Mark Smith wrote an interesting piece last week about Braves prospect Christian Bethancourt. Bethancourt is, of course, the top defensive catching prospect in the minors and the owner of superhuman pop times. Bethancourt is also an unpolished hitter with a poor plate approach and raw power that has yet to show up in games. Despite the negatives Smith arrived at a logical conclusion by writing that Bethancourt could contribute to a team with his defense even if he never reaches his offensive potential.
Smith’s post about coming to terms with Bethancourt’s offense is just the latest example in what amounts to a paradigm shift in the analytical community regarding defense-first catchers. Think of it in terms of prospect theory: We're no longer looking at what they cost you at the plate, but what they gain you behind it. Teams may be thinking this way, too.
Consider this past offseason. The Rays chose to retain Jose Molina—who hit .223/.286/.355 last season—as their starting catcher, and did not upgrade over their similarly light-hitting main or secondary backup options, Jose Lobaton and Chris Gimenez. All three rate well by most framing measures, with Molina taking his customary spot as the godfather of the bunch. The Pirates signed another king of framing, Russell Martin, to a two-year deal after he posted a career-worst on-base percentage. Then there’s Martin's former team, the Yankees, who will enter the season with defensive ace Chris Stewart as their primary backstop. Granted, teams always employed more glove-first catchers than hitting-happy fans wanted to tolerate. But if this is the start of a new trend, then look for the Q rating of Brewers backup Martin Maldonado to skyrocket.
Maldonado, who’s entering his first full big-league season, debuted in 2011 and appeared in 78 games with Milwaukee last year. Coming up through the minors, the 26-year-old never appeared on a Kevin Goldstein prospect list, and for good reason. Originally a 27th-round selection by the Angels in 2004, Maldonado was released in 2007. He latched on with the Brewers soon thereafter, and four seasons later Baseball America ranked him the 18th-best prospect in a weak system, even after awarding him four titles as the "Best Defensive Catcher" of the organization and various leagues. To be fair to the Angels, Goldstein, BA, and every other prospector, there was good reason to doubt Maldonado: He couldn't hit. Not in rookie ball (career .568 OPS), not in High-A or Double-A; the only level at which Maldonado owns a career OPS of more than .700 is Triple-A, thanks to his time in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League.
Yet Maldonado did hit in 2012, to the tune of a .257 True Average. His chances of sustaining that level of offensive production seem slim. Maldonado is still an aggressive swinger at the plate whom pitchers can take advantage of with off-speed stuff. He does have enough pull power to hammer mistakes, and to his credit he did walk in about seven percent of his plate appearances in 2012. Even should Maldonado slip a bit (PECOTA projects a .246 TAv), it does seem fair to suggest that he'll remain above the point at which the negative value of his bat would outweigh the positive value of his glove.
That's good news for Maldonado's prospects, the Brewers, and yes, us onlookers—there aren't many backstops providing more entertainment behind the dish than Maldonado. Here's a challenge for the skeptics with MLB.tv: Watch one of Wily Peralta's starts with Maldonado and keep track of how many pitches it takes before your eyes no longer focus on Peralta and his devilish sinker, but on Maldonado and his angelic movements behind the dish.
Maldonado possesses a wide assortment of defensive gifts. He has strong wrists and soft hands, which enable him to frame pitches well while sticking tough sinkers and the like. When batters do reach he shows a strong arm, enabling him to throw out runners when challenged on a steal attempt or when he's feeling dissed by a large secondary lead. The qualitative stuff is harder to see, though in watching Maldonado you'll notice that he appears to ace the cheerleading phase of the field general test. He's also a heady player who recorded five bunt hits because of an opportunistic attitude instead of great raw speed. (Two other trivial aspects worth noting: He returns the ball by pegging it back to the mound, and he cuts his teammates’ hair.)
Maldonado's marriage of undeniable defensive skills and shaky offensive potential makes him sound like a typical backup catcher. And he might be nothing more than that. Even with Jonathan Lucroy signed through the 2016 season, Doug Melvin has no incentive to move Maldonado without receiving good value. Just last July Melvin opted to trade George Kottaras instead of demoting Maldonado. Still, if it's not Maldonado that a value-seeking team targets, then it'll be another young, cheap backstop with more glove than bat. Perhaps Bethancourt, Cameron Rupp, or another next Maldonado still in the minors.