Martín Maldonado is needlessly being leaned on again. After he started more than 76 percent of the regular season games in 2020, the Astros backstop is still receiving 70-plus percent of the starts at catcher in 2021.
Despite Maldonado’s non-existent offensive production this season, he continues to draw the vast majority of the starts behind the plate — 15 in 21 games since the All-Star Break.
Last year’s on-base percentage of .350 has predictably regressed to its usual sub-.300 figure, and there is no longer an inadequate backup behind Maldonado on the depth chart. The Astros signed the offensive-minded, left-handed hitting Jason Castro in January to complement Maldonado’s defensive prowess.
Considering what’s transpired this season, however, it’s past time that Castro be given the opportunity to be the everyday starter, or at least be granted equal playing time. Dusty Baker has seldom exploited the righty-lefty catching platoon that general manager James Click gave him, and at this point it’s to the detriment of the team.
For all of Maldonado’s renowned skill and savvy behind the dish, his bat is one of the worst in baseball. And though his defense has been highly regarded for many years, it’s fair to question if it’s still good enough to compensate for an abysmal 71 Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+).
According to Defensive Runs Saved (DRS), the 34-year-old veteran is exactly average. Per FanGraphs’ DefWAR, he is the 13th-most valuable defensive catcher in the bigs. Baseball Prospectus’ comprehensive, catcher-specific metric Catcher Defensive Adjustment (CDA) ranks Maldonado in the middle of the pack among starting catchers.
The one area of Maldonado’s game that remains strong is his ability to thwart base stealers, as he’s thrown out more than half of them. Perhaps this would be more significant 5 to 10 years ago, but in this current era of baseball, stealing bases is not commonplace, thus diluting one of Maldonado’s best traits.
As for Castro, the simple fact is he finds himself in the same conundrum that Chas McCormick had been in for much of the season. Despite having less than half the amount of plate appearances, Castro’s Baseball-Reference War (bWAR) of 0.4 is nearly the same as Maldonado’s (0.6).
Castro’s .187 batting average may not inspire confidence, but a .326 OBP and a 91 wRC+ are markedly better than his teammate’s. And, the small sample size notwithstanding, the wide discrepancy in Castro’s wOBA and Expected wOBA (xwOBA) indicate the former first-round pick has been quite good with the stick, and that his results have been rather unlucky. A Barrel rate of 13.4 percent and a Chase rate below 20 percent are top-notch marks among Astros hitters.
While Castro poses little threat to would-be base stealers — he’s allowed 11 swipes in 11 attempts this year — his ability to frame pitches is more or less on par with Maldonado’s.
Maldonado’s relationship with the pitching staff and his handling of the starting rotation cannot be quantified, but Castro himself has 10-plus years of catching experience in the big leagues. Maybe he wouldn’t be the defensive wizard that his manager believes Maldonado to be, but overall, it’s getting harder for Baker to justify the uneven split in playing time.
With the A’s only two games back in the standings, the Astros’ old-school skipper would be remiss if he did not make a change.
The data in this article was compiled via Baseball Savant and FanGraphs