Houston Astros: Houston, we have a Martin Maldonado problem

Jun 13, 2023; Houston, Texas, USA; Houston Astros catcher Martin Maldonado (15) catches a bunted ball by Washington Nationals center fielder Alex Call (not pictured) during the third inning at Minute Maid Park. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports
Jun 13, 2023; Houston, Texas, USA; Houston Astros catcher Martin Maldonado (15) catches a bunted ball by Washington Nationals center fielder Alex Call (not pictured) during the third inning at Minute Maid Park. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports /

Knotted in a 1-1 game in the bottom of the ninth inning with two outs and a runner on first base, Houston Astros manager Dusty Baker decided to pinch-hit Mauricio Dubon for Jake Meyers. Considering that Dubon (102 wRC+ entering the game) and Meyers (101 wRC+ entering the game) were similarly productive at the plate this season, it didn’t make sense for Baker to make the substitution, especially considering Martin Maldonado was on deck.

Entering the game, Maldonado’s 56 wRC+ was the worst by an Astro with at least 100 plate appearances, and it marked that he is a 46% below average hitter; Dubon and Meyers’ wRC+ signified that they were both just above league average offensively. Dubon flew out to send the game to extra innings and when Maldonado stepped into the batter’s box in the bottom of the 10th inning, the Astros trailed 4-1.

Needing a productive at-bat from him to help the Houston Astros get back in the game, Maldonado swung at the first pitch he saw from Carl Edwards Jr., and he hit an unproductive infield pop-up for the first out of the inning. The Astros went on to lose 4-1 without putting up a threat in extra innings.

Houston Astros must move on from Martin Maldonado

Over the last few seasons, the Astros — more specifically owner Jim Crane and Baker — have adamantly stuck behind Maldonado, but his 2023 performance should be ringing alarm bells that Houston has a backstop problem. Outside of the COVID-shortened 2020 season, Maldonado has never been above average offensively, but his defensive prowess, pitch calling, leadership traits and beyond-the-box-score impact have made him an integral part of Houston’s core. However, Maldonado’s defensive regression on top of not being able to hit is making him a massive liability.

Baseball Prospectus’ Catching defense added (CDA) metric, which measures defensive contributions for catchers including all measured catching skills in runs, Maldonado rates 87th/87 catchers with -6.7 CDA. Additionally, Maldonado is within the bottom four of 87 catchers in Baseball Prospectus’ Defensive runs prevents (DRP) and Framing runs (FrmR).

FanGraphs’ catching metrics dislike Maldonado equally as much, as his -7 Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) is 25th/30 catchers and his -7.1 Framing (FRM) is 29th/30 catchers with at least 250 innings caught. Lastly, Statcast labels Maldonado’s Catching Framing Runs -7, 58th/60 catchers.

To put the cherry on top, Maldonado is a horrible hitter and base runner. Maldonado’s 59 wRC+ is 263rd/270 position players with at least 150 plate appearances and the lowest for a catcher. Additionally, Maldonado has -2.4 Base running Runs (BsR) and his sprint speed is in the first percentile.

Essentially, Maldonado has done nothing well on the baseball field this year, and that’s what his FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement shows. With -0.8 fWAR, Maldonado has been the worst catcher in MLB and the fourth-worst position player with at least 150 plate appearances.

Although he’s performed better than Maldonado, the Astros have only given 24-year-old rookie Yainer Diaz 127 plate appearances up to this point in the season.

When he’s been given a chance to play, Diaz has impressed, slashing .277/.291/.521 (117 wRC+) while holding his own defensively behind the plate.

Overall, Diaz has produced 0.7 fWAR, 1.5 more than Maldonado. Despite having significantly fewer plate appearances than almost every catcher, Diaz has the 18th most fWAR among 44 catchers (Maldonado ranks 44th) with at least 100 plate appearances. If he had even appeared in 50 games this season (he’s appeared in 37), Diaz would probably be in the top 10.

While it seems unlikely that the Astros will pull the battery of Maldonado and ace Framber Valdez (Maldonado has caught Valdez in every inning in 2023 and 384.0 of Valdez’s 435.0 innings since 2021), Baker should have Diaz catch more of Cristian Javier and Hunter Brown’s starts going forward.

In the 72.0 innings that Maldonado has caught Javier, he has a 3.50 ERA, whereas when Diaz and another backup catcher (Céasar Salazar) have caught him, he’s only given up one earned run in the one respective start each catcher caught him.

Beyond Javier, Brown and Diaz seem to have much better chemistry than Brown and Maldonado do. In the 46.2 innings that Maldonado has caught for Brown, he has a 4.62 ERA. In the 34.1 innings that Diaz has caught for Brown, he has a 2.62 ERA.

With two of the Astros’ top (and currently healthy) pitchers pitching without Maldonado behind the plate in addition to all of his other shortcomings, it’s curious as to why Baker keeps writing Maldonado’s name on the lineup card nearly every day.

When Yordan Alvarez and Michael Brantley return from the injured list, Baker will more often than not have to keep Diaz out of the designated hitter spot. Even without them in the lineup, when Baker starts Maldonado behind the plate and Diaz as the DH, he sacrifices benching a better offensive player and putting his better defensive catcher as the DH in favor of Maldonado.

Last season, former Astros GM James Click had a deal in place for the team to acquire Willson Contreras at the trade deadline. Even though Contreras would’ve been an upgrade, the deal was nixed because Crane and Baker thought adding Contreras would be a headache and it would be challenging for him to learn a new pitching staff midway through the season.

With Diaz, though, he’s already in the building and knows the pitching staff. If the Astros want to put themselves in the best position possible to repeat as World Series champions, they can’t be afraid to play Diaz over Maldonado for the greater good of the team.

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