The Astros certainly don’t need another advantage, that’s for sure. With a projected 103 wins according to FanGraphs, the perfect storm of Justin Verlander, a revamped Gerrit Cole, Jose Altuve, and Carlos Correa are enough for the team to run away with the American League West, but over the course of this season, they created another advantage—Max Stassi and his framing.
Drafted in the fourth round of the 2009 draft by the Oakland Athletics, Stassi was considered one of the best high school catchers in the country, and after a few years of middling in the minors, he was sent packing to Houston with Brad Peacock and Chris Carter in exchange for Fernando Rodriguez and Jed Lowrie.
With Jason Castro as a fixture who was then eventually phased out by Evan Gattis and Brian McCann, Stassi had no natural place on the roster. He was called up for a cup of coffee in every single season from 2013 to 2017, but for no stint longer than 15 games.
This year, though, he has played 61 games, which is still not that much, largely because the Astros were employing a platoon as documented by Travis Sawchik. But with McCann undergoing surgery on his right knee, he should get some more playing time before September.
Even in that limited time, he is both dominating in CSAA (catching strikes above average), the rate stat...
...and framing runs, the counting stat:
It makes sense that if he is good at framing then he would be leading in a rate stat, but with just, again, 61 games, leading in a catcher counting stat is utterly remarkable. With 12.6 FRAA, he has been worth a win-and-change better than an average defending catcher while playing about a third of the season.
It’s a remarkable turn; he had only about a 0.005 CSAA last season, and the shift is largely attributed to the Astros’ availability of data related to framing.
“Early in his first spring training with Houston,” Jake Kaplan of The Athletic reported, “he was called to a meeting with minor league catching coordinator Mark Bailey and analyst Mike Fast, a pioneer in pitch-framing research. Stassi avidly studies video of other catchers... to examine how they present pitches to the umpire. He works on his receiving in the batting cage with Astros catching coach Michael Collins, who cranks up the pitching machine to simulate game speed.”
And it’s not like he’s a slouch as a hitter, either, as he is second among all catchers in wRC+ minimum 150 plate appearances, and fourth in on-base percentage. Let’s say he regresses, which is natural for a catcher. ZiPS thinks 98 wRC+, weighing his recent results, and Steamer believes 85 wRC+, more heavily weighing his minor league stats.
In the American League this year, catchers are averaging 80 wRC+ and 1.1 WAR per 600 plate appearances. If we assume that Stassi is something like a little better than an average hitting catcher—and he doesn’t really have a career paltoon split—then his above-average framing makes him something like a three, or possibly four, win player over a full season.
That’s one of the things that’s so remarkable and game-changing about framing as a stat. Mitchel G. Lichtman has written about this seemingly counter-intuitive phenomenon, to the extent that there is “pretty strong evidence that framing is worth a lot and our four [best] catchers should be in the top 10 players in all of baseball.” If that’s the case, then one of the best teams in baseball created one of the best catchers in baseball out of whole cloth.