Draft prospect Stassi 'born to catch'

Draft prospect Stassi 'born to catch'

If there is such thing as a kid who was "born to catch," then Max Stassi is that kid.

His dad, Jim, is a former Minor League catcher who played in the Giants system. His grandfather and great uncle also caught in the Minors, as did his great-grandfather. And his uncle, Myril Hoag, was a New York Yankees teammate of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig and played in the Majors for 13 seasons.

Jim, who has been the head baseball coach at Yuba City (Calif.) High School for the past 18 years, knew early on that his middle son would follow in his footsteps when it came to donning the shin guards -- mainly because his eldest son, Brock, and youngest son, Jake, were both left-handers while Max was a righty.

"When my first son was born it didn't take long to figure out that he was left-handed," said Jim. "Then Max was born and he was a righty, so it was in the cards for him that he had to catch."

But all joking aside, Max truly seemed to gravitate to "the family business" right from the start.

"He was just kind of a natural, where he had the instincts to play the position even when he was a little kid," recalled Jim, who also teaches physical education at the Sacramento-area school. "He sat back there like he knew what he was doing. It's funny because you can watch a kid catch and you can tell right away if he's really comfortable and he was always comfortable."

Talk to Stassi for a few minutes and it's obvious that there is no sense of familial obligation here, just a genuine passion for catching.

"I was born into the position," Stassi said. "One Christmas, when I was five or six, Santa Claus brought me some catchers gear and I loved every moment of it and I still do."

Right from the beginning, Stassi took to every aspect of the demanding position.

"I loved being in control of the game, being on the same page as the pitcher," Stassi said. "I love calling a game. It seems like at shortstop or second base you just field and throw but catching you have to be able to throw, receive, and block, every aspect of the game."

And it's this passion that is a large part of the reason -- though certainly not the only one -- why Max Stassi is viewed as the cream of a crop of high school catchers that is not only the deepest such group in recent memory, but is viewed by many scouts as one of the strengths of the Draft Class of 2009 overall.

"There's something to the way he carries himself and to his game where you can tell he's a leader, kind of in the mold of a young Jason Kendall or Mike Lieberthal," said one NL scout.

The 5-foot-10, 205-pounder, who turned 18 in March, has a good setup at the plate with some power, though that's not his main game. Stassi has a solid arm with a quick accurate release, moves well behind the plate, and handles a pitching staff well.

A four-year starter for the Honkers, he set records as a freshman by hitting .580 with nine homers and 44 RBIs. As a senior, he finished the regular season hitting .539 with 10 homers and 36 RBIs.

Stassi has always been something of a cerebral catcher, from the role models he admires to the way he goes about preparing for his job.

"I've always looked up to Ivan Rodriguez," Stassi said. "We're a similar size, we bring the same stuff to the table and I've always liked the way he goes about his game."

Stassi also makes a point of studying up on the opposition, checking to see if he's faced any of the players so he can prepare a scouting report, and then constantly adjusting during the game.

"Each pitch dictates the next one," Stassi said.

And his makeup, described in "scoutspeak" as "off the charts", is something that has certainly made his dad's "9-to-5" job a lot easier.

"He plays the game the right way: he plays hard, he's aggressive and in everything he does he hustles," said Jim. "If you watch my teams play, that's what we do, sprinting on and off the field between innings, running fly balls and ground balls, and going as hard as we can go in everything we do on the field. And what I'm really proud of is that with all the success he's had in four years of varsity his hustle never ceases and that's a great example for the younger kids."

In fact, when it comes to Stassi, there are only two factors that concern some scouts.

One is some right shoulder soreness that slowed him earlier in the season. The other is a commitment to UCLA that gives him a very attractive option for turning pro.

Most scouts watching him now say that his arm strength appears to be back to normal.

"I think he's past that and I think that some people who only caught his performances then might be a little leery, but he's kicked it back into gear again," said one NL scout.

Though, on the other hand, another AL scout wasn't positive Stassi was back to 100 percent.

"Now that it's getting down to money time some guys may be questioning that because he's tough enough to grunt through the pain," he said. "But good scouting is paying attention to every second of the game, like when he's in the dugout between innings and they're working on his arm."

That scout, however, wasn't as worried about Stassi's health as his ability to be signed.

"He's a talent," the scout said, without hesitation. "His signability is more of a question than his arm. He's a good hitter who loves to play."

For Stassi, without question, he's looking at a win-win situation -- does he sign a lucrative contract and begin his pro career or does he head down the coast to Southern California to attend the school of his dreams?

He admits that right now, he's split about 50-50.

"I've thought about it off and on and I know that going out and playing pro right now would be a big opportunity and if the situation is right I'll take it," Stassi said. "But I'm also really excited about UCLA and its young pitching [staff]. I'd be excited to catch [top prospects] Gerrit Cole and Trevor Bauer. And guys tell me that college baseball is such a blast, you have so much fun. It's not going to be an easy choice. Their strength of schedule, their coaching staff is great and the education there is second to none."

But meanwhile, Stassi's got other things on his mind other than thinking about the upcoming June 9 Draft and what that day -- and beyond -- may hold.

His Yuba City Honkers move on to the next round of the playoffs when they face Benicia High Monday night.

A four-year starter for the team, Stassi knows that he is approaching the end of a golden time in his life, one made even more special since he's playing for his dad, and teammates with Jake, a junior.

"I've thought about that a lot lately, and I'll be sad because it's been such a great time having my dad coach me for four years and playing alongside my brother," said Stassi, who graduates on June 5, four days before the draft. "But I'm ready to move on."

While some teenagers might not exactly love being with their parental authority figure 24/7, such is not the case for the Stassi family.

"On the field it's definitely all business, but when we get home at night we still discuss things, maybe previous at-bats, or we'll watch a game on TV and I'll ask him questions about situations there," said Stassi. "We're just a baseball family so we're always talking about the game."

Jim Stassi also admits that there will be some mixed emotions when he sends his middle son off, be it to a Minor League town to start his career or to Los Angeles to start his college education.

"It's going to be sad to see him go because he's been such a big part of this program for so long, but it's going to be a double-edged sword," the proud father said. "As a coach I'm sad to see him go, but as a dad I am so proud of him."

MLB.com will offer live coverage and analysis of the entire First-Year Player Draft on June 9-11, on MLB.com/Live, where host Vinny Micucci will be joined by MLB.com Draft expert Jonathan Mayo and Major League Scouting Bureau director Frank Marcos. Coverage begins at 6 p.m. ET on June 9, noon on June 10 and 11:30 a.m. on June 11.

Lisa Winston is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.