Max Stassi Is Making the Most of a Small Sample (Again)

Last Friday’s trade deadline was one for the ages. If you haven’t checked out all of our analysis here at FanGraphs, I highly recommend you do so. Most of this year’s swaps were of the prospects-for-free-agents-to-be variety, meaning it will take years to assess who got the most out of a trade. Hindsight is 20-20. Even when the Dodgers famously dealt Pedro Martinez for Delino DeShields, it was somewhat defensible at the time, though of course we all know how that ended up. And so in the wake of the deadline passing, I thought I would check in on how a seemingly irrelevant deal from the 2019 deadline is working out: the Angels acquisition of Max Stassi. The Angels are on life support at the moment, having dropped two of three to the Athletics over the weekend to fall below .500. Our latest projections give them a 1.1% chance to make the playoffs. But without the offensive output from Stassi over the past two months, those odds would be even lower.

Since his return from the Injured List on June 1, Stassi has been on a tear, emerging as a quality bat from an unlikely position. His 170 wRC+ is the seventh-best mark among hitters with at least 100 plate appearances over that stretch. He leads all catchers in wRC+ during that span, along with a handful of other categories, including slugging percentage.

As a catcher, he’s not getting the plethora of plate appearances that hitters at other positions get. He’s only eclipsed 200 plate appearances once, in 2018, when he played in 88 games for the Astros and hit .226/.316/.394 for an even 100 wRC+. He ended the year with 2.8 WAR mostly due to his superior skills behind the plate. In 2019, Astros sent him to the the Angels in exchange for two long-shot prospects in the aforementioned deadline deal. He’s a back-up catcher, or at least, he has been up until now. He thrived in a small sample as recently as last year when he slashed .278/.352/.533 with seven homers in just 105 plate appearances. He’s following it up with an even better campaign in 2021. So how has Stassi gone from a glove-first backstop to one of the league’s best hitting catchers?

Let’s first address his BABIP and expected stats. Stassi has a .398 BABIP thus far in 2021. Yes, we’re over halfway through the season, but he’s only just recently passed the 150 plate appearance threshold (174 after yesterday’s contest with the Athletics). Stassi is making the most of a small sample; his BABIP will almost certainly regress. But maybe it’s not as inflated as it might appear at first glance. Sure, his .394 wOBA is almost 40 points higher than his xWOBA of .356, but that’s not an outrageously high spread. This season, there are 22 players with at least 200 plate appearances who are overachieving their xwOBA by at least 30 points, including a few on the WAR leaderboard (highlighted in the table below). Although regression is likely in his future, it’s possible Stassi will continue to outpace his expected stats through the end of the season:

xwOBA Overachievers Leaderboard
Name Team PA wOBA xwOBA wRC+ WAR
Joey Wendle TBR 316 0.338 0.279 119 2.3
Nick Madrigal CHW 215 0.336 0.287 115 1.4
Yuli Gurriel HOU 413 0.370 0.325 141 2.6
Randy Arozarena TBR 415 0.331 0.287 114 1.5
Tucker Barnhart CIN 264 0.322 0.278 98 1.3
Cedric Mullins BAL 437 0.395 0.352 154 4.2
Tony Kemp OAK 256 0.336 0.293 118 1.7
Marcus Semien TOR 451 0.368 0.325 133 4.4
Steven Duggar SFG 223 0.357 0.316 126 2.1
Josh Rojas ARI 366 0.347 0.308 115 2.1

Stassi’s quality of contact has improved in two key areas. First, his hard hit rate (50.0%) is nearly 10% higher than his career average (41.6%) heading into this season. While he did set a new career high for home runs in a season in a game last week against the Rockies, his fly ball rate (30.4%) is down from previous seasons, as is his average launch angle (9.8 degrees). Those fly balls have mostly turned into line drives, which has proven beneficial to his overall offensive performance. In fact, Stassi’s been hitting a lot of line drives; his 27.5 LD% is 22nd among all hitters with at least 100 plate appearances.

According to Stassi, he’s recently worked to shorten his swing, an adjustment that is showing itself a bit with his FB% and LD% shifts. Despite the decline in FB%, Stassi is still hitting the ball plenty hard and his HR/FB% is a few ticks higher (29%) than his career average prior to 2021. Baseball Savant gets a little bit more granular in its batted ball profile categories, and the category that shines the most in the wake of his shortened swing is the “Flare/Burner” variety.

Max Stassi Batted Ball Profile
Season Weak % Topped % Under % Flare/Burner % Solid %
2018 4.1 43.5 17 14.3 12.2
2019 1.2 41.2 28.2 18.8 4.7
2020 1.4 31.9 23.6 18.1 12.5
2021 4.9 28.4 16.7 28.4 9.8
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

So far this season, hitters have a .610 wOBA on Flares/Burners and Stassi’s right in line with a .656 wOBA on such balls. While the quality of contact has gone up, his contact rate has stayed about the same. Stassi likes to swing the bat and his 28.8 K% lines up with his career average. His walk rate has taken a step backwards from previous seasons going from 10.6% in 2020 down to 8.2% so far in ‘21.

Of course, for catchers, offensive production is moot if they can’t pull their weight on the defensive side of the ball. Stassi may continue to rake but it will be difficult to continue at his current clip; the good news is that he doesn’t have to. His best season by WAR was driven by his defense (although he wasn’t altogether terrible at the plate, managing a wRC+ of 100). Since humans still call the balls and strikes, pitch framing is still a valuable skill. As long as that’s the case, catching will remain the truest “defense-first” position in baseball. Stassi’s calling card as an age-30 journeyman catcher has always been his stellar defense. In his largest sample to date in 2018, he was second in the majors with 10 runs from extras strikes, a measure of pitch framing ability.

While he ranked near the top of the league in 2018 and ‘19, his framing ability has taken a bit of a step backwards in recent years, although he’s still above league average. Altogether, he is a very solid option at backstop for the Angels.

Most deals at the deadline are between buyers and sellers; prospects for players with short-term upside. The deal that brought Stassi to the Angels in 2019 had a similar flavor, but Stassi remains under team control through ’22. The Astros felt they had good depth and looked at it as an opportunity to flip Stassi for a few low-level prospects (Rainier Rivas and Raider Uceta had just turned 20), while the Angels needed a capable defensive catcher at the big league level. Prior to being traded, Stassi had a career slash line of .233/.317/.397. His track record in the minors was better, but in no way pointed to Stassi slugging well over .500 in the big leagues. It will be years before we truly know who got the best of this deal, and it’s still a small one as these things go, but Stassi is outperforming his expectations (ZiPS was actually pretty optimistic about Stassi this season but of course couldn’t predict that he would benefit from a .400 BABIP for two months).

2020-21 wRC+ Leaderboard
Player Team PA wOBA wRC+ WAR
Mike Trout LAA 387 0.424 174 4.8
Juan Soto WSN 601 0.423 165 5.7
Byron Buxton MIN 245 0.410 163 3.9
Buster Posey SFG 271 0.411 161 3.6
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. TOR 675 0.408 160 5.5
Fernando Tatis Jr. SDP 622 0.408 159 7.4
Ronald Acuña Jr. ATL 562 0.414 158 6.7
Freddie Freeman ATL 725 0.407 154 6.3
Bryce Harper PHI 597 0.404 154 4.9
Brandon Belt SFG 380 0.399 154 3.0
Darin Ruf SFG 291 0.399 153 2.6
Max Stassi LAA 279 0.390 151 3.3
George Springer TOR 371 0.388 150 3.0
Shohei Ohtani LAA 583 0.384 147 4.5
Nelson Cruz TBR 593 0.384 146 3.7
Minimum 200 plate appearances.

He’s potentially blossomed into a legitimate starter. Joe Maddon has taken notice of his recent standout performance. Stassi has gone from splitting time with Kurt Suzuki to playing the role of the everyday catcher. In the month of July, he started 15 of the Angels’ 22 games. Now that he’s getting the lion’s share of work, he’ll have the opportunity to show he can hit in more than just a small sample.

Chet is a contributor for FanGraphs. Prior to FanGraphs, he wrote for Purple Row. When not writing about baseball, he is a data scientist and outdoor sport enthusiast. He can be found on Twitter at @cgutwein.

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1 year ago

“First, his hard hit rate (50.0%) is nearly 10% higher than his career average (41.6%) heading into this season.”

His hard hit rate is not nearly 10% higher than his career average. It is nearly 10 percentage points higher than his career average. Some might see this comment as pedantic, but it is an important difference that far too many writers ignore (or don’t know).