It's no secret that Martin Maldonado is experiencing his worst year defensively this season for the Houston Astros. Looking from a statistic point of view, it's quite a surprise that rookie Yainer Diaz has been overshadowed. No matter what the fans or analysts said over the course of the regular season, Dusty Baker continued to start Maldonado over Diaz in the majority of regular season games and has caught all four games so far in the playoffs.
The thing is, any average manager who dictates his decisions via analytics would consider Diaz as the starting catcher. The 25-year old doubles Maldy's numbers in nearly every statistical category. However, what stats like Defensive Runs Saved, framing, stealing, and velocity do not cover, is comfortability and familiarity.
Comfort surpasses Analytics for the Astros
In general, comfort within a given situation—regardless of the context, sports included—often foretells a favorable outcome. Take the baseball diamond, for example, where a pitcher might grapple with palpable tension. Veteran catchers play a crucial role beyond merely retrieving the baseball in relieving that tension; they serve to guide and steady the pitcher, especially when challenges arise. They also function as a strategic conscience, advising on the appropriate pitch in various situations. Securing victories in ballgames becomes significantly more difficult if both the pitcher and catcher are not on the same page.
Comfortability for Astros pitchers is precisely what happened in both Games 3 and 4. With Maldy behind the dish, Cristian Javier and Jose Urquidy both pitched comfortably out of uncomfortable situations as the Twins hitters continued to struggle scratching across runs on the board. Even when the five walks were troublesome for Javier, he was able to get out unscathed, making timely pitches. For the entire ALDS at Target Field, Minnesota went 1-10 with runners in scoring position.
Former Astro Carlos Correa praises Maldonado
Shortly after the Houston Astros clinched the American League Division Series by defeating the Minnesota Twins, former Astros shortstop Carlos Correa had this to say following his playoff exit:
"[Maldonado] knows what he's doing behind the plate, and he knows every hitters weaknesses and he's gonna try to exploit, and the pitches against the expected slug and he does all that, and we knew it, and still it was hard to make the adjustments the way he was pitching, pitching backwards. On hitters counts he would go offspeed, and the a count where he would go off speed regularly he would go fastballs up."- Carlos Correa, Minnesota Twins shortstop
Say what you want about the analytics, but Correa is right; Maldonado is the guy who pitchers tend to lean on. The intangibles impact farther than his numbers show. Maldonado's expertise on getting hitters out behind the plate creates a sense of ease for the pitcher on the mound.
There's a reason Maldonado joined the Astros in the first place in 2018. When he left for the Kansas City Royals the following season, players urged Jeff Luhnow, former Astros general manager, to get him back before the 2019 trade deadline. It's why he's still on the roster four years later.
Jose Urquidy, who went 5 2/3 innings giving up two runs with Maldy behind the plate Wednesday night, had this to say about him:
"I feel very comfortable being here with this team, pitching here, creating a good plan of attack with my catcher [Maldonado]. I know I've got good offense and defense behind me, and that makes me feel a lot of confidence"- Jose Urquidy, Houston Astros pitcher
Aside from winning in the playoffs, the most important aspect is experience. With experience comes championships. Speaking of experience, Maldonado has fit nicely in this role as Houston's backstop over the years and is defying the odds of his worst regular season yet by turning the page in the postseason.
Diaz Vs. Maldy
The ALCS matchup against the Texas Rangers will certainly be an offensive slugfest. Aside from Texas' periodic struggles throughout the regular season, the team led the American League in batting AVG and has steamrolled through the first two playoff series, sweeping the Tampa Bay Rays in the Wild Card and the Baltimore Orioles in the ALDS. For Houston to have a chance to win the ALCS, offense will be a huge priority. The conversation surrounding Diaz' playing time, given his offensive advantage, will most likely be addressed, considering Maldonado's significant role behind the dish.
Following the end of this season, Maldy is set to become a free agent. This leaves Diaz as the expected starting catcher. With his rookie campaign boasting All-Star-caliber numbers in just 87 games, incorporating his bat into the lineup on a daily basis seems like a straightforward decision.
The question remains: Should Dana Brown offer Maldy another one-year deal to maintain the intangibles and satisfaction of the veteran pitchers, consequently relegating Diaz to another year in a backup catcher role and potentially stifling his development for another season?