How Astros will get both Maldonado, Diaz in Game 3 lineup

October 10th, 2023

MINNEAPOLIS -- Sometimes a player's best qualities aren't all that easy to quantify. In that sense, Astros catcher serves as a reminder that being a productive Major League player is not all about the statistics.

That may sound counterintuitive, particularly as Houston finds itself in unfamiliar territory -- a 1-1 split with Minnesota heading into Game 3 of the American League Division Series on Tuesday at Target Field -- and could use every bit of upside on offense and defense at its disposal.

Maldonado did not have a strong year at the plate in the regular season, matching his career high with 15 homers but otherwise ranking below league average in most offensive categories. He slashed .191/.258/.348 with a 66 OPS+ in 116 games.

Those numbers, however, aren't able to capture the true value that Maldonado brings to his team. The 37-year-old backstop is one of the premier baseball minds in the game and has the ability to elevate the performance of his pitching staff, an intangible that doesn't show up in the box score.

That's why it's a no-brainer for manager Dusty Baker to pencil Maldonado in behind the dish, even as he is well aware of fans' season-long clamoring for rookie to receive more playing time.

"You can only play nine guys at a time," Baker said, noting that Diaz will start at designated hitter in Game 3 because Twins starter Sonny Gray is tough on left-handed batters. "When I got Michael [Brantley] back, it cut down some of [Diaz's] playing time in the DH role. And the fact that our three main starters are usually caught by Maldy, and you want experience in the playoffs and World Series."

Diaz carries the statistical edge over Maldonado, finishing his first full season tied for second in wRC+ (127) among all primary catchers with a minimum of 350 plate appearances and tied for eighth in fWAR (2.0) among qualified AL rookies. He slashed .282/.308/.538 with 23 homers and 22 doubles in 104 games.

He has also starred when it comes to defense, throwing out 30 percent of would-be base-stealers and ranking in the top six in both blocks above average (eight) and average pop time to second base (1.90 seconds) among all qualified big league backstops.

Maldonado's experience and Diaz's emergence have given the Astros a problem that many other teams might find enviable: they have two great everyday options at catcher, but for very different reasons.

What makes Maldonado such a special batterymate?

"When you get a good catcher, it just makes your job as a pitcher that much easier," said Twins left-hander -- and former Astro -- Dallas Keuchel. "I felt like, at times, my job was very, very easy just because of how good he was behind the plate. … Martín, a.k.a. Machete, is a special one."

His teammates, past and present, cite his high level of preparation as a standout quality, with Twins backstop Christian Vázquez noting that Maldonado would sometimes spend 30 minutes focusing on a single opposing hitter. Add that to his deep knowledge of the game, and Maldonado can at times be more like an extra coach on the field.

"When you have somebody else who does that much homework and you are out there armed with a lot of information, but at the same time can trust your baseball instincts, that's really fun," ace Justin Verlander said one day before tossing six scoreless frames in Game 1. "You have this back-and-forth chess game with the hitter. …

"I feel like in this analytic age of baseball, a lot of pitchers, teams, catchers can kind of get stuck in one way to approach certain hitters. … So to be able to have somebody back there who sees the game similarly and thinks similarly and will adjust on the fly, I think it's a great benefit to everyone, not just myself, but also the rest of the guys on our staff and in our bullpen."

Diaz, who figures to be Maldonado's heir apparent behind the dish in 2024, has spent his first full season in the Majors soaking up lessons learned from the starting backstop. It's almost impossible not to pick up anything new from Maldonado -- Vázquez, himself a nine-year veteran of the big leagues, said he learned a lot from how Maldonado prepared for games after he was traded to the Astros at the '22 Trade Deadline.

Vázquez also saw Diaz make his Major League debut at the tail end of the 2022 season, and watching from afar, he's been impressed with how the standout rookie has grown into a big leaguer in the interim.

"I think he is the future of that organization," Vázquez said. "He's a great kid. Very humble, quiet and he likes to learn. He's going to learn a lot with all those guys over there, calling games. I think he's going to be a great player in the future."