This week, the Houston Astros traded minor league pitching prospect Patrick Sandoval to the Los Angeles Orange County California Angels of Anaheim (or whatever), and in return received veteran catcher Martin Maldonado.
Apart from having a name that is fun to say in a Count Dracula voice, Maldonado is a good fit for an Astros team that has been shivved by the injury daemon this season. In the first week of July, the Astros placed starting catcher Brian McCann on the disabled list when it was announced he would require surgery on his right knee. Best estimates postulate that McCann will return from the disabled list sometime in September.
Maldonado is no danger to replace Astros’ current starting catcher Max Stassi. Stassi, in his first full season with the Astros, could be regarded as one of the best defensive catchers in baseball, and is hitting an impressive .246/.330/.434. His 114 wRC+ is the 7th-highest batting value in MLB among catchers (min. 190 PA). Whether Stassi can sustain that production (he can’t) is neither here nor there, considering Stassi’s defensive chops and long-term utility to the club.
Maldonado is more of a “traditionalist” good defensive catcher, mainly due to his exceptional ability to catch would-be base stealers. In other areas, he is merely average.
This ability to ruin the livelihoods of base runners is what led to Maldonado receiving a Gold Glove award in 2017, the first of his career during which he served as a club’s primary backstop.
The Astros are not regularly stolen against, at least not alarmingly, even when considering the fact that the Astros have allowed only 618 singles and doubles this year, compared to the ML average of 732. Even after figuring stolen bases per baserunner at first and second, the Astros are only the 10th-worst in baseball. Which isn’t great, but isn’t appalling either.
However, Maldonado’s skill of wiping out baserunners allows manager AJ Hinch to schedule his roster construction so that Maldonado is behind the dish when the club is facing an opponent with happy feet, such as the Indians and Red Sox, who rank 2nd and 3rd respectively in stealing bases.
More modern baseball framing statistics grade Maldonado with a hefty shrug. He’s not bad at pitch framing, but seemingly unexceptional. StatCorner’s Catcher Report awards him with -0.27 calls per game. What that means is if by his presentation skills when receiving the ball, he is able to con the umpire into giving a pitcher a strike that should have been a ball (or vice versa), that number of additional (or subtracted) calls divided by the number of games equals -0.27. Over the course of 200-ish pitches per game, this is an insignificant number that puts him right around average.
Baseball Propsectus’ Framing Runs agrees, giving him a -0.0 framing runs for the 2018 season, meaning he has not been successful at stealing calls for his pitcher, but has not hurt the pitcher due to excessive movement leading to extra balls either. This is similar to the man who he will be replacing, Tim Federowicz.
Which brings us to the bat. Compared to the average major leaguer, Maldonado’s 72 wRC+ is pretty bad, in that it shows he is 28% worse than the average major league hitter. But compared to other catchers, his offense is merely “meh”. During 2017, Maldonado “out performed” several major league starting cachers including Jonathan Lucroy and James McCann, while ranking just behind Mike Zunino and Russell Martin.
During 2018, this is a clear offensive upgrade over Federowicz, who has been limpoing along at .206/.229/.294 (42 wRC+). However, from a 2018 standpoint, Maldonado has also been outplaying Brian McCann at the plate as well. Slightly. Very slightly. Insignificantly slightly.
McCann: .206/.283/.323, 5 home runs, 173 PA, 72 wRC+
Maldonado: .223/.284/.332, 5 home runs, 290 PA, 73 wRC+
So there’s that. While obviously McCann has displayed more ability to hit well in the recent past, Maldonado is not a downgrade from the Astros’ overall 2018 showing. And since they have scored more runs than any other club except the Red Sox, the fact that Maldonado is “merely” an excellent runner gunner with adequate across-the-board defensive skills and an adequate bat…well…Houston will be fine. This was an unsexy move that was necessary to stabilize a position of weakness, and should serve that purpose admirably.
On the Angels’ side of things, Patrick Sandoval is a left-handed starting pitcher currently pitching in High-A. The 21 year old fly baller boasts a low-90s fastball with a curve and slider that are still developing. As an 11th-round draft pick by the Astros in 2015, he hasn’t exactly rocketed his way through the Astros’ system. But if his developmend does not stall out, he has some upside if he develops well and could wind up anywhere from a back-end of rotation starting pitcher or a good LOOGY in a major league pen.
The Astros have a very deep stable of quality pitching prospects, and although the system is generally short on lefties, this was a price that they could afford to give their major league club a band-aid as they pursue their third playoff run in three seasons.
Fans will have to wait to see if Brian McCann can come back healthy for the playoffs, and if he does, if he will be able to stand the rigors of regular catching duties. If he can, then great. If not, Maldonado is a quality backup catcher that won’t hurt the club in any meaningful way.