugging percentage, again, is just .357. However…
Martin Maldonado absolutely crushes sinkers.
It makes little sense as to why, since he has been dreadful against traditional 4-seam fastballs. Sinkers are usually harder to make quality contact with, especially in 2022 when the era of high spin rates continues to dominate pitching development.
This year, some of the wildest sinkers of all time have been deployed: NL Cy Young frontrunner Sandy Alcantara has a 98-mph version. Yankees closer Clay Holmes has a devastating 17 inches of average horizontal break on his sinker. The best one in the league in 2022 (based on results) belongs to Orioles reliever Dillon Tate, who boasts a sinker that opponents are slugging under .300 against.
How on earth can Maldonado struggle so much with traditional fastballs, yet mash the ones that are harder to hit?
Statcast features a tool that estimates how many “runs” a pitch type is worth, based on its success relative to the runners on base and ball/strike counts. For example, the aforementioned Dillon Tate has saved the Orioles an estimated 15 runs against by using his sinker. The same tool exists for batters; how many “runs” the batter’s performance against a specific pitch type is worth. By this measure, Maldonado is the best hitter against sinkers on the Astros and it isn’t close; in fact, he’s one of the best in the league at it. He has seen 155 sinkers this year and is hitting .368 against them with a slugging percentage of .632, which culminates in a run value of +8.
Only 9 players have been better against that pitch than Maldonado this year, and of those 9, Los Angeles’ Will Smith is the only catcher. Despite that, Maldonado’s minus 8 run value against the four-seam fastball ranks 506th out of 519 qualified big leaguers. He has a .189 average and .389 SLG against traditional fastballs this season.
For someone who strikes out in more than 30% of his plate appearances and can’t catch up to heaters, it seems logical that a high-velocity and high-spin sinker, a pitch that has become more common to the extreme in 2022, would easily get him out. Yet, for some odd reason, this is not the case for Maldonado, even though he hit an appalling .113 against sinkers just a season ago.
In any case, this unique statistical wrinkle is what could make him just as likely to come up with a clutch hit in the postseason as anyone else in the Astros lineup. If a late-inning reliever with a devastating sinker sees a veteran catcher with a .600 OPS come up to the plate with runners on in a crucial postseason game, he’ll probably think he can use that pitch to get out of the jam unscathed. However, that just won’t work against Martin Maldonado.