Martín Maldonado Crowds the Plate

“Doing the little things right” is an overused cliché in baseball. In its yearning for sacrifice bunts, productive outs, and pitching to contact, it’s one that doesn’t typically go well with the analytical thinking common to this website. But there’s still no better characterization for what Martín Maldonado did in the fifth inning of Game 5 than that very cliché. He did the little things right; in fact, what he did was rather ingenious.

In the early portion of Sunday night’s back-and-forth affair, the Astros erased a four-run deficit but found themselves behind yet again after Freddie Freeman went yard in the bottom of the third. Just two innings later, though, they would take the lead for good. Their half of the fifth went like this: A single by Carlos Correa, a strikeout of Yordan Alvarez, a single by Yuli Gurriel, and then a groundout by Kyle Tucker. With two outs, that left runners on second and third for Alex Bregman, who had been moved down in the order as a result of recent struggles. A.J. Minter and the Braves wanted no part of him nonetheless, not with Maldonado on deck; he seemed like the best matchup by far.

Even in retrospect, the Braves would clearly make the same move again. Maldonado is a career .212/.290/.348 hitter, and over 426 plate appearances with the Astros this season, all three legs of the slash were even worse than that: .172/.272/.300. This postseason, he’s been invisible offensively: .114/.184/.114. Put simply, he is not a threat at the plate. But in the highest-leverage moment of a World Series elimination game, he came through. With the bases now loaded after the intentional free pass, Maldonado walked.

Coming up to hit, Maldonado knew two things. First, he knew that Minter’s No. 1 pitch is his cutter. In the regular season, he threw his cutter 44.2% of the time, making it the most frequent offering in his three-pitch arsenal, and in the postseason, that usage has jumped to 59.9%. Maldonado knew that he was likely to get a fair amount of cutters, and he also knew that if he crowded the plate, he would have a decent shot of getting hit and driving in the run.

“I told the guys, ‘If I get the bases loaded, I’m going to stand on the plate,'” Maldonado told reporters, including Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci, after the game. “I might get hit with a cutter.”

For the lefty Minter, whose cutter had the sixth-most velocity-adjusted horizontal break above average in the league this season, Maldonado crowding home plate could throw a huge wrench into his sequencing. He would have to be extra careful; one bad pitch running in to the righty could spell disaster if it hit him.

As shown on the broadcast, this is where Maldonado stood during his first plate appearance in the second inning:

And this is where he stood in the fifth:

“Did you guys notice how close he was to the plate on the at-bat against Minter?” Correa asked reporters after the game, including Jake Kaplan of The Athletic. “Did you guys notice? That was sick.”

Minter himself clearly noticed.

“I could tell he was going up there trying to work a walk,” Minter said (via Kaplan). “I tried to aim the ball instead of just driving it to the mitt. That’s obviously the one thing I would take back.”

It clearly impacted the outcome of the at-bat. Minter still gave Maldonado a heavy diet of cutters; three of the five pitches in the at bat were his favorite offering. But after the first pitch ran in on him (with Travis d’Arnaud initially set up low and inside), he didn’t go back to that spot until the final pitch of the at bat, when d’Arnaud set up inside yet again, this time a little bit higher, and Minter yanked it.

Look where d’Arnaud set up on each of the first four pitches of the at bat:

All three cutters were low-and-in, perfectly in line with Minter’s bread-and-butter with the pitch all year. Look how he approached right-handed hitters during the regular season, with a heavy diet of exactly what d’Arnaud was looking for: cutters low-and-inside:

Minter would often throw pitches that would run a little too far inside, but even among his furthest cutters on the inside part of the plate (45 of them, though these also include misses more up and down than just purely inside), just one — a cutter to Victor Robles all the way back on April 7 — resulted in a HBP.

But with Maldonado right on the line of the right-handed hitter’s box, there was no margin for error. The first pitch of the at-bat nearly hit him; it was 1.25 feet from the center of home plate to the inside. Of the 167 cutters Minter threw to righties during the regular season, just 19 were that inside, and of the 470 pitches he threw to right-handed hitters total, just 27 burrowed that far in. In the at-bat against Maldonado, he threw not one but two pitches that far inside, with the latter almost two full feet inside from the center of home plate, something he had done just twice to righties all season. Check out where the last pitch ends up:

It was the highest-leverage moment of the game, and after the next batter, Marwin Gonzalez, singled to put Houston ahead 7–5, Maldonado had helped force a Game 6. And I’d like to think it was because he did the littlest of things correctly, all but sacrificing his body with the game and season on the line. Perhaps Maldonado was rewarded by the Baseball Gods with a walk rather than a 95-mph fastball to the back.

Devan Fink is a Contributor at FanGraphs. You can follow him on Twitter @DevanFink.

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The Duke
1 year ago

I don’t know why more players don’t stand right on the plate especially with the runners on base. Brilliant move

1 year ago
Reply to  The Duke

A lot of guys do. You don’t see a lot of hitters standing open and far away from the plate at this point, most are right on top of it. And why wouldn’t they do that when they wear more body armor than medieval knights?