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Houston Astros Reacquire Martin Maldonado, But Why?

History repeats itself as the Houston Astros trade for Martin Maldonado again, this time from the Cubs. But is he really an upgrade?

League Championship Series - Houston Astros v Boston Red Sox - Game Two Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Deja Vu

The Houston Astros have acquired Martin Maldonado at the trade deadline. Again.

Maldonado, who was just traded from the Kansas City Royals to the Chicago Cubs on July 15, was deemed expendable by the Cubs with the return of Wilson Contreras from the 10-day IL.

The Astros have been looking into what they feel is an upgrade at the catcher position, and missed out on Maldonado two weeks ago. Maldonado is no stranger to the Astros clubhouse, acquired at last year’s trade deadline as well. Last year, they sent pitching prospect Patrick Sandoval to the Angels to acquire him. This year, the Astros send recently DFA’d outfielder Tony Kemp to the Cubs for Maldonado.

So let us examine the “upgrade” the Astros have gotten. (Statistics thru 7/28/2019)

Is Maldonado going to be the primary starter?

I would think so. Max Stassi is out of options, so Maldonado’s acquisition means that Stassi needs to be designated for assignment. It seems like it would be a waste of Kemp and of having club control over the best framing catcher in the majors, just to upgrade the backup catcher position. The backup catcher projects to play very little, if any, in the postseason.

Is Maldonado really an upgrade over Robinson Chirinos and Max Stassi?

To give you an idea at a glance, here are the catcher skill spectrum scores for Chirinos, Stassi, and Maldonado over the past 4 years. (For information on how these scores are derived and weighted, see this article.)

2016-2019 Catcher Skill Spectrum Scores of Max Stassi, Martin Maldonado, and Robinson Chirinos

But let us go through them one by one.

Is Maldonado an upgrade over Robinson Chirinos?

Defensively, yes. Offensively, not by a long shot. While Robinson Chirinos has always been a poor framer and thrower (but an excellent blocker), his main asset has always been his bat. Offensively, he is head and shoulders above Maldonado, who hits poorly even for a catcher. Even when Robinson had been mired in a hitting slump this season, he was still able to draw walks. Those walks and his penchant for getting hit by pitches kept him getting on base.

Maldonado is an excellent thrower, but the relative impact of throwing is actually very low. In 2018, the difference between a 90th and 10th percentile catcher in throwing over 825 innings was just one throwing run. Framing outweighs throwing by a very significant margin, and blocking ability also general is more impactful as well. Maldonado is an average to fair framer, and usually among the better blockers, although blocking is the one area that Chirinos surpasses Maldonado.

In past years Chirinos’ plus bat and minus glove, when compared to Maldonado’s minus bat and plus glove, the two catchers’ strengths and weaknesses have evened out for the most part, making them relatively equivalent in efficacy as a catcher. This year however, Maldonado has not been as good defensively as he has been, and Chirinos has been better offensively than he has been, tipping the scales towards Chirinos by a fair margin.

Maldonado is not an upgrade over Chirinos.

Is Maldonado an upgrade over Stassi?

Defensively, not really. Offensively, also not really.

While Maldonado rates as a better thrower and blocker than Stassi, Stassi’s framing is so far ahead of Maldonado’s that it more than compensates. This is best seen in their 2019 metrics. Maldonado has 1.4 framing runs above average, 3.0 blocking runs above average and 0.2 throwing runs above average for a total of 4.6 defensive runs above average in 639.2 innings, per Baseball Prospectus. Max Stassi has 6.6 framing runs above average, -0.3 blocking runs above average, and -0.2 throwing runs above average for a total of 6.1 defensive runs above average, in 210 innings. Stassi has accumulated more defensive runs above average than Maldonado in less than a third of the innings.

But Stassi has been so poor at the plate this year, batting .176. Naturally Maldonado must be an upgrade offensively, right? If Maldonado has been better offensively, the difference is marginal at best. Maldonado has been a poor hitter every year of his career. While Stassi has been offensively putrid this year, he at least has a record of being passable offensively in 2018.

Even comparing Statcast expected batting stats, based on exit velocities and launch angles, Maldonado has not been appreciably better than Stassi’s poor offensive numbers.

2019 Statcast Advanced Batting Stats for Maldonado and Stassi

Name xBA xSLG xwOBA xwOBACON K % BB % Hard Hit %
Name xBA xSLG xwOBA xwOBACON K % BB % Hard Hit %
Martin Maldonado 0.218 0.359 0.286 0.326 21.7 6.9 30.3
Max Stassi 0.213 0.315 0.267 0.357 33.3 7.5 51.9

They have both been pretty awful at the plate, and defensively Stassi has more of an impact than Maldonado does. Maldonado is not really an upgrade over Stassi either.

So then why did the Astros get Maldonado again?

For the same reason they got him last year: to have a reliable catcher to call games and catch the pitching staff in October. Even if there might have been two better options already on the staff.

Chirinos’ offense may outweigh his defensive deficiencies, but if the Houston Astros are only interested in getting reliable defense out of their catcher, it is true that Maldonado is a better defender than Chirinos.

Stassi’s framing may outweigh his pedestrian blocking and throwing, but if the Houston Astros are only interested in getting reliable defense out of their catcher, it is true that Maldonado is at least not below average in any one aspect of the defensive game.

The numbers do not bear out choosing Maldonado over either Chirinos or Stassi, but there remains one aspect of catching without a number: game calling and pitcher/catcher chemistry. My own feeling is that this assessment would have had to come from the coaching staff, and not from the players. Neither Chirinos nor Stassi seem like bad teammates; certainly not anyone that another Astro would actively lobby to remove from the team.

Without quantifiable data, it is up for debate whether Maldonado’s handling of the Astros’ pitching staff is actually worth what is a statistical downgrade from both Chirinos and Stassi. The Houston Astros have taken a side on that debate. Again.

UPDATE (7/31/19, 15:00 Central) Max Stassi has been traded to the Los Angeles Angels (of Anaheim).

UPDATE 2 (7/31/19, 16:00 Central)

The Astros receive OF Rainier Rivas and OF Raider Uceta in exchange for Stassi.