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Catch This!

Hooks Stassi, Garcia Texas League's Best
July 17, 2013

CORPUS CHRISTI - One hails from a bloodline filled with pro catchers. The other had never squatted behind home plate until the Astros drafted him in 2008.

One's a chatterbox from northern California. The other is a reserved Puerto Rican.

Despite their differing backgrounds, Max Stassi and Rene Garcia have earned mutual respect and provide the Hooks with an embarrassment of riches at catcher.

"Rene and I are really good friends. We both pull for each other to be successful out there. I wish nothing but the best for him," Stassi said. "It's fun going out there with him because he's the best catcher that I've ever played with."

"Stassi is a great catcher. I learn from him; maybe he learns from me. We both learn from each other," Garcia said.

From Yuba City, Calif., Stassi's father and grandfather played professional baseball.

"I've always wanted to catch. Santa Claus brought me some gear when I was six and I just started catching from then on out."

His father, Jim, played in the San Francisco organization from 1982-83 and reached Triple-A Phoenix before coaching at Yuba City High School. Max's uncle, grandfather and great uncle all played pro ball as well.

Oakland selected Stassi out of high school with its fourth-round draft pick in 2009. A rash of injuries limited his production in the Athletics system and the club included him in February's trade with Houston that sent shortstop Jed Lowrie to the Bay Area. Before the trade, Baseball America rated Stassi as the best defensive catcher in the A's system and he's backed it up by throwing out 35 percent of would-be base stealers in 2013.

He joined Corpus Christi on May 1 after missing the majority of spring training and the first month of the season with an injury. Over the last two and a half months his batting average and caught stealing percentage have climbed as he's played himself back to game speed.

"It took him a while to get in shape and we did a lot of work," Mark Bailey, Corpus Christi's catching coach and developmental specialist, said. "He's taken the reins and just kind of run with it."

"(Bailey) has done an outstanding job with helping me out, consistently getting back there, getting used to the travel and all that," Stassi said. "(He) has been a big influence on my defense."

Rene Garcia grew up playing shortstop. But when the Astros called him on draft day in 2008, they told him they wanted him to catch.

"I had never caught before so when I started to catch maybe three games in a row, that was tiring," the 23-year-old admitted. "My first year catching was in Tri-City and I hit like .200 I was so tired every time."

He said he has improved his leg strength every year and not coincidentally his numbers at the plate have improved. Garcia is in the midst of his best offensive season, hitting .302, fifth in the Texas League.

Even though he played shortstop as a teen, Garcia said had no problem joining a long list of Puerto Rican backstops.

"Everybody wants to be like Derek Jeter in the United States. In Puerto Rico everyone wants to be like Ivan Rodriguez. And now we have another big league star like Yadier Molina. Now everybody wants to be like him," Garcia said. "I try to be like him because he's the best catcher right now."

Bailey raved about Garcia's throwing defense, best in the TL. He has gunned down 48 percent of runners attempting to steal. Twenty-five percent is considered good.

"(His arm) has gotten stronger. His catching has gotten better. Each year he's gotten a little bit better," Bailey said. "For me, he's a bona fide catching prospect; a starting catcher type."

The catching coach said several minor league catchers have the ability to reach the major leagues in a backup role, but he thinks both Stassi and Garcia have the chance to make the leap as starters.

While Stassi's volume is frequently set at 11, and Garcia's is usually closer to five, Bailey said the latter still commands attention from the pitching staff.

"Rene is quieter than Stassi, but he's got a lot of fire in his belly," the former big leaguer said. "He can get upset out there and he'll jump on a pitcher."

Both players understand their defense and handling of the pitching staff are the two most important jobs they have each night. So staying positive and separating what happens in the batter's box and behind the plate is key.

"It's a very negative game in general, everything about the game is everyone focusing on the negatives. 'You did this, you did that wrong,' and it's just all about building your pitcher up so you have his full confidence and you're on the same page," Stassi said.

Bailey said each player has earned the pitchers' faith.

"The hardest thing for a catcher I think, especially a young catcher, is understanding that what you want is you want the pitchers to trust you," he said. "You want them to want you back there all the time."

With a pair of catchers who have embraced their roles and put in the extra work, the playoff-bound Hooks are in an enviable position entering the season's last two months.