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Looking At The New Catcher Advantage

Division Series - Houston Astros v Minnesota Twins - Game Three Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

It is no secret that the Astros didn’t receive much value from its starting catcher, at least in terms of what is classified as quantifiable production. Only one catcher — Eric Haase — with at least 200 plate appearances in 2023 cost their team more wins than Martín Maldonado’s -1.2 fWAR. Seven out of 45 catchers posted a lower wRC+ than Maldonado. There was also the -17 catcher framing runs, which was the worst in baseball. While Maldonado was still fine with blocking, pop time, and throwing arm, the negatives in other aspects were too large of an issue to outright ignore.

But catcher production is more difficult to accurately measure than any other position in baseball, namely due to what we can’t quantify. Maldonado’s game preparation, for example, was reportedly a valuable aspect of the veteran catcher’s overall value. His ability to handle a pitching staff. The subtle clues and hints that an opposing hitter may provide that he would notice. This part of his profile was why the Astros, namely Dusty Baker, chose to stick with Maldonado rather than rookie Yainer Díaz in most scenarios this past season, for better or worse.

With money seemingly an issue this offseason, Dana Brown was forced to prioritize which positions he would like to bolster. I mean, middle relief is a clear target with Héctor Neris, Phil Maton, and Ryne Stanek all reaching free agency. You could argue for another corner outfielder, but the organization appears content with giving Jake Meyers one more — cost controlled — chance in center field with Chas McCormick sliding over into left. Another starting pitcher would be ideal, however, likely far down the list. But squint your eyes hard enough and you can see a road where the Astros develop another couple of relievers internally and possibly obtain enough value from Meyers to offset the need for another outfielder.

In turn, Brown could devote more financial resources to the one position that the organization lacked: A true backup catcher. There is possibly an alternative universe where the Astros chose to re-sign Maldonado, with the understanding that Díaz is the primary catcher. That kind of arrangement always felt like a stretch in this reality, and it could’ve become an awkward situation quickly if certain pitchers on staff began to request Maldonado to catch them. It was the best decision then for Brown to end Maldonado’s second tenure with Houston and focus elsewhere. Enter Victor Caratini as the new backup.

With Caratini joining Díaz, the Astros have arguably one of the top-ten catcher situations in baseball, at least in terms of what is quantifiable. Per FanGraphs Depth Chart Projections, only eight clubs are projected to post a higher fWAR than Houston. In any case, there ought to be a demonstratable improvement offensively simply playing Díaz more as the primary catcher. Caratini certainly isn’t an asset offensively, at least to the same degree as his new teammate, but even his bat is an improvement over Maldonado’s. Both also grade out better defensively than Maldonado in certain aspects, especially in terms of pitch framing. This development is also why the Astros feel comfortable with Meyers in center field — provided that hits enough to warrant a starting job — as the catcher position isn’t the same in terms of weakness in a lineup.

With that said, this new advantage also depends on how well Díaz and Caratini handle the pitching staff. As I mentioned earlier, Maldonado was known for his ability to guide the staff relatively well, especially some of the younger pitchers. While this reputation didn’t always match the results, one can’t deny his impact on the staff. This is where Caratini’s signing could prove essential to the club’s success as he faced a similar situation in Milwaukee with William Contreras as he does now with Díaz in Houston. I am also curious to see how much emphasis the Astros place on Díaz and Caratini to help mitigate the opposing running game, which was an ongoing issue last season. Of course, if a club has multiple pitchers with slower deliveries, a catcher can only do so much. There is also the matter of game preparations and the sort from which Maldonado received much of his praise. Only time will tell how those aspects of the game unfold, especially for Díaz with a probable bump in playing time incoming.

But for the first time in a while, the catcher position doesn’t look like a liability in Houston. That’s a large improvement, in theory, without devoting breaking the bank for a capable backup in Caratini. A win for the Astros in an offseason with limited spending power.