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Digging Deeper Into Martín Maldonado’s Early Season Struggles

The veteran catcher’s offensive numbers have taken a plunge in April.

MLB: Oakland Athletics at Houston Astros Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Arguably the Astros’ most valuable player in 2020 based on the opinion of Lance McCullers Jr., Martín Maldonado brings plenty to the table in terms of both tangible and intangible attributes. Not only is he considered a plus defender at the catcher position, but his ability to greatly assist a pitching staff behind the plate goes without question. As long as his bat doesn’t completely crater, his presence on the roster is easily considered a net positive. That is the general school of thought concerning the veteran backstop.

The 2020 season, however, was an interesting season for everyone. Some players struggled mightily — Jose Altuve, for example — while others flourished. It was no different for Maldonado, whose offensive profile was an interesting one to watch. For instance, he managed to post a career-high walk rate (16.4 percent) in addition to arguably his best overall performance as a hitter in his career (110 wRC+). While his strikeout rate also climbed to career-high levels (30.9 percent), there was hope that some of those improvements could carry over into 2021. An approach change, for instance.

While we’re only 22 games into the 2021 season, those improved offensive numbers haven’t carried forward for Maldonado. In fact, we’re witnessing one of the drastic drops in his offensive performance in recent memory based on his 15-game rolling average by wOBA.

When reviewing Maldonado’s offensive profile from last season, it was clear that his offensive value was primarily driven by his propensity to get on-base. That .350 on-base value in 165 plate appearances was easily a career-high for him and much higher than his current career mark of .291. As we’ve seen historically with Maldonado, when he fails to get on-base, his offensive production also suffers.

As I mentioned earlier, Maldonado posted a career-high walk rate of 16.4 percent, which was an unexpected development in 2020. With 165 plate appearances, he actually passed the threshold of 120 plate appearances for the metric to begin to stabilize a bit. If we combine this season’s 53 plate appearances, that rate drops to 14.2 percent, but that remains slightly less than double his 7.5 percent career average. Incidentally, that career rate is his current mark for this season. But a 24:4 strikeout-to-walk ratio isn’t a positive trend to see develop nearly a month into the season.

But Maldonado’s issues are not just limited to his decreased walk rate. We can also see his struggles extending to his ability to make contact and, when he does, it isn’t the best kind of contact for a hitter with his profile. In fact, his overall contact rate is down roughly 12.5 percent compared to his career average; for something a bit more recent, there is a 14.6 percent decline compared to his 2019 season. This contact decrease is driven by pitches thrown both inside and outside of the strike zone. When he does make contact, he is hitting a ground ball 54.2 percent of the time. Hitting a ground ball, more or less, neutralizes Maldonado from a hitting perspective.

However, his swing rate (43 percent) isn’t too far off from his rate in each of the past two seasons. And while his chase rate hasn’t deviated much from past seasons, he is missing more when he does chase out of the zone. The same goes for his overall swing and miss rate this season.

To condense everything above, here is a summarized list of Maldonado’s issues as a hitter in 2021:

  • Walking less,
  • striking out more,
  • when he does chase outside, he is missing more than before,
  • generating less contact,
  • and that contact is translating to more ground balls, fewer fly balls.

Combine all of these factors, and it is clear to see why the veteran catcher is struggling offensively. He is just a mess overall at the plate. The good news is that the season doesn’t end in April, and there is time for him to improve. Missing a week due to COVID-19 health protocols didn’t help matters as it pertains to his timing. Plus, it does take some time for stats to become more reliable. But if he continues to struggle at this rate, Maldonado’s bat will become more of a liability. This is a development to watch as we go into May and June.