A few weeks ago, I wrote about AL Central catchers and how Yasmani Grandal was more valuable than Salvador Pérez. Today’s discussion about catchers comes from @BryceSnape. He asks:
The Houston Astros have (unfortunately) been rolling in the playoffs. They embarrassed our White Sox in the ALDS, ultimately winning in 4, and defeated the Boston Red Sox in the ALCS in 6 games. They are now World Series bound, in part due to the impressive defense of their catcher: Martín Maldonado.
So now this begs the question, is Martín Maldonado actually more valuable than our own Yasmani Grandal?
Short answer: No.
Long answer? *inhales deeply*
For starters, there is a sample statistic to compare the value between two players: WAR. I personally prefer Fangraphs’ WAR to Baseball Reference’s, but either way, Yaz was better this year than Maldonado. Even with 50+ fewer plate appearances, Grandal had a 3.7 fWAR and bWAR, compared to Maldonado’s 0.2 fWAR and -0.1 bWAR. Frankly, that’s not close.
Part of the reason for the valuation discrepancy is that offense is more valuable than defense. Here’s a line from Michael Lewis’ 2003 baseball classic Moneyball, “The variance between the best and worst fielders on the outcome of the game is a lot smaller than the variance between the best and worst hitters.” While defensive statistics have come a long way in the almost 20 years since the book’s release, we still see this philosophy applied today. Take for example the Sox’s own Billy Hamilton. He’s an excellent defender, but absolutely awful as a batter. Hamilton has a career 11.5 UZR/150, but also a career wRC+ of 66. In theory, you could justify Hamilton’s presence in an everyday starting lineup thanks to his defense. However, in reality, making him an everyday starter is a borderline fire-able offense because his defense does not even remotely make up for what is lost with his bat. That’s why Billy Hamilton is not a starting outfielder, but still useful to a ball club. This is an analogous philosophy for Martín Maldonado and Yasmani Grandal.
It cannot be overstated just how bad Martín Maldonado’s offense has been this past season. He slashed .172/.272/.300 with a wRC+ of 63. That’s awful. It’s not just that Yaz was an “OBP Stud”, it’s that he was lightyears better than what Maldonado did at the plate. That makes a huge difference. That being said, the Astros don’t need Maldonado to do anything on offense. They’re fine with the zero he is in the lineup because they’ll score runs with the other 8 players. You can live with a bat like Martín Maldonado’s when you have guys like José Altuve, Carlos Correa, and Alex Bregman on your team. However, the Astros catcher “makes up” for his offense with his defense.
Per Baseball Savant, in 2021, Martín Maldonado was a better pitch framer than Yaz, with the Houston catcher falling in the 62nd percentile for framers, while Yaz fell in the 50th percentile. Further, Maldonado allowed 29 stolen bases and prevented 19 versus Grandal who allowed a whopping 50 stolen bases and only prevented 12. Even with Maldonado’s clear defensive edge though, Grandal was still the better catcher overall in 2021 as shown via his WAR, above.
Part of the reason we can overlook Martín Maldonado’s offense is that we don’t expect anything from him. It’s easy to say “yeah, Maldonado stinks offensively, but WOAH his defense!” because of our expectations of his game and the Astros game plan. The Astros still expect and do ultimately win games thanks to the offense of their other 8 players in the lineup along with Maldonado’s defense, so when their on-field performance matches our expectations, we’re impressed. Additionally, Maldonado is a better fit for the Astros and how they’ve constructed their team than Yasmani Grandal. Even though Grandal is overall the better baseball player, Martín Maldonado is better suited for the 2021 Houston Astros.
Further, the Houston Astros played more games than the Chicago White Sox in the playoffs and *gulps* Maldonado is on a better team than Yasmani Grandal. That means we got to see more from Maldonado and his skill set. He has had more opportunities to show off his defensive prowess and make himself look better in the process. But let’s not forget, Yasmani Grandal hit a two-run home run in Game 3 of the ALDS and did assist in more runs getting scored later in that game with, let’s call it, veteran base running. But he didn’t have good offensive days in Games 1, 2, and 4 and didn’t have an additional 6 games in the ALCS to get his bat back on track. It’s easy then to think that Maldonado has actually been better in the playoffs than Grandal when in reality, he just plays on a better team.
I think if Yasmani Grandal was on the Houston Astros, they probably would have allowed a few more runs to score, but they also would have scored even more runs than they did. Overall, I think Martín Maldonado’s defense is getting a tad overrated. However, there’s no doubt that he’s excellent defensively and has been so throughout the playoffs. Maldonado’s limited and particular skill set is perfect for how the Astros are constructed, and it makes his play appear a bit more impressive than what it actually is.
Still though, overall, I’d rather have Grandal.
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