This article also appears in the fifth edition of the Fresno Grizzlies Play Ball magazine that can be picked up for free by attending the homestand that runs Saturday, June 6th through Tuesday, June 9th. Learn about the promotions for the four home games and purchase tickets here.
Story by Ryan Young
“Hey! How’s it goin’?” says Fresno Grizzlies catcher Max Stassi about a notch higher than the average person. The grinning Yuba City, California native is quite possibly the most upbeat professional baseball player you’ll ever meet. Even before moving past general pleasantries, you can notice he has a special presence about him.
“Good to see you,” he follows up while circling the batting cage at Chukchansi Park upon returning from a recent eight-game road trip. He makes his way up to me, puts out his hand and completes a handshake so hard that he turns my right hand completely over.
“I got you there,” smiles Stassi as he enters the cage to get in some pregame cuts.
Noted, the 24-year-old backstop is the type of guy who will take you by surprise.
But in a day and age where catchers are normally hulking six-foot plus in height, Stassi sticks out for being the exception. He only stands at 5-10 and could even be mistaken for a middle infielder. His build is similar to that of Toronto catcher Russell Martin, who’s in his 10th season and has established himself as one of the premier backstops in all of baseball proven by his 5-year, $82 million contract signed prior to this season. That’s certainly a lofty comparison at this point in Max’s career, but it does prove that there’s a big leaguer in his physical mold succeeding at the highest level there is.
Stassi, like Martin, surprises you with his tools instead of his stature. The youngster has power to all fields and his athletic ability behind the plate is an asset pitchers at the next level prefer. However, it could be the intangibles that help put him over the edge of his competition. There’s baseball history in his bloodline, with his father Jim pitching in the Giants organization back in the early 80s, while his older brother Brock is currently a Philadelphia Phillies prospect batting over .300 at Double-A Reading.
“The good kind of baseball lifer,” said an American League scout of Max on an early season trip evaluating Fresno’s talented roster.
Maybe he attracts that kind of description due to the catcher’s equipment being a second skin. During a May 27th day game, he was perched on the top step of the dugout outfitted in his mask, chest protector, and leg guards while the Grizzlies were at bat with no outs and the sun attempting to adhere the equipment to his body. Unlike the fans that escape to the last few rows of the lower level to find shadows, he seemed oblivious to the heat, focusing only on watching the opposing pitcher to pick up an extra edge for his upcoming at bat.
Despite the ability to block things out, the top catching prospect in the Astros chain has had his patience tested with things beyond his control. After making his major-league debut for the Astros in 2013, he spent the entire 2014 season with Triple-A Oklahoma City before receiving a September callup and appearing in seven games for the Astros. But months later, he witnessed the big league club trade for catcher Hank Conger and C/OF Evan Gattis in separate deals. Both of those moves meant a good chance he’d have another full season at the Triple-A level despite accruing a solid 10-game cup of coffee in the bigs.
“You have to keep it all in perspective,” stated Stassi when asked about battling for a big league job. “You have to go out there and have fun no matter what.
The fun has been tested on the offensive side where he’s regressed a touch since the 2013 season when he batted .277 and slugged 17 homers for Double-A Corpus Christi.
Over 133 career games at the Triple-A level (through May 29), he’s batted .236 (118-501) and owns an on-base percentage under .300. However, the power has certainly returned this season, where’s he smacked five homers in just over 100 at bats and is currently on pace to break his mark of nine from last year.
“I can do both,” he responds when asked if he falls into the stereotype of being a one-dimensional catcher. “I haven’t really shown what I can do offensively so far [in 2015], but I feel I’m hitting my stride here recently.
He’s absolutely right. Lately, Stassi has shown the offensive punch of years past. In a recent stretch in late May, all four of his hits went for extra bases, including two homers. Weighing the stress of his slow start could definitely have wrecked him mentally, but he remains grounded in some advice he received from former big league catcher Matt Treanor who spent nine seasons in the big leagues with Florida, Detroit, Texas, Kansas City, and the Dodgers.
“Something that Treanor told me a while ago was that you shouldn’t focus on what everyone else is saying about you. If somebody says something good about you, you can buy into it too much, and if somebody says something bad about you, you can buy into it too much. That type of mental approach has helped me focus on just going out and playing.”
Through two months of the 2015 season, he’s been a bedrock for the Grizzlies. He flips between ranking first or in a tie for first among Pacific Coast League catchers in games played and has slowly begun to build back his throw-out percentage on basestealers.
Even when he finds the occasional day off from the starting lineup, the guy puts in work. Roughly 90-minutes before a day game against Memphis, the catcher was using a resistance band while doing push ups in the gym. After 40 minutes of working out, he walked out, but then appeared restless and ventured back into the gym for another 15 minutes.
“Ultimately, the thing I’ve always wanted to do is play baseball. This is the right career path for me.”
Keep developing kid. You’re going to get up there and stay soon enough.