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The Prince and the Pauper: The Differing Fortunes of Robinson Chirinos and Max Stassi

Astros catchers Robinson Chirinos and Max Stassi have had wildly diverging starts to their season. On closer inspection though, the two have not been all that different.

Robinson Chirinos and Max Stassi John Glaser-USA TODAY Sports

By any measure available, Houston Astros catcher Max Stassi is having a terrible year at the plate. Having started 8 of the Astros’ 25 games this season, he has just 3 hits in 26 at-bats. He is slashing .115/.148/.231. His OPS of .379 is barely higher than teammate Josh Reddick’s .375 batting average. In wRC+, where 100 is league average, Stassi rates an astoundingly bad -3.

By advanced metrics, the Astros’ worst hitter in 2019 has been their catcher. Except it has not been Max Stassi. It has been Robinson Chirinos.

Wait, what?

Robinson Chirinos, who is batting .273 with an imposing .509 slugging percentage? Chirinos who is fourth in the AL among catchers in fWAR (0.5) and spots a 130 wRC+? Chirinos, the offseason free agent acquisition, who threw out the Twins’ Byron Buxton, ending his stolen base streak, and seems to be on a crash course for his first All-Star Game appearance?

Strangely, yes. Lost amid the early season success of Chirinos is an xBA of .149, which when considering the hit probabilities of Chirinos’ batted balls using exit velocities and launch angles, suggests that Chirinos’ batting average ought to be more than 120 points lower. Chirinos’ xSLG is also far below his actual SLG, coming in at .263. Both his xBA and xSLG rank last on the team.

Stassi, for his part, has not been terribly better in these metrics. His xBA and xSLG ae only marginally higher at .158 and .293. Stassi’s xWOBA comes in lower than Chirinos’ (.210 to .245), owing to some more walks by Chirinos and a couple of hit-by-pitches.

But one catcher is the Prince: the toast of the town. The other is the Pauper: a player who has had fans asking why he is even on the major league roster.

I reported a few weeks ago that whether it was noticed or not, Max Stassi was the AL’s most valuable catcher in 2018 by fWAR. Despite this, Stassi’s value does not seem to be one fans are buying into. There continue to be calls from fans to desigate Stassi for assignment in favor of Round Rock’s Garrett Stubbs.

The Astros themselves do not appear to buying into it either. Before the season, manager A.J. Hinch projected a 50/50 split in workload between the two catchers. After 25 games, Chirinos has started 17; Stassi 8.

Pitching ace Justin Verlander certainly does not seem to buy into it. Through his tenure in Houston, Stassi has caught Verlander only 6 times. All six times occurred when Brian McCann was injured, and before the arrival of trade deadline acquisition Martin Maldonado. One of those starts featured a very public schooling of Stassi by Verlander during a second inning mound visit against the A’s. (Any issues between Verlander and Stassi might be chemistry-related, but it is difficult to argue with the results, as Verlander sported a better ERA and K/9 rate during his six starts with Stassi than in the rest of 2018. )

I am not suggesting Stassi is a better hitter than Chirinos, by any means. We are early into the season. Both players’ career numbers indicate that in the long run, Chirinos is the better hitter. But the two are not as far apart as this season’s early results would suggest. While Stassi has a -3 wRC+ compared to Chirinos’ 130 this year, over their careers they have averaged 93 and 104 respectively. Stassi is a little below average, and Chirinos a little above. But not terribly different.

Defensively, the two have similar efficacy in throwing out baserunners. Stassi has thrown out 2 of 9 base stealers this year. Chirinos has thrown of 3 of 11. Neither are far off their career averages of 26.5% and 25.2% respectively. The league average the past 5 years is 28.8%. Stassi is a little below average, and so is Chirinos. But not terribly different.

Their main difference defensively comes in catcher framing: the ability to receive and present a pitch such that strikes are called strikes and borderline balls also have a chance to be called strikes. Chirinos has posted a negative value for Framing Runs Above Average in every year of his career, including a league worst -15.6 FRA in 2018. During Spring Training, the Astros made it a point of emphasis to improve Chirinos’ framing, working with Hinch, a former catcher, directly.

Through 17 starts, it has not improved much. Although still a small sample, Chirinos continues to post a negative value for framing, with -0.5 FRA.

Meanwhile, in his 8 starts, Stassi ranks 4th in the league in framing with 1.3 FRA. If that seems like a dropoff from his leading the majors outright in 2018, consider the top 5 AL catchers in framing right now:

  1. Martin Maldonado, KCR - 1,5 FRA in 167.1 innings
  2. Danny Jansen, TOR - 1.4 FRA in 135.1 innings
  3. Mike Zunino, TBR - 1.4 FRA in 138 innings
  4. Max Stassi, HOU - 1.3 FRA in 67 innings
  5. Christian Vasquez, BOS - 1.1 FRA in 138.2 innings

Stassi is just 0.2 FRA off the leader, despite catching 100 fewer innings. Prorated to 150 innings (the number Chirinos has caught), Stassi woudl have 2.9 Framing Runs Above Average, which nearly laps the competition.

At the plate, Robinson Chirinos is not this good. Max Stassi is not this bad. Any small differences offensively are likely made up for in their differences defensively.

But for now, Robinson Chirinos is the lauded Prince, and Max Stassi is the spat-upon Pauper. But they may not be all that different. (But not identical, with respect to Mr. Twain.)