Let's examine Martin Maldonado's value to the Astros in 2021

Should the Astros upgrade? Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

Martin Maldonado completed the first year of his two-year, $7M contract with the Houston Astros in 2020. Maldonado got off to a hot start, especially for him. He slashed .259/.403/.448 in the month of August before cooling down the rest of the way. He had a couple of memorable moments at the plate in the playoffs, namely his performance off of Charlie Morton, but Maldonado really brings his value defensively.

The value of a catcher is tough to quantify. Sure there's framing statistics, but how valuable is framing? And how telling is the statistic really? Yes, there's caught stealing percentages, but teams have stealing down to a science, and they really only run when they are confident they can get the bag. Most of the value really isn't quantifiable. How does he handle a pitching staff? How well does he block the ball? How well does he know the scouting reports and opposing team's hitters? These all have more value than framing.

Long story short, the metrics actually don't love Maldonado as a defender. He's a below average pitch framer by nearly every site. Fangraphs has Maldonado at -2.1 in framing, worse than the average catcher. Baseball Savant has Maldonado in the 38th percentile of MLB catchers in framing.

Maldonado was +1 in rCERA, which is an adjusted catcher's ERA stat. Essentially Maldonado was one run above average compared to other catchers in his pitching staff's ERA. However, it's still a developing statistic that can't control lots of factors that are out of the catcher's control.

RPP is a statistic that tracks a catcher's blocking ability. Essentially, how many runs did a catcher save over a given season with his blocking ability. Again, Maldonado was a +1. Slightly above average, but barely.

Where Maldonado does stand out is his ability to control the running game. Pop Time numbers aren't available for 2020, but in 2019, Maldonado was 11th in MLB with a 1.96 average Pop Time. His arm resulted in a 2020 season where he threw out 6-of-19 base stealers (32%). The fact that teams only tried to run on Maldonado 19 times shows how much respect other teams have for his arm.

Essentially, the numbers say Maldonado may not be worth his reputation as an elite defender, but he's still good. He's elite at controlling the run game, and the fact that pitchers and Astros personnel trust him so much as a game caller speaks to his value at the part of his job that is the most important and simultaneously the most unquantifiable.

All that being said, Maldonado wasn't a zero with the bat in 2020…

Hard Hit % - 26.7%

Barrel % - 8.1%

K% - 30.9%

BB% - 16.4%

Chase% - 23.5%

(Above Numbers from 2020)

Almost all of the above numbers are statistical anomalies for Maldonado. The 26.7% Hard Hit % was 8% worse than last season and 4% worse than his career mark. His K% was 8% worse than last season and about 6% worse than his career mark.

However, his BB% nearly doubled from 2019, and it's more than double his career average. His Chase % was also 4% better than last year, and it continues a steady downward trend in Chase % since his 34.9% career high in 2018. The increased discipline resulted in a season where Maldonado had an 8.1% Barrel %, the best of his career, despite the steep drop in overall Hard Hit %.

Basically, Maldonado didn't hit the ball hard as much as he usually does, but he made up for it by hitting it as hard as he possibly could about ⅓ of the time he hit it hard. He struck out way more than usual, but he offset that with a massive spike in walks as well. The result? The second best .OPS of his career, and his best was when he was a rookie in 2012.

Maldonado's 110 wRC+ (Weighted Runs Created Plus) was actually 12th amongst catcher's with at least 100 Plate Appearances. The fact that the guy that was supposed to be the Astros worst hitter was 10% better than league average at run production is pretty insane. Is it sustainable?

It does seem that Maldonado got a tad lucky with his performance in 2020, but not by much. His .2016 xBA (Expected Batting Average) is a bit worse than his .215 actual batting average. His .362 xSLG is slightly behind his .378 actual .SLG. Lastly, his .295 BABIP ( Batting Average on Balls in Play) is an improvement on his career mark of .269.

That being said, almost all of Maldonado's numbers were way out of whack from his career norms, meaning that he may just be a different hitter. There are numbers that suggest Maldonado made an approach change in 2020.

Maldonado's GB% in 2020 was the lowest it's been in the Statcast Era. At 37.2%, it was an 11% decrease from 2019, and it's just a smidge below 10% of his career mark. Maldonado pulled the baseball 48.8% of the time in 2020, 7% more than last year, and 10% more than his career average. His 42.2% Swing % was a 3% decrease from last year, and it was the lowest it's been since 2016.

Remember how Maldonado's GB% decreased a bunch? Well, that decrease was almost entirely picked up by his LD%, which went from 21.2% to 33.7%. That would explain the increase in Barrel %. It also explains the increase in his average Launch Angle from 12.6° to 19.1°. Maldonado's Sweet Spot %, which puts a percentage on the number of balls that leave the bat between 8° and 32° but leaves exit velocity out of the equation, was 38.4%. 12.4% more than 2019, and 10% more than his career average.

What do all these numbers mean? It looks like Maldonado came to grips with the fact that he'll never be a high average guy and he'll always swing and miss a lot, so he's "keyholing" one spot that he knows he can drive and do damage with, and he's actually doing a pretty good job of executing. This type of approach means Maldonado will never hit much better than the .215 he did this year, but if he can compile high .OBP and .SLG while providing quality defense, then he's well worth his $3.5M price tag. The Astros could definitely find an upgrade if they felt like spending on one, but they don't need to by any means.

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It’s the issue that has dominated Astros conversation all season and it gets louder each time Jose Abreu strikes out or pops up with runners in scoring position.

All the announcers can say is, “Abreu’s been making better contact lately” or “Abreu’s long out in the third would have cleared the fences in 12 ballparks.”

Would have. Didn’t. Abreu is hitting .214 heading into Tuesday night’s game against the Blue Jays. And he appears stuck there. He’s mired in a two-month slump with a slugging percentage bogged down at .264.

What should the Astros do with Abreu – keep playing the $19.5 million disappointment or pull the plug and find anybody else?

Let’s put that debate to the side for the moment and dispel one excuse/explanation we keep hearing for why Abreu stays in the lineup.

“The Astros have to play Abreu because they don’t have anybody else on the roster with real experience at first base.”

Cue the sound bite from Moneyball.

Billy Beane: “(Playing first base) it’s not that hard, Scott. Tell him Wash.”

Ron Washington: “It’s incredibly hard.”

Actually, Beane was right. Playing first base may not be easy, but it clearly is the easiest position in baseball. Almost always, if you’re a Major League player, with a crash course in footwork, you can learn to play first base adequately.

Certainly adequately enough to replace a .214 hitter with no power and a $58 million contract.

From Abner Doubleday to Little League to high school ball to the big leagues, first base has been the best hiding place for a poor defensive player. First base is where a lousy fielder does the least damage. First base is where a big, tubby, slow fumble fingers can stay in the lineup and get his rips at the plate. Next stop: designated hitter or designated for assignment.

A first baseman rarely has to make a hard, accurate throw … or any throw other than an underhanded flip to the pitcher covering first, or tossing the ball back to the pitcher after an infield out. Jeff Bagwell injured his shoulder in 2001, could barely raise his right arm, and still played four more seasons at first base for the Astros. Bagwell could hit.

A first baseman doesn’t need to have much range. He has to protect only a few feet of fair territory to his left. Unlike other infielders, a first baseman can bobble a ground ball and still get the out at first.

A first baseman doesn’t need to be fleet of foot. In 2011, Bleacher Report featured “the 25 slowest players in MLB history.” Thirteen of them were first basemen, including Jim Thome, David Ortiz, Cecil Fielder, Mo Vaughn, Willie McCovey, and John Olerud.

Then there was Dick Stuart. He was a slugging first baseman who played in the ‘60s. He was such a disaster in the field that his well deserved nickname was Dr. Strangeglove. Also Stonefingers. Also the Man with the Iron Glove.

Despite his horrible fielding, he made two All-Star teams and finished his career with 228 home runs. He led the American League in total bases one year and finished Top 10 in homers five times. He couldn’t field. But he could hit. When it comes to first basemen, a good hitter will win you more games than a good fielder will save you.

You like analytics? Let’s crunch some numbers. Between 2000 and 2016 a study by the Hardball Times compared the fielding statistics of first basemen with veteran experience to first basemen with limited or no experience at the position. The study tracked 237 players and approximately 2,691 throws to first from second base, shortstop and third base.

Bottom line: a veteran first baseman doesn’t save all that many runs compared to a newbie at the position.

On average, there are 6.4 throws from an infielder to first base during a game. I know, Framber Valdez is a ground ball machine, but we’re talking average.

Most interesting and germane to the Astros current situation, a first baseman with limited experience at the position, less than 50 games, will cost a team 3.7 more runs over a season – an entire season – than a veteran first baseman.

A first baseman will less than 10 games at the position will cost a team 4.7 extra runs over a season.

A total newcomer to first base will cost a team just 5.4 extra runs over a season. That’s less than one extra run per month.

So just for argument sake, if the Astros were to move Yordan Alvarez or Yainer Diaz or Chas McCormick or Mauricio Dubon or (fill in the blank) to first base, the team would surrender only a handful more runs than continuing to play Abreu, who by the way has led the American League in errors four times.

Didn’t Alvarez work out at first base during spring training this year? Backup catcher Diaz got a start at first this week and promptly hit a home run. He’s 6 for 9 the past two games.

The question isn’t how many runs does playing Abreu at first save the Astros, but how many more runs the Astros would score with somebody else.

It’s not that hard to play first.

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