We are nearly half way through August, and the Astros may have a decision to make about the catcher position following the roster expansion in September.
Following a 0-for-3 performance against the Rays on June 30th, Astros‘ catcher Brian McCann was slashing .206/.283/.323 with a 71 wRC+. He hasn’t played since that day due to reoccurring right knee soreness, which was addressed with surgery. McCann has been on the DL since then recovering. The original timetable for his return was four-to-six weeks. Fast forward to mid-August and his return is starting to come into view.
If the season ended today, Max Stassi would lead all Astro catchers with 218 plate appearances. Raise your hand if you’d thought that would be the case. Now lower that hand because you were clearly fibbing. You can thank McCann’s injury for this unexpected development. That said, I have been a fan of Stassi’s production this season. His performance (.244/.327/.428 with a 111 wRC+) is worth the praise. For a catcher who entered the season as the backup, you cannot complain.
Alas, the loss of McCann for a large chunk of the season can not be chalked up only to offense. His defense behind the plate and how he handles the pitching staff drives his value, even if it is difficult to clearly quantify. For example, let’s take a look at the Astros’ starting rotation and their ERA with both catchers.
Take in mind that Tim Federowicz and the recently-acquired Martin Maldonado have also caught some games. Keuchel, in fact, has only been caught by McCann four times while 19 times by Stassi. Context and the amount of games caught are key. The preliminary numbers do indicate that the majority of Houston’s starting rotation tends to perform better with McCann than Stassi. In his defense though, this season has been Stassi’s first in full-time action in the major leagues. He is still learning on the job as relationships between a pitcher and a catcher can take some time. Also, Stassi is currently the best catcher in baseball when measured by Framing Runs over at Baseball Prospectus.
As I hinted in the previous paragraph, Maldonado was acquired to shore up the backup catcher position. Federowicz, who is no longer in the organization, filled in on a few separate occasions behind Stassi, but did not generate the desirable results. With McCann’s rest-of-season status still somewhat unclear at the time, the Astros went ahead and acquired Maldonado from the Angels. While he is not particularly noteworthy with the bat, Maldonado has a history of being a quality major league catcher. In fact, he is ranked 19th in Framing Runs at +3.8. He also won a Gold Glove at catcher in 2017.
McCann is expected back in action by sometime towards the end of August. The veteran catcher is reportedly on the verge of a rehab assignment later in the near future. Once he is able to return, the Astros have an interesting decision to make regarding the immediate future of Maldonado and Stassi. At this point, I can understand a potential decision to roll with a primary catching tandem of McCann and Maldonado. Thanks to the expanded roster in September, Stassi should also receive some playing time.
If the Astros do qualify for the postseason, I think its likely that we don’t see Stassi on the active roster unless an injury takes place. At that point, he is a heck of an insurance policy. But like last postseason, I can see the Astros prioritizing defense and game-calling over offense. That is the primary reason why we didn’t see last year’s backup, Evan Gattis, behind the plate more than once in the postseason. Stassi is a better defensive catcher who provides value in framing runs, but game-calling in a postseason moment is critical. Barring an unexpected development, I expect for McCann to be the go-to catcher in nearly all critical postseason situations. I don’t think Maldonado, if he makes a postseason roster, will even receive much playing time in the postseason. The same goes for Stassi. Right now though, the decision between Maldonado and Stassi is ongoing.