Max Stassi was not on many people’s radar entering the season. He was not a certain bet to make the Opening Day roster, but with Evan Gattis moving into a full time DH role and Brian McCann getting up there in age, it appears Stassi should see plenty of big league action this year for the Astros as a fill-in catcher.
Stassi has always been a solid fundamental defensive catcher, and offers upgrades over Gattis in terms of glove skills, framing, and throwing out base stealers. Yet, it is his offense making the most noise out of the gates, as in only seven games he is batting .368/.455/.632 with a home run in 19 at-bats. His gaudy 214 wRC+ is fourth in the majors and first on the Astros this far into the season. Though it’s a small sample size, many are wondering if Stassi can keep it up.
I'm not sure how well he will play all season, but I've been impressed by Max Stassi. pic.twitter.com/n5eKrwApRq— Astros By The Numbers (@astro_numbers) April 8, 2018
Although he has always had good natural power, throughout his career Stassi has struggled offensively. He showed flashes of consistency early on in his minor league career with Oakland, but since joining the Astros in 2013, Stassi had not had a single season grading as an above average hitter before 2017. Stassi has always struggled with strike outs, and the issue was exacerbated from 2014-2016, in which he had a three-year average 25.67% K-rate at the AAA level.
In the off-season before last, Stassi made considerable changes to his approach at the plate. He tweaked his swing to be more compact and smooth, and worked to increase his discipline at the plate. It paid off for him in 2017, as he had a career year for the Fresno Grizzlies, batting .266/.383/.473 with twelve homers and a 127 wRC+ in 287 at-bats. Most notably, he downed his strikeout rate to a respectable level (23.3%), and improved his walk-rate to an excellent 13.2% rate, a career high for Stassi.
Stassi waited for his pitches, made contact more often, packed more power, and got on base more consistently for the Fresno Grizzlies in 2017, and it showed in the stats. Yes, it was in the Pacific Coast League, which is notorious for inflating offensive statistics, but it was encouraging improvement nonetheless.
But his 2018 success has been a mixed bag so far - while he is slugging the ball at an impressive rate, he has already struck out in 8 of his 22 plate appearances this season. That is not a particularly good sign for Stassi, who has an abysmal 27% career K% with the Astros.
Furthermore, his .600 batting average on balls hit in play does not indicate that Stassi’s current averages are likely to sustain (shocking, I know). But the question is, once Stassi regresses to the mean, will the mean be an average/above average Major League batter? Time will tell.
We’ve seen very slight swing adjustments make very dramatic impacts to players before, and it’s not impossible that Stassi can continue producing at an impressive level. He is seeing the ball really well right now, and is as hot as anyone in the league in terms of averages.
But, if Stassi wants any chance to survive at the big-league level, he’ll need to return to what led to his minor league success in 2017 - staying patient at the plate, drawing walks, and most importantly, limiting strikeouts. If Stassi can become a weapon and get on base at the bottom of the Astros lineup, the Astros offense will become even more dangerous as the year progresses.