Why the Astros can’t quit on the worst catcher in MLB

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Efforts to understand what makes the reigning champion Houston Astros so good — six straight ALCS appearances, with two World Series wins in that time — tend to end up praising, often with ambivalence, their commitment to ruthless efficiency. It’s an explanation that encompasses both their well-earned reputation as cheaters and the success they’ve sustained even in the wake of that nefariousness coming to light.

In the melodrama that is Major League Baseball, the Astros are unsentimental, unsparing, slavish adherents to the algorithm. Players appreciate the team’s ability to make analytics applicable — putting individual optimization within reach for the already talented athletes — but owner Jim Crane has made explicit an organizational philosophy that anyone is replaceable.

In 2018, the Astros acquired then-31-year-old catcher Martín Maldonado at the deadline. Over the remainder of the season, he had an offensive wRC+ of 77 — 23% below league average. In the postseason, he managed just two hits. That winter, Maldonado left Houston as a free agent, but the Astros reacquired him in a trade at the end of the following July. A few days later, he caught a combined no-hitter — the first of three times Maldonado would shepherd Houston pitchers through 27 outs without surrendering a hit.

Four years later, Maldonado is batting .180, he strikes out more than a third of the time, and even the defensive metrics have soured on the now-37-year-old, leaving him with a -1.3 fWAR. Yet since that 2019 deadline, Maldonado has been behind the plate for more than 70% of the Astros’ regular-season games and 75% of their playoff games. Backup catchers have come and gone, and now the Astros have an option in 24-year-old backstop Yainer Díaz, who is slashing .281/.297/.540 — offensive production that is 25% better than the league-average hitter.

Still, Maldonado remains Houston’s primary starting catcher.

“He’s my field general,” manager Dusty Baker told Yahoo Sports. “Yainer right now is at West Point learning war strategy, whereas Maldy’s already been at war.”

‘He has to be the most prepared player in baseball’

Baker’s steadfast commitment to Maldonado over Diaz has been a source of frustration for some Astros fans this season. Injuries to key contributors such as Jose Altuve and Yordan Alvarez and increased competition from within the division have compromised the Astros’ path to repeat. The catching position, when manned by Maldonado, appears to be a black hole in the lineup. On the whole, Houston’s catching wRC+ is 16th in baseball; among 37 catchers with at least 200 plate appearances this season, Diaz is fifth in wRC+ and Maldonado is 34th. By fWAR, he’s dead last.

A certain level of offensive liability is forgivable for catchers with elite defense. But even there, the numbers do little to justify Maldonado’s playing time: The man known as Machete due to his ability to cut down runners has fallen to 17th out of 62 on Statcast’s catcher throwing leaderboard (Diaz is seventh). He’s 25th out of 68 in blocking (Diaz is 16th). And out of 60 catchers on Statcast’s framing leaderboard, Maldonado is last (Diaz is 48th).

Arguably the top team in baseball can’t seem to quit the worst catcher, even with an ostensibly better option in-house.

“It’s not commitment,” Baker said. “It’s what I think is best for the team.”

Even if the numbers can’t say how, based on the results, that has to be true.

“I think there are a lot of intangibles that go into the catching position — and every position on a baseball roster — but in the catching discipline in particular that don’t get measured,” Astros pitching coach Josh Miller said. Last year, Miller inherited from legendary coach Brent Strom a staff that has been an organizational strength.

“It’s not easy to put a metric on: How does he instill confidence? How does he let a pitcher relax so they can focus on executing a pitch, rather than thinking about what pitch they should be throwing? You know, those things don’t get measured.”

The past three seasons, the Astros’ pitching has posted the second-lowest ERA in the sport. In the postseason, they’ve been even more unhittable. Last year, when Houston won the World Series, MLB.com declared that there was no “weak link” on the staff. The year before, when they made it all the way to Game 6 of the World Series, Strom named Maldonado the team MVP at the outset of October. By the end of the month, the New York Times offered the same assessment.

The pitchers deserve most of the credit for execution. But they, in turn, often credit their catcher.

A few weeks ago, Framber Valdez — the 29-year-old Dominican pitcher whose turn from $10,000 international signing to All-Star and ace is among the most compelling Houston success stories — threw a 93-pitch no-hitter. Afterward, he said of Maldonado, through an interpreter, “For me, it’s almost like God put him here for us, to be able to guide us through these games.”

Baker cited Valdez as the pitcher most impacted by Maldonado’s influence.

“They argue like cats and dogs,” he said, “but Framber’s always like, ‘Sorry, Maldy.’”

“He knows a pitcher’s strengths sometimes even better than the pitchers do,” said Tommy Kawamura, who joined the dugout as a game-planning coach this season after serving in the Astros’ advanced scouting analytics department, “as far as what they can and maybe cannot execute as well.”

Kawamura can attest to what is often cited as Maldonado’s most obvious strength: “He has to be the most prepared player in baseball.”

In his previous role, Kawamura contributed to pitchers’ pregame meetings, in which Maldonado plays a key part, and in which his hours of preparation — often late at night on plane rides between series — are evident.

“He would know the report as well as I did,” Kawamura said. “Which, it was my sole job to do that, and that’s one of his many sorts of things. And he knew it. He knew all the stats. ‘This guy, he hit a fastball one time. It was off this pitcher, up away in a 1-2 count.’”

Maldonado estimates that he spends about four to five hours studying scouting reports at the start of a series and one to two hours between each game.

“That’s the only thing you can control: preparation. You have the information. You have the data,” he said. “I think that’s the only thing you can control […] to have success.”

For me, it’s his feel, his feel for the game

Now back on the Astros after what he says feels, in retrospect, like a summer abroad, Justin Verlander admits that sometimes he and Maldonado disagree about which pitch to throw. And often, the three-time Cy Young Award winner has to accept that the catcher is right.

“I didn’t say he was right,” Verlander clarified. “I said I like his idea. I’ll never give that much.”

Unlike many top pitchers, including his short-lived co-ace, Max Scherzer, Verlander does not call his own games, even though PitchCom technology makes that possible. He likes the ongoing input of another perspective, likes his catchers to learn his thought process through an implied dialogue, and through Maldonado, he has learned to appreciate the times when the catcher’s calls go off-script.

“For me, it’s his feel, his feel for the game, for the moment, the hitter, his instincts, swing recognition,” he said. “You can come up with the best game plan in the world, but what analytics can’t do is tell you: Is that hitter actively adapting in the batter’s box? Is he actively trying to hit a certain pitch because he knows that that’s what we’re throwing him? And that’s the game of baseball.”

According to the Astros, Maldonado has two distinct, complementary, superlative skills. There’s his peerless pregame preparation, and then there’s his uncanny instincts behind the plate.

Or, as former Astros great and current Yankees ace Gerrit Cole put it: “It’s a combination of both. He’s really great at reading swings, and he’s really great on the computer.”

Maldonado credits more than a decade of playing winter ball in his home country of Puerto Rico — where the scouting reports are more limited — for honing his ability to notice and interpret subtle inflections in batters’ body language.

“Some of that stuff is almost imperceptible on a broadcast,” Kawamura said. “Where he’s like, ‘I swear, he’s closer to the plate.’ And you know, if you look at some human body tracking data, it’s like, ‘Oh, yeah, he was right. The guy was half an inch closer.’ Something like that, where you can’t even almost notice it, unless you’re right there and have the instincts for it, essentially.”

That aspect of the game can be difficult to quantify. But the ability to detect tips on a particular swing or pitcher delivery in real time has long been valued. Especially as the access to and amount of data available away from the field becomes more universal, those in-game adjustments can make all the difference.

‘He’s a fighter. He’s a boxer’

The third key element is attitude.

When the trade for Verlander was officially completed, the pitcher texted Maldonado to say, “Let’s f***ing go!” The catcher replied with a gif of the future Hall of Famer flopped on the ground, failing to make a defensive play.

“Which means he loves me,” Verlander said.

“He’s very open and loud, occasionally. You can only have so many silent leaders, I think, in a clubhouse. You need some that are willing to stand on a soapbox and tell you what it is,” the pitching coach Miller said. “Sometimes that means he’s got to be the bad guy and be mean, so to speak, to somebody to get the best out of them. Sometimes you’ve got to build him up and pat them on the butt. You know, I think he has a good feel for which way to go.”

“Well, he’s a fighter. He’s a boxer,” Cole said — and he means that literally. “Yeah, no, he can hit.

“But he’s just very loving. He’s a huge advocate of his pitcher. Really great instilling confidence, whether it be from letting somebody else take the lead or saying, like, ‘Hey, I’m gonna steer this right now. You need to shut up.’ Somehow he does that in a loving way.”

Or, as Maldonado’s manager put it: “He’s a God-fearing man that’s also borderline gangster.”

‘That’s the only time I’ll get a new one’

The Valdez no-hitter was the third Maldonado has caught — and first by a single pitcher — in Major League Baseball. Only two catchers in MLB history have caught more. This past spring, Maldonado caught the first combined perfect game in World Baseball Classic history with Team Puerto Rico.

After each, Maldonado retired the mask he wore for the game, hanging them on the wall in his living room.

“That’s the only time I’ll get a new one,” he said.

Even with Diaz openly dubbed the team’s future at the position, it’s possible the same could be said of the Astros and catchers — only when Maldonado retires will they get a new one. Or maybe not. This is his final year under contract with the team. The past two general managers have traded for him twice (Jeff Luhnow) and signed him to an extension (James Click). But there’s a new regime now and an obvious successor not so much waiting in the wings as capitalizing on every chance he gets.

In addition to the masks, Maldonado maintains mementos from those singular performances in the form of gifts from the pitchers involved: a Rolex from the first no-hitter and fancy bottles of whiskey from the second and the perfect game. (Valdez has yet to proffer a similar token of gratitude, but it could still be coming.)

Maldonado wears the watch, but he hasn’t cracked open the whiskey yet.

“We’ll see,” he said, “maybe when I retire.”

But he gives no indication of when that will be.

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