The importance of leadership at the catching position came into full focus for the Astros last year when a number of factors -- injuries, an expanded roster and the coronavirus pandemic -- led to 15 rookies throwing pitches, including 10 who made their Major League debuts in 2020.
Guiding the young hurlers through a challenging shortened season was the job of veteran catcher Martín Maldonado, who started 46 of the Astros’ 60 games in the regular season and all but one of their 13 playoff contests. Maldonado will have more help this year after Houston added another layer of leadership last month by bringing back veteran backstop Jason Castro on a two-year deal.
“I’m very excited to have Jason back on board and have two amazing catchers in him and Maldy,” said right-hander Lance McCullers Jr., who worked with Castro in 2015 and ’16.
Maldonado, 34, and Castro, 33, have combined to catch 1,511 games in the Major Leagues, which is the third most of any active catching duo. Alex Avila and Yan Gomes of the Nationals have caught a combined 1,623 games, and Yasmani Grandal and Jonathan Lucroy of the White Sox have caught 1,892 games (Lucroy is on a Minor League deal).
Astros general manager James Click called Maldonado before signing Castro as a courtesy to the incumbent backstop.
“I think Castro is going to give us another leader behind the plate,” Maldonado said. “He’s a guy who’s been here, who’s been in the league so long. We have the same goal, just to win games. And help each other to get the best out of our pitching staff.”
The stability of a seasoned and respected left-right catching combination gives Astros manager Dusty Baker the same level of trust and confidence no matter who’s behind the plate. Maldonado’s 24 games started at catcher in the postseason are the second most in club history behind Brad Ausmus (30).
“Playing against him, he always seems like he's that guy that's just grinding, no matter what he does,” Castro said of Maldonado. “He's the ultimate competitor. ... If he fouled off the pitch, he was mad at himself that he should have crushed it, and vice versa. If he was catching and [there was] a hit or something in a big spot, he took it personally, so to have a guy like that on your side, that's pretty huge.”
Castro, meanwhile, is fourth on the franchise’s all-time list with 539 starts at catcher, and he ranks ninth among active catchers with 803 career games caught. Drafted in the first round (10th overall) by Houston in 2008 out of Stanford University, Castro started on Opening Day for five consecutive years (2012-16) for the Astros before leaving in free agency the year before they won the World Series in 2017.
“I’ve learned a lot in these five years since I left,” Castro said. “I think that's the biggest thing that I've learned is just how to tailor and individualize plans for individuals on a staff to get them going in the right direction.”
After trading for Maldonado at the Deadline two years in a row, the Astros signed him to a two-year deal prior to the 2020 season. He hit .215 with six homers and 24 RBIs last year but led American League catchers in walks, putting him fifth in the league at the position in OPS (.727). He hit .375 with runners in scoring position and was rock solid behind the plate. That’s why Baker insists Maldonado is the starter.
“And justifiably so,” Baker said. “He did a heck of a job, and he knows the staff. You always need a couple extra, quality catchers. … It’s a very volatile position. You’re one foul tip or slide away from being out a long time. We’ll use both of them. They’re both quality catchers.”