Martín Maldonado is making it hard to appreciate his soft skills

White Sox catcher Martín Maldonado
Martín Maldonado (Photo by Joseph Weiser/Icon Sportswire)

There are a few things that make Pedro Grifol a difficult listen, notably the utter lack of humor despite the circumstances, and the way his answers just … keep … going, until they start eating their own tail.

But even if his responses to questions were shorter and funnier, he’d still have to contend with the biggest issue: There isn’t a reason to believe him. His inability to hold players accountable or speak truth to (clubhouse) power last season means that you can’t trust him to diagnose an issue when it could actually make a difference this time around.

For instance, when it comes to catchers, Grifol said the White Sox “were really poor” at game-planning and game-management … in November, when the Sox added Drew Butera to Grifol’s staff as a catching coach. It was a rather stark contrast to Grifol’s preseason projection of “elite” preparation, and it would’ve been a lot more useful to hear while Yasmani Grandal was still on the payroll, even if only to show that Grifol could identify the problems in real time.

Since Grifol passed on every opportunity to be a reliable narrator, a new year and new catcher is waterlogged with the same old problem of figuring out whether to believe Grifol or your lying eyes.

Martín Maldonado ran the risk of exploding on the White Sox after joining the team on a one-year, $4 million contract because he’d been a flashpoint during the 2023 season with a far better team. His physical skills eroded in his final year with the Astros — which is to be expected for a 36-year-old catcher — but his reputation as a pitcher-whisperer remained impeccable, so Dusty Baker chose to hide Maldonado in the Houston lineup, even at the expense of a promising rookie catcher in Yainer Diaz.

Smash-cut to today, when Maldonado is a year older and playing for a franchise in disarray, and it’s a a predictable mess. His metrics continue to trend in the wrong direction if they’re not already languishing, even if he’s short of events to qualify in many categories …

Martín Maldonado Statcast rankings

… and because the White Sox lack any semblance of a supporting cast, his shortcomings are now front and center.

Consecutive half-innings late in Game 1 of Wednesday’s doubleheader put his problems on both sides of the ball under the microscope. With Paul DeJong on second and two outs in the bottom of the seventh, Grifol let Maldonado hit for himself. Maldonado worked the count to 3-2, but he extended the at-bat by fouling off ball four, then took strike three right down the middle.

It’s never exactly fair to use one plate appearance to condemn a hitter, but it’s easier to do so when said hitter is 2-for-33 with 12 strikeouts in 2024, and a .183 hitter over the last three seasons.

But Maldonado isn’t expected to hit. Maldonado is expected to defend, which made his attempt to cut down Bobby Witt Jr. on a stolen-base attempt all the more bewildering.

Witt is fast enough that he might’ve outrun even an on-target throw, but Maldonado’s imitation of Carlton Banks’ buzzer-beater gave us no way of knowing.

At least until the eighth inning of Game 2, when Korey Lee was behind the plate for a nearly identical situation.

Lee didn’t have to contend with Witt, but Dairon Blanco’s sprint speed rivals Witt’s, and he used those wheels to steal 24 bases in 29 attempts last year, followed by a 5-for-5 start in 2024.

Blanco is now 5-for-6, because Lee made an on-target throw.

Sure, that throw also required Nicky Lopez to make a slick pick and tag, but Lee gave him something to work with. Lopez caught the throw at second base, rather than shallow center field.

The polar opposite outcomes created a situation where Grifol had to comment on both catchers after the game. Regarding Maldonado hitting for himself, Grifol said …

“No, we were up at the time. I’m not doing that. I’m keeping my catcher in there with the lead. He puts the right fingers down. He knows what he’s doing back there. I’m not doing that at that time.”

… except to eyes both trained and untrained, the present form of Maldonado does not look like he knows what he’s doing back there, and praising the “right fingers” is especially poorly timed during a game where Salvador Perez hit a go-ahead homer on a first-pitch fastball in the zone. Combine his production on both sides of the ball, and he’s the fifth-least valuable player in baseball, despite receiving far less playing time than the four beneath him. WAR may not capture everything, but it captures what a player is showing. Maldonado is giving us nothing to work with, and intangibles simply aren’t load-bearing on a team that’s 3-15.

Meanwhile, regarding Lee’s successful throw, Grifol said …

“Every time I see him throw, there’s very few people in the game that throw like that. Have that kind of arm strength and that kind of footspeed and transfer. Drew is doing a really good job of trying to get him under control and make him understand that he doesn’t have to rear back to throw. He’s got plenty of arm strength and plenty of quickness. That’s just an example, he got a good pitch to throw on, the transfer was clean and the ball just kind of stayed up. It was a really good play by Nicky, but [Lee] got rid of that ball and that ball had some velocity on it.”

… which reminds everybody that the White Sox have an actual catching coach who should be able to help with things like game-planning, management and technique. Butera’s presence makes it even harder to consider Maldonado a structural necessity rather than a $4 million redundancy.

For Lee’s part, he’ll always praise Maldonado, dating back to their overlapping in Houston, but that’s partially because he does not yet have the standing to claim he could do a better job. As evidence, here’s Lee praising Grandal last September, a couple months before Grifol said that Grandal didn’t adequately perform the tasks Lee mentioned:

“It’s been a game changer,” said Lee, who is 1-for-19 since joining the White Sox. “I’ve learned every single day, talking with Pedro, talking with Yas about game calling and setups.

“We are feeling good about it. I give all the credit to him for helping me and doing this for me. You don’t see that a lot in older players. I’m very fortunate to have him work with me.”

Lee is obligated to say these things because he knows his role. Grifol’s role as manager is to render more objective judgments in a timely fashion, whether with words or playing time. Alas, when it comes to veterans, his instinct is to object, obscure and obfuscate in the hopes the situation will resolve itself. Based on what we saw in 2023 with Grandal, Tim Anderson, Andrew Benintendi, Yoán Moncada and others, he never gets so lucky.

With eight-ninths of the season remaining, it’s not quite yet the time to pull the plug on Maldonado. He should have a little bit of regression on his side, and even if he doesn’t, the Sox could use a few more series to line up their best third-catcher option in Charlotte. Every week the Sox can delay thrusting Lee into an unquestioned starting role lessens the risk that Lee will be overexposed, and thus pushing the Sox into the same dead end.

In the meantime, Maldonado’s struggles give Grifol an opening to practice voicing concerns about veterans who aren’t meeting expectations, in something resembling a proactive fashion. There isn’t reason to think he’ll take advantage of that opportunity, but if he continues to be so unwilling to entertain alternatives on the field, it should embolden the White Sox front office to entertain alternatives in the dugout.

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John

Maldonado should be cut when Stassi comes back. Lee is a better catcher in almost every way. Maybe Maldonado can come back as a special advisor or something if they really want his “pitcher whisperer” skills and for him to work with the catchers. Such a position would allow him to go work with Quero more, too. But he’s toast as a player.

Also, did anyone notice that the Sox have #5-7 on that least valuable players list…and all three are still starters? I really hope Vaughn is sent down to AAA. I don’t even care if he rejects the assignment to become a FA (not even sure if he has enough service time to do that), but anything to get him off the team. I gave him a pass the first year because he was playing out of position and still not awful. Second year, he looked good in the first half, got tired. Dude should be able to get through a season just fine at his age, but whatever. Then last year, he moved back to his natural position and floundered. This year, he’s much, much worse. I don’t know what’s wrong with him, but the Sox need to try something different. Whatever they’ve been doing clearly isn’t working.

Last edited 29 days ago by John
James Fegan

Stassi is on the 60-day with no real timeline, due to pain in a surgically repaired hip.

Wayne

Thanks for the update. I hope he does get healthy physically. (I would have preferred Seby over Maldonado).

FishSox

If only there were some measurement of how long it takes the catcher to pop up out of his stance, pop off a throw to second and have the infielder pop the ball into his mitt. Then we wouldn’t have to talk in ambiguous terms like strong arms and quick feet and fast releases, we could just have a number pop up for comparison. Maybe Pedro should look into that.

I like your reasoning for not over exposing Lee. Along those lines, when they DFA Maldonado maybe bring up Hackenberg? He’s a bit older and could share the load without grand expectations of him. Then move Quero up to AAA and leave him there for the rest of the year.

I am just so against bringing up any young highly considered prospect and exposing him to this toxic brain fart of a manager.

This is a great article.

Last edited 29 days ago by FishSox
Wayne

Hackenberg needs to continue improving his bat. He has almost a 50% K% right now.

a-t

Maldonado should stick around until Stassi is ready, at which point the Sox should DFA him and offer him a job for exclusively using those soft skills. I do actually value his soft skills– mostly bc the Astros clearly did– but he’s physically kaput, and Lee looks to be pretty worthy of more playing time to develop.

Long-term, C looks like a bright spot for us. Lee is presently competent defensively, tho w some room for growth on framing, and if he gets to his ample power somewhat regularly he’ll be starter-ish quality.

Quero meanwhile has gotten reports of good progress with the glove, and has been pulling the ball in the air a *lot* in the early going at Bham. We’ll see if it continues, but he’s hit 4 long balls in 40 PA after just 6 in 455 last year. This is really exciting stuff even w a tiny sample, bc:

  1. He just turned 21: he’s 2.7y younger than the mean Southern League player
  2. Catchers and switch-hitters both take longer than most to develop with the bat
  3. He’s already got a track record of plus bat-to-ball ability and plate discipline

This is all the type of underlying stuff that suggests “if he adds pop he’ll be a stud”. Could see something like a Will Smith type outcome for him now.

hitlesswonder

Quero might actually be the best position prospect in the system…maybe?

FishSox

In a meritocracy you’ve got a good argument. That qualifier though, isn’t always in play.

a-t

I think it’s still Montgomery for now— more demonstrated offensive prowess, esp re the pop in the bat. Quero needs to show this power surge is more than a hot couple weeks

Sox1955

It is a miracle that we did not sign Whit Merrifield. Otherwise, we would have 4 of the bottom 15.

upnorthsox

Well at least part of the die has been cast with Stassi going on the 60 day, the next question is what the starting splits should be. IMO it should be 50/50 at a minimum with the trend going towards Lee if nothing changes.
I just hope Lee continues to hit, I’d hate for this to play out to the end because there’s no other viable alternative.

FishSox

But, how can you consider Maldonado a “viable alternative”? He’s been a train wreck. The last thing you want at this point is having young pitchers that have no confidence in their catcher being able to block anything or help protect against the running game. For all his untangibles, there’s another side of the knife, that’s causing young pitchers to put too much empahsis on things other than the next pitch and how to get hitters out.

Adam

I’d have no issue with Maldonado sticking around if the roles were reversed. Play Lee 70-80% of the time, Maldonado can be a backup. He can mentor Lee mid game as he sees room for improvement. Just not Maldonado every freaking day.

South Side Hit Men

Jerry will likely cutting payroll below $100M next season. Otherwise, I could see at least a slim probability Getz/La Russa/Grifol would argue to exercise his $4M club option in 2025 over the $250K buyout, for the same insular reasons Getz, Tony and or Pedro wanted to sign him in the first place.

That said, I am glad the Sox brought in Narron with Tony, and restored the catcher coaching position with Butera, as it can only help Lee, Quero and others in the organization.

FishSox

Why do you believe Jerry will be below 100M?

hitlesswonder

It’s a real possibility. If Moncada and Jimenez are gone, Benintendi and Robert are the last big contracts. I think their contractual obligations are only in the $50M-$60M range without Moncada/Eloy/Stassi/Maldonado. If they fill out the team like the did this year, with a larger cohort of rookies, they could easily be below $100M.

Historically, the Sox have been unwilling to spend on losing teams…only the future knows…

Last edited 29 days ago by hitlesswonder
South Side Hit Men

I concur with @hitlesswonder’s comments, but would also add the Sox were at the bottom of the MLB in payroll their final four seasons at Comiskey Park. I don’t see Jerry spending further until the stadium situation is sorted out (they extend their current lease, secure another Chicago or Suburb location and or sign an agreement outside of Illinois).

The only way I see the Sox improving over the next few years is for a very huge turnaround in player development, and fans embracing a new core in a few years which would increase revenue and thus possibly increase payroll spending to close out the 2020s.

asinwreck

Maybe Getz is letting Maldonado accumulate so much negative WAR on a guaranteed contract so he can convince Reinsdorf that firing Grifol and replacing him with Maldonado as manager represents a solid investment.

hitlesswonder

I am weirdly OK with this scenario

FishSox

Funny, wouldn’t that make Maldonado higher paid as a manager than TLR? Could this be another record contract?

Last edited 29 days ago by FishSox
Warren Z

Lee has one hit in his last 13 at-bats, and is a .135 career hitter.

So, I’m not sure if force-feeding him plate appearances against all types of pitchers would be in his best interests right now.

Lee had a horrible showing for us at the plate last season, so it’s best to be judicious with the playing time that he receives.

I don’t care what Maldonado hits. If he can play a key role in developing our young starters, then that is the main thing. Crochet, Nastrini and Cannon have had very good starts this year. If Maldonado goes 0 for 3, but the young starter pitches well, then I feel Maldonado has done his main job.

Jeffrey

If it were true that Maldonado is helping to develop the young starters, I would agree with this. But when he doesn’t block balls in the dirt, doesn’t frame well, and most of all drops strikes, which he does more often than any catcher I can remember watching, I wonder whether he’s helping or hurting the young pitchers’ development.

calcetinesblancos

If you think Lee’s bat is bad, wait until you see the stats for the rest of the Sox. The difference is that Lee has barely had a chance at the MLB level, while much of the rest of the lineup has no such excuse.

perry

Call way more pitchouts and bat Moldanado seventh or eighth. The catcher clogs the bases batting ninth ( even though Moldanado never gets on).

calcetinesblancos

At this point, clearly Lee should be the “starter” with Maldonado looking so bad and Stassi on the shelf. Quero looks great, but you’d assume they won’t be bringing him up anytime soon, so Lee should be getting a long look, especially with his defense looking decent. I want to see how he does for an entire season.

As for his bat, it would be the most White Sox thing ever to decide Lee was a bust offensively with less than 200 MLB plate appearances under his belt, so that is what I expect to happen. This team is run by imbeciles.