Ever-prepared Maldonado 'glue' of Astros

October 10th, 2021

CHICAGO -- The Astros thought so much of that they acquired him before the Trade Deadline two years in a row, sending pitching prospect Patrick Sandoval to the Angels in 2018 and infielder Tony Kemp to the Cubs a year later for the veteran catcher. Houston finally wised up and signed him to a two-year deal after the ‘19 season.

Maldonado’s impact on the Astros since is clear when you talk to his teammates -- especially a pitching staff that has learned to respect and trust the man they call “Machete” because of his strong arm. Since the start of 2020, no catcher in the Major Leagues has amassed more than the 185 games or 1,526 2/3 innings caught by Maldonado, including the playoffs.

While he hit only .172 this year, Maldonado was a staple in the lineup and was as crucial to the Astros’ success as Carlos Correa, Kyle Tucker, Jose Altuve or Yuli Gurriel.

“Well, if I had to vote for MVP of our team from a pitching side of things, obviously Carlos and a lot of people warrant it, but from my standpoint, Martín Maldonado has been invaluable,” pitching coach Brent Strom said. “I think there's a trust factor, a respect factor for Maldy. He does a lot of prep work, has his notes ready to go, works with our analysts extremely well in going back and forth on pitch selection and what each guy can bring to the table.”

Maldonado's prep work is so meticulous and so detailed that Correa -- the star shortstop who was named the team’s MVP this season -- asks to have his hotel room adjacent to the catcher on the road so he can talk baseball with him.

“He's a very smart baseball guy,” Correa said.

In fact, when the Astros were in Los Angeles preparing to play the A’s in last year’s American League Division Series, Correa went to Maldonado’s room, where the catcher had been working on scouting reports from the moment Houston had beaten Minnesota in the AL Wild Card Series. Oakland had dominated the Astros in the regular season and won the division, but Maldonado’s confidence was undeterred.

“He spent three days, at least four hours a day on that computer, doing a scouting report, and at the end of the scouting report, he said, ‘They're not going to beat us this time. I've got the scouting report down. We're going to beat them,’” Correa said. “I said, ‘Are you sure? The ball flies in that ballpark.’ And he said, ‘Yeah, I got the scouting report down.’ Then we went out there and won the series in four games. Those are things that you don't see in the box score.”

Whether it’s a hotel room late at night or on a flight to another city, Maldonado devours information. He’s one of the best in the league at calling pitches, his pitchers say, and he’s tough behind the plate. He also threw out 19 of 48 runners attempting to steal, which was the most in the AL this year.

“That’s my job,” Maldonado said. “I always know myself. For me, I never hit .300 or .320, I never hit 20 homers in the big leagues. Somehow, I've got to get my money’s worth. I would say that’s part of being a catcher. That’s part of the mentality of wanting to be prepared. I have a family and I have three kids and sometimes I open the computer on the plane, so when I get home I have time to be with the kids.”

Maldonado’s work behind the plate first caught the eye of pitcher Lance McCullers Jr. in 2017, when Maldonado was with the Angels. McCullers kept nudging former manager A.J. Hinch, urging him to acquire him. “We’ve got to trade for that guy,” McCullers said. They did it twice.

Now that he’s worked with Maldonado for the past four years of his career, McCullers’ across-the-diamond opinion of the backstop was spot on.

“It's not going to show up in the stat sheets,” McCullers said. “It's not going to show up on the back of a baseball card. There's no metric really to show how valuable he is, but he's the glue of our team. He's one of the main leaders of our clubhouse, and his preparation is unmatched. His want and will to win, you can feel it, and I can feel it when I'm on the mound. It brings the best out of me as well.”

Words like those from teammates make him work even harder, Maldonado said. He knows his pitchers have put all their trust in him, and he must be prepared when it comes to scouting reports and calling pitches.

“Like I always tell them, it’s your game and you can change whatever you want,” Maldonado said. “Sometimes I go to the mound to make sure we’re on the same page. The communication before the game, during the game and even with relievers, that’s been amazing. That’s been one of the keys to our pitching staff.”

With that kind of mindset, it probably shouldn’t surprise you that Maldonado, 35, has his eye on being a big league manager down the road.

“We’ll see,” he said. “I still have different goals right now. I’ve got to win the World Series first.”