Austin Romine was a reliable Yankee for over five years, but he moved on to a larger role and more money with the Detroit Tigers. While Romine earned this opportunity, it also leaves the Yankees shorthanded and in need of a backup catcher.
Although Kyle Higashioka is currently the leading candidate, there is an interesting option out on the free agent market: Martin Maldonado. A 33-year-old who has played for five teams, Maldonado is most intriguing because of his ties with new Yankees ace Gerrit Cole, who he caught for parts of two seasons.
Maldonado became Cole’s personal catcher during the playoffs, thanks in part to 10 successful starts during the regular season. When pitching to Maldonado, Cole pitched to a 1.57 ERA and .471 opponent’s OPS, both stellar figures. Now that Cole is a Yankee, might the Bombers try to poach his favorite backstop?
There’s more to Maldonado than just being Cole’s personal catcher. A 2017 Gold Glove award winner for the Angels, his fielding numbers compare quite favorably to Romine, who was regarded as a solid defensive catcher. Maldonado only made six errors last year and 12 over the last three seasons. He also only allowed six passed balls in 848 innings last year, which is above average. For comparison, Romine allowed six passed balls in 563 innings, and has made seven errors over the last three years while catching about a third of Maldonado’s innings.
Maldonado is also known for having a solid throwing arm, although it took a slight step back this year. After gunning down 46 out of of a possible 110 baserunners (41.8%) from 2017-2018, Maldonado only caught 10 out of 39 last year (26%), which is right around league average. Still, his career 36% success rate trumps Romine’s career 23% figure, and even rivals Gary Sanchez’s 33% rate.
The one aspect of Maldonado’s defense that isn’t above-average is his pitch-framing, although it isn’t exactly a liability, either. His Statcast 48.2% strike rate was 0.5% worse than Romine’s last year, and 1.2% higher than Sanchez’s. Per StatCorner’s catching metrics, Maldonado is slightly better at stealing strikes outside the zone than Romine, but worse at framing strikes in the zone.
Maldonado can also hit a little bit for a perceived glove-first guy. His career .644 OPS is pedestrian, but he has popped 35 home runs over his last three years. He struggles with plate discipline and will never be a bopper, but there are far worse options to bat ninth on a day off for Gary Sanchez.
Sanchez is part of what makes the backup catcher position so important for the Yankees. I’ve gone on the record numerous times explaining why Sanchez is one of the best catchers in the league, and Maldonado certainly shouldn’t be stealing his playing time. However, Sanchez hasn’t exactly stayed healthy of late. He also may require a day or two at the DH spot a week. In that way, Maldonado could play more than a usual backup catcher, much like how Romine did for the last four years.
It’s imperative that the Yankees replace the capable Romine with another solid backup catcher, and Maldonado is probably the best one available. While Higashioka is a viable internal option, Maldonado’s familiarity with Cole could give him that extra leg up in negotiations with the Yankees.