I’ll fully admit that this wasn’t a topic I thought I’d be exploring this season.
A dreadful 7-15 start has sunk the Angels playoff odds down to 20.5 percent, leading to a search for something optimistic about the season. Enter Max Stassi. The 29-year-old Stassi has been one of the biggest surprises of this young season, especially when you consider his 2019 performance with the Angels. Entering his third year in a legitimate MLB role, it didn’t appear that there was a ton of offensive upside, especially given his production from last season.
Stassi was legitimately one of the worst hitters in baseball last year in his stints with the Astros and Angels. Among hitters to receive at least 140 plate appearances, Stassi had the second-worst wRC+ (5), beating out former Angel Jeff Mathis (2). His time with the Angels was even worse; he hit .071/.163/.071 in 49 plate appearances in Anaheim. Stassi would remain with the Angels, however, because of his defensive prowess and his recent productive year with the Astros (2.7 WAR and 100 wRC+ in 2018).
Coming into 2020, the general hope was that Stassi would provide his usually excellent pitch framing and not be a complete black hole offensively. The usual pitch-framing skills are there but Stassi has transformed himself into a completely different hitter. The sample size is still small (49 plate appearances) but the changes are big enough to explore how Stassi is hitting .250/.326/.550 with a 134 wRC+. Let’s break down what has led to this outburst from Stassi.
We’re only concerned with the 2018-onward since he only received cups of coffee in the previous seasons. Stassi struck out 33.3 percent of the time in 2019 and has struck out 28.4 percent of the time in his career. This year, that number has dropped to 13 percent. It’s a staggering drop to a level that Stassi has shown neither in the majors nor the minors (24.7 percent). There are plenty of reasons for this massive improvement.
Stassi’s overall swing rate hasn’t changed much but he’s swinging at way more pitches in the zone (up 10.1 percent) and less out of the zone (down 4 percent). As a result, Stassi is making contact 73.3 percent of the time, which is well above his career 69.2 percent contact rate. This newfound approach has more than doubled his walk-to-strikeout rate up to 0.67 BB/K (career 0.30 BB/K). Cutting your strikeout in half is a big enough change in itself but Stassi is doing other things that are encouraging.
Louder contact, more air time
Stassi isn’t just simply putting more baseballs in play; he’s making harder contact and lifting more baseballs. Where have I seen this story before? Like many other major leaguers, Stassi is reaping the benefits of hitting harder baseballs in the air. His average exit velocity is up to 90.9 mph, up from his career 89.9 mph average. His launch angle has nearly doubled from 9.9 degrees to 18.8 degrees. After barreling just four baseballs in all of 2019 (balls hit 95+ mph with a launch angle between 26-30 degrees), Stassi has barreled three baseballs this season.
More contact, harder contact, and more baseballs in the air is a recipe for success in today’s environment. These are all encouraging signs for Stassi.
Is this real?
Like I mentioned earlier and in my piece on Anthony Rendon’s new approach, we’re still dealing with a small sample. Things could change rather quickly. But as I mentioned in the Rendon piece, strikeout rates tend to stabilize fairly quickly so this is a good sign for Stassi. It may take more time to gauge how real the quality of contact is. Since Stassi has already homered more times and posted a higher maximum exit velocity (108 mph) this year, we can at least buy that there is something to monitor here.
Thanks to Stassi and counterpart Jason Castro (who is currently injured), the Angels have a top-5 unit by WAR (0.6) and wRC+ (133). Even if the Angels can’t turn things around this year, Stassi’s development is significant for the Angels. With two years of club control left after 2020, Stassi could be a legitimate option at what has been a position of need for the Angels.
On the tangential issue of whether it is okay to root for Max Stassi, I just discovered Max Stassi admitted he knew about the cheating scandal and gave a real apology acknowledging it was wrong: https://www.spokesman.com/stories/2020/feb/12/angels-max-stassi-apologizes-for-astros-sign-steal/
Now that I’ve seen that, I’m inclined to forgive him. There is no doubt he cheated. He had plate appearances in exactly 4 Thrashtros home games and received trash can bangs in all 4 of those games (13 out of 52 pitches). Incidentally, he was 1-for-11 with 1 BB in those games. However, he was a rookie with no power to change what was happening. I can understand why he would be too afraid of jeopardizing his chance at sticking in the MLB to go public and was powerless to stop it from the inside.
You can definitely see the effect of small sample size with Rendon. Since that article, his wRC has gone up ~20 points, BA has gone up ~40 points, and his OPS has gone up ~.1 to above 1, mostly because he had a 3-hit game with a double yesterday.
I’d say no. So far we’ve had two Stassis. The first went 8 for 24. The other has gone 2 for 19 (both singles). The good Stassi had 10 RBIs, the bad 1.
I’d like to believe but I expect him to continue to drop.
Harder contact and more contact is good. But I remain unconvinced. We’ll see if i change my mind in a few more weeks or not (probably not).
He’s been around for a few. He was at the lowest of lows. New attitude towards the game. New coaches that might have seen something. Contract/Arbitration year.
Let us enjoy this now. He may improve from this too. Not only has his batting at the plate vastly improved, his glove-work behind behind it looks to have improved quite a bit also. Has he been reborn? Can I have a RA-MIEN!
Love me some Stassi framing! Him being able to hit at a close to league-average clip is icing on the cake and would make him one of the best catchers in the league. If he can sustain it through the year, it’s worth it to extend him and get 1-2 of his free agent years.
But is he really that good of a framer? Savant has him being pretty close to average. https://baseballsavant.mlb.com/catcher_framing?year=2020&team=&min=q&sort=4,1. His pop time is below average. His caught stealing rate is 16% this year. He’s. Not. Good.
Pretty noisy so far with a small sample. On that same data:
2019: 2nd in strike rate (53.8%)
2018: 2nd in strike rate (51.8%)
Give it time.
Is Max Stassi really that good? Hmm, you know one year of being hot can happen, Max was really good for about a month. His defence is overrated as is this arm. Teams like to run on him. Exit velocity is very overrated with the”Manfreddie’s Superball”. Besides if l hit a ball out at 115 mph and then hit then next one out at 105 and then hit one off the wall at 109 what does that all prove, nothing. l need another real season of MLB in order to really judge a player. Altuve is having some tough luck this year, does that equate to he can’t hit without the “can”? Albert has the slowest bat on the team, yet he has hit a few out, yet he is playing during this “Superball era” does that mean he is still a real threat to hit HRs? K’s and DP’s with happen by a lot more than hits yet he can still have an occasional good night (or day) at the plate. Stassi for me is a serviceable catcher right now.
I don’t think exit velocity is overrated, as it can be an indicator of what kind of contact a hitter is making with the ball.
I agree. See Upton for an example of rapidly declining exit velocity.
Upton has a problem hitting the ball.
He needs glasses, and probably needs to lose some weight, and stretch more, way more. he reaches when he swings, even on inside pitches. Who cues the ball like he did yesterday. That was bad, really bad. Doesn’t know where the ball is, and can’t control where he swings his bat.
Ehem, SSS, you need to make contact for this indicator to be measured.
Definitely want to see another 50 PAs or so before I swat away the clouds and see sunlight. He struck out swinging a couple times last night, enough to boost his K% up to 16%, and pull his wRC+ down to 124 – still more than acceptable, but indicative of what small samples we’re working with.
The most encouraging detail is the improved launch angle and hard contact. Let’s see if it holds up over 100-150 PAs.
The other one that caught my eye recently is Justin Upton. He’s had a slow increase in his K% over the past 7 years from the mid-20s to 30% last year. This year it jumped to 37% and his walk rate has dropped to a career worst 7.5% (compared to career average of 7.5%).
Last season his contact rate dropped significantly on pitches outside the zone. This year he again has a below-career contact rate on pitches outside of the zone and has compounded the problem by swinging less often at strikes and more often as balls.
I hope he needs glasses. Otherwise, his career needs to end.
I was actually just thinking the same thing. You can’t fake striking out less. It seems either Stassi has improved either his read on balls/strikes, his hand-eye coordination, or both.
Note his BABIP is a paltry .188 because such a high percentage of his hits have been home runs. Take 3 of his homeruns and convert them to normal hits and his BABIB would jump to .257, pretty close to his career average. If he’s converting contact into hits at the same rate but making contact more often, that supports a rise in AVG and OBP. So while we might expect the power to ebb, he should remain a much improved hitter.