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Maldonado’s Career Year: Is regression in store?

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Texas Rangers v Houston Astros Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

The Astros are known to be a big believer in Martin Maldonado. So much so that they traded for him not once, but twice. After the first time they traded for him, they attempted to sign him to a 2 year, $12 Million dollar deal - but he ended up firing Scott Boras for the poor advice/communication which resulting in him signing a 1-year $3 Million dollar deal. The Astros acquired Machete again at last years trade deadline, and locked him in for a 2-year $7 Million dollar contract.

During the first trade, there was some ire and disappointment as the trade rumors and speculation around Realmuto led to disappointment with a lower tier catcher. From there, Maldonado had earned the respect of his pitchers, often with them vocally speaking out in encouragement. I was admitted a bit perplexed in regards to Maldonado as a defense first catcher that rated poorly in framing and passed balls, particularly with the Astros analytical approach.

This year though, Maldonado is having a career year already earning the same amount of WAR as he did in 105 games last season.

The 34 year old veteran has played across 9 seasons (10 if you count the 3 game cup of coffee in 2011). Up until this year, he’s never once produced league average offense falling just short in 2012 and 2014 with a 94 wRC+. Maldonado’s claim to fame was his arm, cutting down 129 attempted base runners.

This year though, Maldonado has actually been an above average performer (111 wRC+) with his triple slash coming in at .221/.346/.389. And while a .735 OPS wont win you any MVP races, you can’t help but notice the drastic improvement from his historical performance.

The question then is if this is a sustainable new approach or simply a blip on the radar with the caveat of small sample size. His BABIP at .303 technically doesn’t indicate him receiving a large amount of BABIP luck, but it is a tick above his career .270 mark and given his speed, there’s likely some good fortune in his current numbers. His wOBA of .323 is nearly exact to his xwOBA of .324, which supports the notion that he is earning these results.

So how did Maldonado turn it around? Well, the simplest answer, is he’s getting walked A LOT. For his career, Maldonado has seen 3.85 pitches per plate appearance, Maldonado is up to 4.18 in 2020. This has jumped his BB% to 15.2% (career 7.4%). Unfortunately, he’s also seen a notable increase in strike-outs coming in at 31% (career 24.6%).

As you dig in a little deeper other strange aspects stick out. This year is the lowest contact % that Maldonado has ever had (73.9%), but he’s also seeing the least number of pitches in the zone of his career (43%). From a batted ball perspective, Maldonado has the lowest hard hit ball % of his career. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Maldonado has begun to elevate the ball, drastically increasing his launch angle, dropping his ground ball % to a career low (by a significant margin), and his highest line drive % by nearly 10%! That’s a remarkable turn around and explains the xwOBA and BABIP differentials.

Looking at this information, you can see a clear difference in Maldonado’s approach. It has fundamentally changed and while it’s still a small sample size the advanced statistics indicate that he could continue to produce at this level.

My only caveat about predicting on-going production at this level is that Maldonado is walking at a remarkably high level. His 15.2% would rank 15th among all qualified batters (he’s not quite eligible, but ranks 19th overall on all batters with 150+ PA. At twice his career rate, and with just a .389 SLUG you have to wonder if Maldonado will be able to continue perform as pitchers adjust their approach on attacking him. Maldonado will need to keep a strict approach and watch for fastballs in the zone which he has absolutely crushed this year.

What do you think? Will Maldonado continue to be an above average offensive performer? What are your thoughts on his season so far?