Max Stassi learned he was being called up from Triple A on Aug. 29 to join the American League West-leading Houston Astros for the first time this season in the middle of a pennant race. Still, it might not have been the best news Stassi, a Yuba City High School graduate, received that week.
The day before Stassi’s call-up, his older brother, Brock, was named the MVP of the Double-A Eastern League, where Brock played for the Philadelphia Phillies’ affiliate, the Reading (Pa.) Fightin Phils.
I’m extremely happy for him. I think I’m almost happier than he is.
Astros catcher Max Stassi on his older brother Brock, who was named the MVP in the Double-A Eastern League
Brock also went to Yuba City, where the boys’ father, Jim, was the longtime coach. While Max was a highly touted prospect of high school, drafted by the A’s in the fourth round in 2009, Brock wasn’t drafted out of high school and only in the 33rd round by the Phillies out of Nevada in 2011.
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That made 2015 a true breakout year for Brock, who finished the regular season batting .300 with 15 homers and led the Eastern League in RBIs (90) and on-base plus slugging (.863) and shared the lead in doubles (32). Following along with great enjoyment was Max, who spent most of this year with the Triple-A Fresno Grizzlies before being summoned by the Astros for his third major-league stint.
“I couldn’t be more proud of him,” Max said Monday before Houston opened a three-game series against the A’s at O.co Coliseum. “He’s had some decent seasons, but nothing compared to this one. He’s one of the top players in minor-league baseball statistically with what he’s put up at that level, so it’s pretty incredible.
“I’m extremely happy for him. I think I’m almost happier than he is.”
Max certainly isn’t down on his own situation. When the Astros put catcher Jason Castro on the disabled list because of a strained right quadriceps, they recalled Stassi as their backup catcher. Stassi, who likely would have been called up when rosters expanded Sept. 1, made his second start Monday for the Astros, who entered Tuesday with a two-game lead over the Texas Rangers in the A.L. West.
“It’s everything you’ve dreamed of as far as being up here in the big leagues, in a playoff hunt,” Stassi said.
The Astros last had a winning season in 2008 and last made the playoffs in 2005, and the seasons in between have been memorably bad, including three from 2011 to 2013 in which they lost 106 or more games. The Astros used that time to build a deep farm system, to the point where Sports Illustrated last June declared they would win the World Series – in 2017.
Stassi said after being traded by the A’s to Houston before the 2013 season, he quickly recognized the Astros were invested in developing their minor-league players. He saw it in meetings in minor-league camp, where coaches used statistics to back the importance of “controlling the strike zone” and suggested mechanical tweaks to players’ swings that were “not different, but just what all good hitters do.”
“I think it’s the top organization in minor-league baseball, the way they develop players, from pitching to hitting,” Stassi said. “You see guys coming out left and right that were drafted in the later rounds, early rounds. It’s just an unbelievable organization and it’s all (general manager Jeff Luhnow) doing what he knows how to do.”
Stassi had a down year with the bat in Fresno, hitting .211 in 84 games. But he hit 13 home runs and picked up after the All-Star break, batting .271 compared to .182 in the first half. Stassi said he was “trying to force too much stuff to happen” early in the season and benefited when he “just relaxed and played the game.”
It’s everything you’ve dreamed of as far as being up here in the big leagues, in a playoff hunt.
Astros catcher Max Stassi, who was promoted from Triple-A Fresno on Aug. 29
“I finished up strong and was happy with the way that that went,” Stassi said. “At the beginning of the year, I just wasn’t myself, and sometimes that’s just baseball. I’m happy with the way I finished up, and I’m ready to help out the big club up here.”
Though Stassi never played for the A’s at O.co Coliseum, he said returning to the stadium has been special. Stassi said he attended “a lot of games” in Oakland growing up, and when he came up for his first at-bat Monday, a loud cheer went up from one area of the stands.
An affiliate shuffle in the Pacific Coast League last winter led to Fresno becoming the Astros’ top minor-league club – and brought Stassi back close to home in Northern California. He played at Raley Field against the River Cats several times as a visitor, and said family often made the trip to Fresno to see his home games.
“It was almost,” he said, “too good to be true.”