How Maldonado, Diaz formed mentor-mentee relationship

September 9th, 2023

This story was excerpted from Brian McTaggart’s Astros Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

The lockers of veteran Astros catcher and rookie are next to each at Minute Maid Park, which is by design. Maldonado requested the two become locker neighbors, considering it was going to be his job to help mold Diaz into the organization’s catcher of the future.

That future appears to be in terrific hands with Diaz, an American League Rookie of the Year candidate who entered Saturday hitting .283 with 21 homers and 54 RBIs to go along with stellar defensive play. Nobody is happier for Diaz’s success than Maldonado, who has been a sounding board for anything Diaz has needed.

“He’s kind of shy, doesn’t talk much,” Maldonado said. “That’s why I asked [clubhouse manager] Carl [Schneider] to put him next to me, just to where we can have a constant communication about game calling or whatever. Even like asking about our families and all that stuff, that’s why he’s next to me. I think, overall, we’re building a good, good relationship where we both pull for each other, we help each other and we go from there.”

Diaz, 24, came to the Astros' organization from the Guardians on July 30, 2021, in a trade in which Houston also acquired relief pitcher Phil Maton and sent center fielder Myles Straw to Cleveland. The Astros coveted Maton to bolster their bullpen, which he has, but the trade will forever be known as the Diaz trade.

In his first full season in the Astros' organization, Diaz was named the club’s Minor League Player of the Year in 2022. He combined to hit .306 with 22 doubles, 25 homers and 96 RBIs between Double-A and Triple-A. He made his big league debut on Sept. 2 and was on the taxi squad throughout the playoffs.

Diaz came to Spring Training battling with fellow prospect Korey Lee to back up Maldonado. Diaz won the job out of spring and never looked back, with Lee getting traded to the White Sox in July. Maldonado, a free agent at the end of the year, was impressed with Diaz from the get-go.

“If you see his career numbers, he barely played that many games in Triple-A, Double-A and then the pandemic hit,” Maldonado said. “I think what he proved this year is he is as good as anybody in the game. He also proved how good the scouting director here is with the way that he competes and his raw power. That power, for me, I haven’t seen that before from a hitter. I feel he barely touches the ball, and it flies way out.”

Diaz said Maldonado has been supportive of his career from the beginning, and they’ve grown as friends and teammates. Maldonado is there for Diaz when he’s preparing for games and even during games, helping him with pitch selection.

“It’s a privilege for me to have a mentor that speaks the same language that I speak to help me, especially one I am still learning, and help me understand the pitching side of the game,” Diaz said. “While I’m catching, he tells me he would have called this pitch because of this. It’s a learning process, but I’m learning and getting better. I feel more comfortable this year than I felt last year when I came up.”

In addition to his bat, Diaz has blossomed as a strong defensive catcher. He’s thrown out 33 percent of base-stealers, which was third best among catchers who’ve had at least 30 attempts (entering Friday). Only James McCann (47 percent) and Gabriel Moreno (40 percent) have been better. He also grades out well in Statcast evaluations, including plus-5 caught stealing runs above average (tied for fourth among catchers), plus-7 blocked runs above average (seventh) and 1.90 second pop time (tied for seventh).

“I think he’s going to be a guy that is going to be a two-way player from the catching position,” Maldonado said. “You don’t see those guys often. This is a guy that’s going to put up big numbers and, behind the plate, he’s getting better. He’s already good at framing, he’s already good at throwing runners out. He’s got an unbelievable arm and is really good at blocking.

“The thing we keep talking about is he has to present a little more leadership to the pitchers, and that comes with experience. Like I said, he doesn’t have that many games under his belt, in the Minor Leagues either. … I think what he proved this year is as good as anybody in the game.”

Maldonado and Diaz are working toward the same goal, which is a second consecutive World Series championship.

“I know he’s going to be the future of this team, and it’s up to me to root for him, up to me to have the same goal,” Maldonado said. “It’s about our pitching staff, it’s about winning games. It doesn’t matter who’s catching. It doesn’t matter if he catches, or I catch.”