Martin Maldonado keeps it light with Astros starter Luis Garcia. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
AAstros catcher Martin Maldonado's hair color changes always draws a crowd of gawkers. Including excellent Astros sideline reporter Julia Morales in this case. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Veteran catcher Martin Maldonado stands at the heart of everything the Astros do. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Catcher Martin Maldonado and Framber Valdez are a very effective pair. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Astros manager Dusty Baker and veteran catcher Martin Maldonado are two of the biggest voices on this team. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Houston Astros catcher Martin Maldonado has a few big hits in his bat. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Catcher Martin Maldonado seems to make every pitcher better and more comfortable. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Astros catcher Martin Maldonado has a little pop in his bat. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Hector Neris got plenty of love from catcher Martin Maldonado after a scoreless inning. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Veteran catcher Martin Maldonado is the secret weapon of this Astros pitching staff. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Luis Garcia and Martin Maldonado know all about going to work. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Astros catcher Martin Maldonado knows how to handle a pitching staff. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
PHILADELPHIA — Martin Maldonado colored his hair orange for the World Series, the hair that he jokes to Justin Verlander that he has a lot more of than the Houston Astros’ ageless ace possesses on his own head. (And yes, Maldonado is one of the few guys in this clubhouse who can get away with such a crack.)
Coloring his already distinctive hair is one of the fun things that the veteran catches does. One of the ways Maldonado keeps it light. Each hair color change tends to trigger an army of sports writer amateur photo snaps. After all, if you’re not tweeting a picture of Martin Maldonado’s hair are you really covering the team?
The attention is deserved because more attention on Martin Maldonado is always deserved. Even if it’s for briefly using baseball icon Albert Pujols’ disallowed bats. The catcher who hit .186 in the regular season this year after hitting .172 in the regular season last season (a span of a combined 717 plate appearances) is this dynasty hunting club’s Hidden MVP. And not so hidden leader.
Maldonado’s voice is one of the loudest in the Astros clubhouse. It cuts across cultures and languages, bringing both humor and gravitas. This is the dude who will keep the Astros laughing. And the dude who will deliver a pointed message when it needs to be delivered.
“Maldonado and Verlander are the vocal leaders,” Astros third baseman Alex Bregman says. “Maldy picks guys up when they need it and he’ll give a little kick in the butt when they need. He’s a great leader. This team wouldn’t be the same without him.”
Maldonado is the Pitcher Whisperer. Part psychologist. Part big brother. Part drill sergeant. Part master strategist. Part confidant. Part Mother Hen. And all in charge.
Martin Maldonado doesn’t catch a game as much as he orchestrates it. The Astros’ veteran catcher is baseball’s version of a TV show runner, the overseer who makes sure everything happens as it should.
With Maldonado, this Astros pitching staff posted the second best ERA (2.90) in the Major Leagues this regular season. And Houston’s pitching has been even better in the postseason, boasting a 2.18 ERA through nine intense playoff games (eight of them Astros’ wins).
Bregman argues that team ERA should be a major factor in baseball’s Gold Glove catcher selections. After all, it’s about time baseball recognizes how much of an impact a Martin Maldonado can make. Maldonado didn’t even make the cut for the Gold Glove’s three American League finalists this season, just another snub for a guy who controls a pitching staff and the opposing base running game better than anybody.
“I take a lot of pride in that (team ERA),” Maldonado tells PaperCity. “That’s my job. To help the pitchers give up as few runs as possible.”
Maldonado is tireless in that pursuit with the sometime clubhouse cutup often turning super serious on those late night Astros flights (like the one the team took to Philadelphia on Saturday night). Teammates tend to always know where the catcher is sitting because the light above his seat is often the only one lit up, with Maldonado pouring over scouting reports and watching video deep into the night of a flight.
This catcher wants any edge he can get, any edge he can help give one of his pitchers.
“Maldy is one of the hardest working guys I’ve ever played with,” says Lance McCullers Jr, one of those five Core Astros who’ve seen every step of this run. “No question.”
Martin Maldonado and Putting In the Work
Maldonado does all kinds of extra work so that his pitchers can throw more free. As long as they freely throw what he expects them to throw. What the gameplan and their stuff demands.
“I take a lot of pride in that (team ERA). That’s my job. To help the pitchers give up as few runs as possible.” — Astros catcher Martin Maldonado
This Astros pitching staff is so different. From the proud Cy Young champion Justin Verlander who always knows what he wants to do. To the found-his-prime Framber Valdez who just keeps seeming to get stronger. To the former curveball specialist turned slider master and injury recoverer Lance McCullers Jr. To the 25-year-old future ace Cristian Javier with the stuff that’s more deceptive than a con man. And that’s just the playoff starters.
The excellent relievers each bring their own quirks, personalities and pitch sequencing preferences too. Maldonado insists on understanding them all, maybe better than they even understand themselves.
“I talk to each of them differently for sure,” Maldonado says. “Some guys need a kick in the butt. Some guys need to be fired up. Other guys need to be calmed down. Sometimes you encourage. And sometimes you need to challenge them.”
What sets Martin Maldonado truly apart is his ability to seemingly know exactly what is needed at that particular time.
For all the numbers he looks at — and all the video he watches — there is no A to Z manual on counseling and shepherding a pitching staff. That stuff is learned, built off of the trust and confidence that the catcher knows what is best.
Martin Maldonado always projects confidence, always has an answer for any question or shaken concern.
The pitching mound — the center of the baseball universe in many ways — can be a lonely place. Especially in the pressure of the playoffs when a crazed crowd (and there will be no more crazed crowd than a World Series Game 3 Philly crowd that’s had to wait one night with things postponed till Tuesday after a Halloween rainout) and your team’s entire season can sometimes feel like it’s bearing down on the man on the mound.
Maldonado makes it a little less lonely. He makes pitchers feel like he’s right there with them, battling right alongside them. Linus’ security blanket has nothing on the Houston Astros’ Hidden MVP.
Maldonado is so important to this Astros near dynasty that no one even questions his bat. In fact, Maldonado’s teammates swear he comes up plenty of big hits when it counts. Playoff batting average — who cares?
“If you look at our big innings in the playoffs, Maldy’s usually doing something in them,” Astros center fielder Chas McCormick, the West Chester kid who’s about to play his first game in Citizens Bank Park without ever having watched a game there in person, says. “He’ll get a big hit, work out a walk.
“He makes some things happen offensively too.”
McCormick points out Game 1 of this World Series, where the Hidden MVP contributes an RBI single. And Game 1 of the American League Championship Series when Maldonado doubles to deep right to send McCormick home to score the first Astros run of what turns into a Houston sweep.
There is no doubting Martin Maldonado in this Astros’ clubhouse. You don’t doubt the rock you lean on.