The Astros are certainly loaded with talent - at both the professional and minor league level - but that doesn’t mean the team lacks areas to improve.
Over the past couple of seasons, one position has emerged as a long-term area of need - the catcher position. The Astros have had talent at the Major League position with Evan Gattis, Brian McCann, and formerly Jason Castro all making reasonable contributions over the past couple of seasons, but with the former two getting up in age, and Gattis moving to a full-time DH role, the future of the catcher position has emerged as a question mark.
At the Minor League level, the Astros have had players who have shown promise, but no one had really stepped up to stamp their name in as the team’s perceived “catcher of the future”. That is, until now.
Max Stassi has never been considered one of the Astros elite prospects - injuries and inconsistent offensive production had always plagued him throughout his Minor League career. This is a scouting report on Stassi from 2016:
“The scouting reports for Max Stassi have not changed much. He has power and is a home run threat but his aggressive approach cuts into his contact ability; he’ll struggle to hit .240 in the majors and his OBP will be low.”
Yet lo and behold, here we are 57 games into the 2018 season and Max Stassi still leads the Astros in wRC+ (156). Stassi has always hit for decent power - which has continued this season (.258 ISO, 5 homers in 98 plate appearances) - but in 2018 he has done it all. He is currently batting .303/.367/.562 on the season, thanks in part to a swing change Stassi made last year that made his stroke more compact and consistent. He has also crushed lefties to the tune of a .500 average and 269 wRC+.
Yet it’s not just offense that is elevating Stassi’s standing with the organization, and its not his arm strength either. What is seperating Stassi from the pack this season? Framing.
In case you’re unfamiliar, framing is the simple act of a catcher disguising balls as strikes. The best framers can have a big impact on the game and on their pitcher’s performance, as the rise of sabermetrics have shown us the vital importance of count advantage to the outcome of at-bats.
Luckily, several websites have begun tracking framing stats since the inception of Pitch F/X. Statcorner tracks how many favorable calls catchers are able to garner - defined simply as the amount of balls outside of the zone that are called as strikes, minus any strikes that are erroneously ruled balls.
According to Pitch F/X, the very best catchers can save their team nearly 30 runs in a single season, roughly worth 3 wins. This is just an estimate however, and framing impact has emerged as an area of debate, with some arguing this is an overestimation of the importance of framing while others have argued the opposite.
Regardless, the stats show Stassi is pretty good at this framing thing. According to StatCorner, Stassi has been a top 15 catcher on the season in terms of framing, saving the Astros an estimated 2 runs that the average catcher would have allowed.
McCann used to be amongst the best in the league at framing, but that skill has declined with age - the stats show McCann has been exactly average on the season, and actually cost the Astros 2.7 runs in 2017. Jason Castro was and remains one of the league’s best framing catchers, so it seems like the skill is something the organization covets.
Stassi is otherwise an average defensive catcher - injuries have diminished his arm strength, but he has looked good at throwing out batters in a small sample (7 of 16, 43.75%), and his glove skills are good. McCann was the easiest catcher to run on of any player that qualified last season, and while he is improving this year, it seems Stassi should at least be able to match McCann’s steal prevention behind the plate.
The bottom line is Stassi needs to continue doing two things to be a valuable asset for the Astros - bat above average (even if just slightly) and frame well. Stassi isn’t out of the woods yet - his .412 BABIP certainly isn’t retainable, the strikeouts have been too common while the walks have been rare, and it’s still very likely the Astros target a catcher or two high in the upcoming draft.
But, give Stassi credit where credit is due - he has single-handedly instilled some confidence into what is widely considered the organization’s weakest position. He’ll have a big chance to continue to showcase his talents on a more consistent basis with Brian McCann on the 10-day disabled list with knee soreness.