By Hiram Alberto Torraca
Like the rest of the Puerto Ricans in the major leagues, the past week has been painfully disconcerting for Angels catcher Martín Maldonado. He normally talks to his mother every day, but after Hurricane María devastated the island last Wednesday, it wasn’t until Friday that he managed to connect with his brother.
“I felt so great to get that call,” Maldonado told the Orange County Register. “It was bad. It was really bad, just thinking how I hadn’t heard from anybody.”
Maldonado added that his family is safe and that his home escaped damage.
But the aftermath of the storm has left an island of 3.5 million people in dire straits. On Monday, Governor Ricardo Rosselló warned that Puerto Rico was approaching a “humanitarian crisis.” The whole island continues to go without power, hospitals have run out or are running out of diesel to run their generators, and 60 percent of the population lacks running water.
And Maldonado, like everybody else on the mainland who is from the island or has family and friends living there, feels completely helpless. He said that he would join the fundraising efforts of countryman and St. Louis catcher Yadier Molina.
Which in itself is an interesting pairing. After seven years in the minors and six years as a backup at Milwaukee, Maldonado finally got a chance to play full-time this season in Anaheim, the team that originally drafted him in 2004 in the 27th round. Thanks to an unexpected trade last December, he’s blossomed into one of the best defensive catchers around, on par, dare we say, with Molina.
The man called ‘Machete’
The numbers don’t lie. Maldonado’s nickname is “Machete” — he cuts them down. As of Sept. 25, he was second in the majors with 29 runners caught stealing, with the Angels sputtering in the American League wild-card race with six games to go.
Maldonado complements his strong arm with soft hands. Despite leading all catchers with 134 games, and his 1,120.1 innings of work right behind Molina’s output, Maldonado has just two errors to his name, and is second overall with a .998 fielding percentage.
More telling, the most recent SABR Defensive Index (SDI) — an aggregate of various metrics that counts toward 25 percent of the voting for the Gold Glove — ranks Maldonado as the most outstanding catcher and the fourth-ranked player overall.
His 11.8 rating is more than double that of the American League’s second-ranked backstop, Sandy León of the Boston Red Sox. The Junior Circuit’s reigning king, Kansas City’s Salvador Pérez — who has won four straight Gold Gloves — is seventh with a 2.3 rating and in danger of losing his hold on the award.
“I finally got to achieve my goal, which was to start. And I’ve been able to do the job,” Maldonado said in Spanish in an interview with La Vida Baseball at the end of August.
Man of faith
A stocky 6-foot, 230-pounder raised in the town of Naguabo on the east coast of Puerto Rico, Maldonado is a man of faith. Until this season, he was mainly known for a couple of unusual highlights.
In 2014 against the Pittsburgh Pirates, he literally hit the cover off the ball on a grounder to third base. On the throw to first, the ball fell apart in mid-air and Maldonado was credited with an infield hit.
In 2015 against the Diamondbacks, he caught a 17-inning game, ending the marathon with a home run, his first career walk-off dinger.
“I think that God has a purpose for everything. I went through apprenticeships season after season to get to this point. The years in Milwaukee gave me the maturity, intelligence and patience,” Maldonado said. “Maybe I wasn’t a starting catcher earlier because I wasn’t ready. After starting anew here with the Angels, God wanted this to be my year.”
Maldonado turned 31 on Aug. 16. He is proof that age is just a number. Until this season he had never played in more than 79 games or had more than 256 plate appearances.
And while he’s never been much of a hitter — lifetime .217 average — he plays for an old-school manager in Mike Scioscia, a two-time All-Star catcher with the Dodgers.
“Scioscia has given me a lot of confidence,” Maldonado said. “He’s helped me a lot and I’ve taken advantage of him because I want to continue learning and improving. I don’t have to hit .300 to play. I just have to play good defense.
“Mike is not too concerned about my hitting. I just have to do the small things and be able to bunt, hit-and-run and advance the runners. If you know how to block errant pitches and call a good game, Scioscia is happy.”
But being an everyday starter seems to have played a role in his success.
“It’s easier to start than to be a backup,” he says. “I have my routine and I think that it’s physically less tiring. It’s not as easy to find your rhythm and recover when you play only once a week.
“I don’t want days off. I learned from catchers such as Yadier Molina and Jonathan Lucroy who didn’t like to take days off and who prepared themselves to play every day. There’s a saying: ‘The day you take off might be the day you were going to have a great game.’”
Playing with the Angels has also allowed Maldonado to appreciate teammates Albert Pujols and Mike Trout, two hard-working superstars who, combined, have five MVP awards and 16 All-Star selections.
“Albert is a great leader, a future Hall of Famer and a player who always gives 100 percent. I can say that he’s one of the best teammates that I’ve had in my career,” Maldonado said.
“Trout is a tremendous talent, loves what he does and is very similar to Francisco Lindor because he’s always laughing and enjoying the game. You rarely see him mad and I think that’s the reason he has two MVP awards.”
During Players Weekend, when the players were allowed to sport their nicknames on the back of their jerseys, Maldonado pulled a switch and wore Cascajo, Spanish for a rock chip or gravel.
“My father used to work in construction and that’s what they called him,” Maldonado said. “I was able to honor him by wearing his nickname on my jersey.”
Maldonado now wants to honor his mother, Janet Valdez, by winning the Gold Glove. During all those years in the minors, she unconditionally supported his dreams, to the point of helping him pay for his car.
“There were times I wasn’t promoted to the next level and I would ponder whether to quit and go back to school,” Maldonado said. “They were seven tough years. I had to struggle a lot and that has helped me appreciate more what I have today. I’ve earned everything.
“Since I found out that I would be the starting catcher, I made the Gold Glove a goal. It would mean a lot for my family and me. It would validate all the work and sacrifice that’s been put into it.”
It’s one man’s journey, but he never gave up. If Maldonado were to win an award this season, Puerto Ricans should take heed and remember during their island’s reconstruction, every machetazo counts.
Featured Image: Hannah Foslien / Getty Images Sport