Yesterday, prior to the Houston Astros and Oakland Athletics game, Brian McTaggart reported comments Astros general manager made about their approach to the trade deadline. “We are also looking at the market and seeing if there’s an upgrade available. It would mean one of the two guys we have now would not be on this team. We obviously have to consider that very carefully.”
Luhnow specifically did not name which catcher he was planning to drop. In the event no move is made, that might be tactical. Like a gunman in a firing squad who has a blank, each catcher can cling to the idea that maybe it wasn’t him who was being pushed to the gangplank.
But there really isn’t a mystery. The Astros aren’t going to get rid of Robinson Chirinos, who has been catching 75% of the games this season. Max Stassi is the one hanging by a thread.
I also say this because this is the same situation as last year, and at the same exact time. The Astros were not satisfied with their catching. They had an offensive catcher who wasn’t really hitting in McCann (who was also on the DL) and they had Stassi. They brought in Martin Maldonado, who became the starting catcher. McCann, the offensive catcher, was relegated to backup duties, and Stassi was pushed aside altogether. One week ago, the Houston Astros went out looking for a catcher again, and once again it was Maldonado.
Crawfish Boxes readers are familiar with my opinion of Max Stassi and on framing. I’ve written an absurd proportion of my pieces on Max Stassi and on catching, to the point that our associate editor Brian Cohn mocks me on a regular basis about it. I’ve tried writing about other things. Inherited runners and relief pitching, the character of Minute Maid Park, why I felt confident Yuli Gurriel would rebound from a poor start (I wish I’d finished that article, I’d have looked absolutely prophetic), but they never held my interest, and I ended up scrapping those ideas. But I find catching fascinating.
I’m not going to convince the Astros that they should hang onto Stassi with this article. I’ve already learned I’m not going to convince the readers they should buy into Stassi. People have blocked me on Twitter for my views on Stassi and catching. (That’s right, people, plural) A fair portion of readers will skip to the bottom to comment without reading anything except the headline.
I don’t care. I’m going to write this anyways.
The Astros are ready to move on from Max Stassi, and that would be a mistake.
1. Max Stassi isn’t hitting, but he doesn’t need to hit.
Stassi’s last game was this past Sunday, catching Rogelio Armenteros’ first major league start. He went 0 for 3 at the plate and struck out twice. That’s close to as ineffectual a game as you can have.
WAR is a fairly straightforward concept. If you have a bad game, below replacement level, your WAR will go down. A good one, it’s going to go up. Max Stassi had an 0 for 3 game with 2 K’s, and his WARP (Baseball Prospectus’ version of WAR) did not budge, even though his 0-fer offensive performance was worth -0.8 batting runs above average.
So why didn’t his WAR change? Because that same game, he had +0.8 runs above average on the defensive side: 0.7 framing runs above average and 0.1 blocking runs above average. (In fact, his season WARP actually went up a tiny fraction, such that it went from a 0.4 to 0.5 with rounding.)
Max Stassi’s defense is so good that he can do nothing offensively, and it still doesn’t hurt.
2. Max Stassi isn’t just good at framing. He’s amazing at it.
This isn’t a discussion about whether you like the idea of framing or not. I understand people’s objections to it. The rules define what the strike zone is, and framing is the art of getting the umpire to alter that definition in your team’s favor. Framing isn’t playing within the rules. It’s playing with the rules.
I also understand that some years down the line, it’s probable that an electronic strike zone may be instituted in major league baseball, making framing obsolete. But until that happens, framing is still real, and it has a very large impact on the game.
Max Stassi led the majors in 2018 in his first full season with a CSAA (Called Strikes Above Average) of 0.022. In 2019, in his limited playing time, Stassi is leading the majors again, and his CSAA is even higher at 0.027.
He’s not just the nose of a peloton either. Although Austin Hedges is keeping pace at 0.027 and Tyler Flowers is his usual great framing self at 0.021, the next closest after Stassi, Hedges and Flowers has just a 0.015 CSAA. Max Stassi gets almost twice as many extra strikes as the fourth ranked catcher in the majors.
Whether you like framing or not, the data is there. Stassi is amazing at the most impactful part of catching defense.
3. Max Stassi is also not this bad at hitting.
Stassi is having an undeniably terrible year at the plate. He is batting .159 and was a 24 wRC+. Those aren’t just bad numbers. They’re abysmal. But he’s also only had 90 plate appearances. An everyday player like Alex Bregman reaches 90 plate appearances before April is even over. Players have bad Aprils. Stassi’s April is just spread out over 4 months.
Even if you don’t buy that, then you can look at Statcast’s expected batting average. By exit velocities and launch angles, Stassi’s xBA is .204, 45 points higher than his actual batting average. For comparison, Robinson Chirinos’ xBA by exit velocities and launch angles is .196, 24 points lower than his actual batting average. That’s not to say Stassi is a better hitter than Chirinos. He’s not. Chirinos’ walk rate, HBP rate and extra base hits still make Chirinos a better bat.
But Stassi is a better hitter than the Stassi we’ve seen so far. Stassi’s .204 xBA is still not very good, but Stassi is a defensive catcher, so everything you get from his bat is gravy. With a 66 DRC+, there’s been no gravy this year, but he’s still been worth positive WARP (0.5). That will only get better, considering he is hitting 45 points below his expected batting average.
4. Max Stassi is among the best there is at catcher defense.
Hitting isn’t even the issue the Astros are trying to address. The Astros lineup is stacked. Their interest in Maldonado suggests they wanted a defensive catcher. The Astros weren’t interested in reacquiring Maldonado for his bat. Martin Maldonado has always been terrible at the plate. Last year the Astros would routinely use Maldonado the same way NL teams use pitchers when they bat: if there are runners on and less than 2 outs, bunt.
They want Maldonado’s defense. But if you are interested in production from the catcher from the defensive side of the ball, why not start with the catcher who is the best at the most impactful aspect of catcher defense? Is Maldonado’s throwing and blocking ability so good that it trumps Stassi’s framing? It isn’t. Maldonado has been worth 4.8 catcher defensive runs above average this year in 631.2 innings. Stassi has been worth 5.7 catcher defensive runs above average. . . in 201 innings.
If the Astros want the best defensive catcher they can get, he is already on their team.
5. Pitchers prefer not to throw to Stassi, but should that matter?
One of the more common arguments I hear against Stassi is that Justin Verlander doesn’t like pitching to him, therefore Stassi must not be good at game calling. Nobody’s really found a good way to objectively measure or valuate game calling, so discussion of whether a catcher is good or bad at game calling ends up being primarily speculation.
But it would be an ungrounded conclusion to say that because a pitcher doesn’t like Stassi catching them, that means that Stassi is bad at game calling. Why should we assume that pitchers know what is best for their pitching? Pitchers hated the shift (and many still do), and that’s been well proven to be beneficial to them. Do pitchers even recognize what Stassi is doing when he does it? When Stassi frames a borderline pitch as a strike, does Gerritt Cole think, “Stassi did a great job framing that,” or does he think “I just threw an awesome pitch”? I am inclined to believe the latter.
So should it matter if pitchers prefer not to throw to Stassi? I’m sure Cole would prefer not to have Trevor Bauer be his teammate, but the Astros were rumored to be kicking the tires on him. Last year, based on player reactions, I’m sure many of them would have preferred to not have acquired Osuna, but what they preferred did not matter. Forget pitcher preference. If playing Stassi means a 2-2 count instead of a 3-1 count at a critical at-bat, play him.
6. The Houston Astros have not been good at evaluating catching.
I saved this one for last, because in an article that is essentially a list of unpopular opinions, this will be the most unpopular by a country mile. To suggest that the Astros front office is anything but infallible is equal to heresy. Prior to this season, I would have joined the masses in demanding anyone who wrote an article like this be burned at the stake. But after minimal digging, I’ve come across too many puzzling decisions.
In 2017, the Astros carried three catchers on their postseason roster. Juan Centeno was “the defensive catcher” behind McCann and Gattis. I believed it. The only problem was Juan Centeno was terrible at defense. In his only season with appreciable playing time, 2016 with the Twins, Centeno was poor at throwing out baserunners, and one of the worst in majors in framing and blocking.
In 2018, the Astros decided Gattis was too poor a catcher to be anything but a designated hitter. I believed it. The data does support that Gattis was poor at blocking and throwing. But Gattis was actually an above average framer, and while he hit poorly for a designated hitter, his hitting actually would have been above average for a catcher. While Gattis was not a good DH in 2018, he actually would have been a decent catcher.
In 2019, the Astros tried to reacquire Maldonado. This is the most baffling of all. Maldonado’s defense is not good enough to outweigh Chirinos’ offense. Maldonado’s ability to throw out baserunners is not impactful enough to outweigh Stassi’s framing. The difference in 2018 between a 90th percentile and 10th percentile catcher in throwing was just one throwing run over 825 innings. Maldonado is not an upgrade over either catcher.
Getting rid of Max Stassi would be one more addition to a list of missteps in evaluating catching.
I don’t expect any of this to convince anyone. But I’ve been on the Max Stassi ship all season, and it’s been a lonely boat ride. Maybe it’s not a boat though. Maybe it’s a submarine. Because the best parts of it, people don’t see.