Martin Maldonado will always have a special place in the hearts of Astros fans. Who could forget the strike’em out, throw’em out double play in game 6 of the 2021 ALCS? Who could forget the numerous times he “took one for the team” to get on base? No matter how you feel about Martin, you have to acknowledge that he will always be a part of Astros lore. With that said, professional baseball is about putting the best possible product out on the field, and it is clear that Martin Maldonado no longer produces enough to deserve the starting catcher position. Most Astros fans recognize this to some extent, but I thought it would be interesting to show just how many runs Dusty Baker has cost the Astros, both offensively and defensively, by continuing to start Maldy over Diaz. As well as offering an alternative lineup.
Martin Maldonado: Father Time is undefeated
Maldy has been terrible at the plate this year. To put in perspective just how bad Martin Maldonado has been as a hitter, consider that Maldy is currently 44% less productive at the plate than the average position player (as per wRC+). That means that the difference between the average hitter and Martin Maldonado is about the same difference as between a league-average hitter and Mookie Betts in 2022 (Betts had a 144 wRC+ in 2022). To put it in even simpler terms, in only 218 plate appearances, Maldy has been worth a full 14 runs below average in total offensive production this year.
Defensively, Martin has done slightly better but is still below average. In 2023, he is 59th out of 60 catchers in framing runs saved, with eight runs below average. However, in both stealing and blocking, his metrics show that he is average. It is one thing to be an offensive black hole if you can play outstanding defense (i.e Adam Everett), but to be both below average on defense and a terrible hitter makes for bad baseball. What is most frustrating is that the Astros, unlike in 2021 or 2022, have a catcher who is ready to replace Maldy.
Enter Yainer Diaz
Although it has been a pleasure to watch Diaz get more at-bats at DH in the absence of Yordan Alvarez, this is not the way to maximize his value in the long term. In 2022, the average wRC+ for a 1st baseman and DH was 107 (which means the average first baseman and DH was seven percent more productive than the league average). Considering that Diaz’s current wRC+ is 108, Diaz would be an average hitter as a DH. However, the average wRC+ for a catcher was only 89 in 2022, which means that Yainer Diaz would be a far above-average hitter as a backstop.
More importantly for the Astros, Diaz represents a massive upgrade over Maldonado. According to FanGraphs, Diaz has been worth over 13 runs more than Maldonado, with 60 fewer plate appearances. Over the course of a full season, Diaz may be worth a full 30 runs more than Maldy! On average, ten runs usually translate to one win.
In a season where the division may be separated by less than five games, that is a lot of production to leave on the table. So, it appears that Diaz is superior to Maldonado offensively, but what about on defense?
Defensive metrics usually need a much larger sample than offensive metrics to be statistically significant, so it is important to take the limited sample that we have seen from Yainer with a grain of salt. With that said, compared to Maldy, Diaz has been worth two runs above average more in catcher stealing runs, about two in catcher framing runs (when you equalize the number of pitches they have received), and one run above in catcher blocking runs. To reiterate, defensive metrics take longer to “even out” than offensive metrics, but it is important to note that there is no evidence to suggest that Martin Maldonado is a better defensive catcher than Yainer Diaz.
A common refrain from Maldy apologists’ is that Martin calls a great game and can guide his pitchers through difficult starts. While there may be some truth to this theory, it is highly unlikely that Maldy’s leadership is worth 30 runs a year. Is Diaz really that bad at game calling or “leadership”?
A path forward
Until Yordan Alvarez is healthy, the Astros will need to fill the DH spot. Instead of Yainer Diaz starting there, the more optimal choice would be to start a combination of Jose Altuve and, to a lesser extent, whoever needs a day off from the field. At this point in his career, Mauricio Dubon is a superior defensive second baseman to Jose Altuve, and it would be preferable to reduce the wear and tear on Altuve’s 33-year-old body. That is not to say that Altuve shouldn’t play the keystone; it is just better to give him more starts at DH until Yordan returns. By starting Diaz at catcher, Altuve at DH, and Dubon at second, the Astros will swap out Maldy’s sub-60 wRC+ production for average to above-average hitters. As previously stated, this swap is almost the same as adding an elite hitter into the lineup. Instead of trading for an elite bat, which would probably cost the Astros an elite prospect, the Astros can just optimize their lineup by benching Maldy.