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Despite sub-.100 batting average, here’s why Martín Maldonado is going to keep playing for White Sox

Vinnie Duber Avatar
May 10, 2024
Martín Maldonado

Martín Maldonado is batting .095.

That’s not a typo. It’s just the third lowest batting average in Major League Baseball for anyone who’s strode to the plate 60 times this season.

But as his near complete lack of offensive output is driving White Sox fans crazy, the White Sox themselves aren’t too bothered by it — as long as Maldonado continues to do what he’s done working with the team’s pitching staff.

“I’m actually OK with the results at the plate,” Pedro Grifol said Friday. “He hasn’t played 12 years because he hits .300. He’s played as long as he’s played because he does what he does behind the plate.”

Indeed, the White Sox didn’t sign Maldonado to a free-agent deal this past offseason because of what they thought he’d be able to contribute offensively. As Chris Getz took the early steps in his organizational makeover, he focused on improving the team’s defense, specifically citing his desire for free-agent pitchers to feel more comfortable signing up to play on the South Side after a couple straight years of poor defensive performance that might have scared some good arms away.

Getz’s work in that department hasn’t exactly paid off to date during a 10-28 start to the campaign, and that includes at the catcher position. The team entered play Friday ranked dead last in the Defensive Runs Saved statistic, at minus-27. White Sox catchers owned a second-to-last minus-five in the category.

But as much as some fans might not appreciate it, success as a catcher is about more than the measurables. And that’s where Maldonado is impressing his coaches and has impressed his coaches for years, a featured player during the Astros’ incredible run of success over the last decade.

“When you go back and look at his Houston years, they had a (highly regarded catching) prospect there. They had a guy that can really swing it, and (now) that guy’s playing every day and he’s having a good year. And Maldy was the one that caught,” Grifol said. “A future Hall-of-Fame manager, (Dusty Baker), he wanted him behind the plate. There’s a reason for it.

“The instincts that he’s got to navigate a game, to get pitchers in their strengths, to immediately know, ‘OK, this is not working today, I’ve got to go with this,’ those are so valuable in the course of a game.”

While no one will confuse Grifol’s ugly win-loss record in a year and a month of big league managing with Baker’s career resume — a .540 winning percentage, 10 division titles, three pennants and a World Series win in three decades as a bench boss — both men were catchers and have some expertise in that area, allowing them to approach Maldonado’s work with a different eye than you, me or anyone else who didn’t spend a lot of time crouched behind home plate.

Again, though, these things are hard for the average onlooker to see, certainly much more difficult to identify than an eye-poppingly hideous batting average and a parade of unsuccessful at-bats.

The White Sox, though, have seen positives all year long. But Grifol pointed to a recent example that stood out to him and served as a reminder that Maldonado’s veteran expertise can be of big help to young pitchers still learning how to be effective at the major league level.

Thursday night against the Guardians, Erick Fedde pitched six spectacular, scoreless innings before giving up three straight singles to load the bases with nobody out in the top of the seventh. Jordan Leasure, tasked with protecting a three-run lead, stepped in and struck out the first two hitters he faced, coming an out away from escape. Maldonado took a trip to the mound to check in on the youngster’s focus, and Leasure followed with an inning- and threat-ending ground out. A day later, Grifol remained impressed with what Maldonado saw from behind the plate.

“One of the most impressive things that you really just can’t teach: When Leasure came in with the bases loaded and struck out the first two guys, (Maldonado) had the instinct to take a mound visit and kind of calm him down and say, ‘OK, don’t let these two strikeouts detour you away from the focus that you need to have to get this last out,’” Grifol said. “So many times, you see that happen where you get a strikeout, you get another strikeout, you’ve got one more out to go, and you kind of lose your focus.

“That visit could have probably saved the game. We would never know that, because we don’t know what (Leasure) would have done if (Maldonado) doesn’t take the visit. But I do know, from experience, that seeing it before, you come in bases loaded and you’re so wound up that you get the first two strikeouts, then you kind of let off the gas a little bit and you get beat after striking two guys out. And he just had that wherewithal like, ‘I’m going to make sure that he puts his foot on the gas right here and we get that last out.’”

As Grifol mentioned, we’ll never know if that was a truly game-changing moment or not. It certainly won’t stand out as one to fans like a home run would.

But while Grifol’s acceptance of a sub-.100 batting average from his catcher might strike as surprising to fans who demand more, it’s a reflection of the preseason feeling about Maldonado, who certainly wasn’t signed to significantly improve the White Sox’ lineup. Catching for an Astros team that nearly reached another World Series last season, he batted below .200.

Of course, batting below .100 is much worse than batting below .200, and even the power that Maldonado flashed with 15 homers in 2023 has yet to materialize this year, with only one home run to his name.

Meanwhile, Korey Lee has impressed. The rookie who cited Maldonado’s influence when he came over in a trade with the Astros last summer revamped his offensive game in the offseason and has earned an increasing amount of playing time. Lee impressed Grifol and the coaching staff with what he did behind the plate in a brief big league stint last season, and he’s shown proficiency there, too, particularly with a real nice throwing arm.

Lee is also benefitting from Maldonado’s presence as he learns what it means to be a major league catcher. But with Lee doing well and Maldonado hitting so poorly, fan preference for the former is understandable.

Just don’t expect a batting average that begins with a zero to force Maldonado completely out of the picture. The White Sox are too happy with what he’s doing working with their pitching staff.

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