Brian McCann and trying to beat the shift



Through the first month or so of the season, I’m not sure anyone on the roster has been more disappointing than Brian McCann. The backstop has started his Yankees career with a 56 wRC+ in the first five-ish weeks, which ranks 177th out of 188 qualified hitters and dead last out of 15 qualified catchers. Chris Stewart had a 58 wRC+ last season, remember. The Yankees basically swapped Stewart for a balder, more expensive version in McCann. He’s been that bad so far.

As the fine broadcasters at the YES Network are wont to remind us day after day, inning after inning, the infield shift is widespread throughout baseball these days and McCann is one of its most popular targets. He was one of the most shifted against hitters in baseball last season and the same is true again so far this year. That was to be expected. Other teams weren’t going to stop shifting against McCann just because he was wearing a new uniform.

The shift has taken more than a few hits away from McCann this season and again, that is expected. Teams wouldn’t shift if they didn’t work. His .204 BABIP is a career low, especially when compared to his other healthy seasons (.234 before shoulder surgery in 2012), and down quite a bit from last season’s .261 BABIP. This isn’t all because of the shift — 8.3% of his plate appearances have ended with an infield pop-up this year, the fifth highest rate in baseball. Infield pop-ups are pretty much automatic outs and death to BABIP. His career pop-up rate prior to 2014 was only 4.0%, so this is way out of the norm.

Between the increased pop-up rate, the career low (by far) 3.5% walk rate, the career high (by far) 34.8% swing rate on pitches out of the zone*, and the ol’ eye test, I’m pretty comfortable saying McCann is pressing like hell at the plate. He’s trying to squeeze sap out of the bat. It happens. New team, new city, fat new contract, no beard, it’s understandable. Players press. McCann isn’t the first and he sure as hell won’t be the last. We’ve seen flashes of the productive power-hitting catcher the Yankees signed, but he hasn’t shown up consistently yet. It’ll happen, hopefully very soon.

* McCann’s strikeout rate (11.3%) is far below the league average and his best since 2008, so it’s not like he’s having trouble putting the ball in play.

Getting back on track, other clubs have been shifting against McCann quite a bit this season and lately it seems like he’s making an effort to go the other way. He’s always been a dead pull power hitter and that’s a big reason why he was so attractive to the Yankees, but lately I feel like we’ve seen more attempts to go to the opposite field. It doesn’t always work, but the attempt is there. Remember this?

McCann had three hits in that game and all three were to left field. I remember he ripped a line drive foul ball in that direction as well. Obviously a double to the wall is an extreme example of beating the shift by going the other way, but McCann did attempt a simple bunt towards third base to beat the shift on Monday. Here’s the play if you didn’t stay up late for the West Coast game:

The bunt went foul — it’s not easy to bunt Major League pitching, you know — but McCann made the attempt. He tried to beat the shift in the most basic way possible: by rolling the ball to where the defenders aren’t standing. That’s all a bunt is.

I didn’t watch enough of McCann during his time with the Braves to know whether these attempts to beat the shift are new or something he’s been trying for years. I would greatly prefer the former and hope this is a new development. Thankfully, we can check that. With an assist to the intimidatingly great Baseball Savant, here are some numbers on McCann’s tendencies to pull the ball or hit it the other way over the last few seasons. The table doesn’t include last night’s game because stupid West Coast:

Total Pitches Pulled Away Pitches Pulled Total Pitches Other Way Away Pitches Other Way
2014 7.7% 5.6% 7.3% 8.5%
2013 9.6% 8.4% 4.7% 4.4%
2012 9.7% 8.6% 5.0% 4.5%
2011 8.9% 7.3% 4.5% 4.7%

First, some explanations are in order:

  • Total Pitches Pulled: Percentage of all pitches pulled to the right side of the infield or to right field. McCann saw 452 pitches prior to last night and he pulled 35 of them to the right side of the field, or 7.7%.
  • Away Pitches Pulled: Percentage of pitches on the outer third or off the plate away that were pulled to the right side. McCann saw 270 pitches in those locations and pulled 15 of them to the right side, or 5.6%.
  • Total Pitches Other Way and Away Pitches Other Way are the same thing, only with pitches that were hit towards the left side of the infield or left field. Got it? Easy enough.

This season, either consciously or through the mirage of small sample size, McCann has been pulling fewer pitches to the right side of the field. He’s going the other way more often and that is especially true with pitches away from him, the ones you’re supposed to serve to the opposite field for a Nice Piece of Hitting. More than a few players (coughMarkTeixeiracough) will still try to pull those pitches and wind up rolling over on them, hitting a weak grounder right into the teeth of the shift.

We’ve seen McCann roll over on outside pitches this year, everyone does it, but he is doing it less often than he had the last few years. He’s taking those pitches to left field nearly twice as often as he had from 2011-12. I’m not going to bother looking at inside pitches because inside pitches are supposed to be pulled and pulled for power. Not everyone is Derek Jeter, who is going to the Hall of Fame because of his ability to pull his hands in and drive those pitches the other way. You want McCann to pull inside pitches because that’s how he can do some real damage.

Anyway, this is good! I think. We still need to wait a few more weeks to make sure this newfound tendency to go the other way is not just sample size noise, which is always possible. The data matches what my eyes were telling me though. McCann is indeed trying to hit the ball the other way more often. That could absolutely be contributing to his early season slump too. It’s a change in approach and sometimes those changes take time. McCann’s been hitting one way his entire life and now he appears to be changing it up. Of course there are going to be some bumps in the road.

Are teams going to stop shifting McCann because he’s hitting the ball the other way more often? Nope. Here are his spray charts. He still a pull-first hitter who yanks a ton of ground balls and line drives to the right side of the field and teams will stack their defense accordingly. McCann does appear to be making an attempt to go the other way more, particularly with pitches on the outer third of the plate. That will change how teams pitch him more than the defensive alignment. The most important thing is that he is hitting more balls away from the shift. The first few weeks of McCann’s tenure in New York have been ugly, no doubt about it, but there seems to be some serious work going on behind the scenes, and that could have positive results in time.

Categories : Analysis, Offense


  1. Yangeddard Solarte says:

    This is what Kevin Long is paid for. He needs to be in McCann’s ear telling him to hit the ball the other way. Until he does that these clubs are just going to keep shifting him. I don’t think he should bunt, though. I’ve seen him rip a double to left-center so he has power the other way. Kevin Long needs to do his job.

  2. emac2 says:

    I’m not concerned about McCann at all but as usual think the lineup should reflect how people are playing if you want it to work right. I’d bat him 8th and ask him to focus on the pitchers and his defense until he starts to hit.

    • The Great Gonzo says:

      If all the players who aren’t batting worth a shit were batting 8th, by following both your logic and past weeks comments, the lineup would look like:


      This is a team wide slump right now, every body needs to start hitting. batting EVERYONE 8th isn’t fixing it

      • Jorge Steinbrenner says:

        Jeter bats 11th.

        Also, CC doesn’t start on Opening Day.

      • emac2 says:

        Here’s hoping not everyone is as helpless and simplistic as you are.

        • Jim Is A (Bored) Peckerhead says:

          A lone voice cries out in the distance…

          “The world is flat! Everyone else is wrong!”

        • Jim Is A (Bored) Peckerhead says:

          A lone voice cries out in the distance…

          “The sun revolves around the earth! Everyone else is wrong and stupid!”

        • Jim Is A (Bored) Peckerhead says:

          A lone voice cries out in the distance…

          “A-Rod will never win a world series! Book it! Polyannas can fool themselves but not me!”

          • Looser trader droids FotD™ says:

            In fairness, Pollyannas fool themselves regularly. They certainly did last year.

            That said I’m very happy that not only did ARod get his ring but he more than earned it.

      • emac2 says:

        Lineup construction is actually an interesting subject.

        The problem with resident trolls is that they feel the need to control conversations they don’t want to be involved in anyway.

        Taking the time to type that “batting everyone 8th isn’t going to fix it” is frightening on several levels.

        • The Great Gonzo says:

          Lineup construction is a VERY interesting subject. I think there can be changes that could make this team better in the long run.

          But the oversimplification of “he’s had a bad month, so bat him 9th until he starts to hit” is asinine, if only because he is amongst 2/3 of the lineup who are not hitting worth a shit. Yesterday, we said Jeter should bat 8th, today McCann. When Mike posts “the Carlos Beltran Dilemma” tomorrow, we’ll have the same conversation.

          He should not remain in the 5 hole because he is owed 85M over 5 years. He should remain there because when he is right, he is a middle of the order bat.

          • emac2 says:

            Why would you choose to assume I am oversimplifying?

            BTW almost every point in that last post was incorrect.

            McCann can indeed be a middle of the order bat. When you break things down into smaller detail you can see there are situations where he is and situations where he isn’t. Being dogmnatic or inflexible for any reason that leads to a less than ideal lineup on any given day, and assuming you factor in secondary effects on other days, means you lose more games.

            I would have a flexible lineup but if Meter needed a fixed spot it would be 9.

            McCann should hit 8th until he turns it around. Too slow to bat 9th.

            • Jim Is A (Bored) Peckerhead says:

              “McCann should hit 8th until he turns it around.”

              Oh really? What if that’s today? Are you psychic and know that he won’t turn it around today? You don’t want to win today? You don’t care about winning?

            • Christopher says:

              There is simply no way to know when a player will go into or break out of a slump. This is not to say that there is never a time to make changes to a lineup, but the idea that any of the people posting in these comments (myself included) has any idea when Brian McCann will or will not start hitting consistently is a pretty silly notion. I’d liken this flawed idea to day trading on the stock market; yesterday’s performance just doesn’t have a particularly strong correlation to today’s. Small sample sizes simply aren’t terribly useful for predicting future performance. We need to evaluate these players in a larger context and use that more complete perspective of them to construct a lineup with the greatest statistical chance of success, as opposed to reacting to yesterday’s performances all the time. This strategy of “chasing stats” is logically flawed, and will hurt the overall production of the lineup in the long run.

        • Jorge Steinbrenner says:

          Says the guy who, as recently as yesterday, replied to someone’s actual constructive reply with simply an insult, and who spent half a day earlier this season playing “No No Donkey” with the entire comment section as to where CC Sabathia should be in the rotation.

  3. Jorge Steinbrenner says:

    “New team, new city, fat new contract, no beard, it’s understandable. Players press. McCann isn’t the first and he sure as hell won’t be the last. We’ve seen flashes of the productive power-hitting catcher the Yankees signed, but he hasn’t shown up consistently yet. It’ll happen, hopefully very soon.”

    Exactly this.

    I don’t see much of a point of being concerned in the short term. I feel like thinking long-term here is for the best. He’s going to figure this out. The signs that he can are there. He’s not going to be an overpaid Chris Stewart.

  4. Tom says:

    I’ve watched Brian McCann when batting; especially his eyes-he is squinting just before the pitch is thrown. I don’t he is picking it up.Take it for what its worth from a semi-retired Optometrist. Somebody tell Joe or Cashman.

    • Geoff says:

      Didn’t Giambi have the same problem?

    • Darren says:

      He also flinches when catching pitches worse than any other catcher I can ever remember. I think Kenny Singleton even mentioned it.

    • TopChuckie says:

      I’m not an Optometrist, though I used to date one, but I noticed the squint too.

      I’ve owned McCann for years in my fantasy leagues, though I never really watched him in Atlanta, so I don’t know if he always squinted, but I do know he has a history of eye problems and has had at least two Lasik surgeries. I’ve had one, and I didn’t think a second one was really an effective option.

      Point obviously being, a recurring eye issue could definitely be the problem here, and that is a good bit scary as a fan who was really looking forward to big things from him with the Yankees, future captain-like things.

  5. Geoff says:

    At what point do they start playing Murphy more? People just assume McCann will snap out of it but what if he doesn’t? He’s been in decline for the last four years. Even last year he only got 350 ABs. That’s a platoon guy.

    • nyyankfan_7 says:

      He actually got 402 plate appearances last year and it was because of a shoulder injury; not because he was a platoon guy.

      Other than 2012 he has not been any more of a decline than the rest of the league. He’s not a .300 hitter anymore; most of the guys who were 5 years ago aren’t either. If he hits .250 with 25 – 30 HRs he is doing exactly what he was signed for.

      • Geoff says:

        Except he’s no where close to that! My point was he had a relatively light load last year. It might be time to consider giving him two games off a week. Who knows, maybe he’s just worn down already?

        The point is, how much longer can this go on? Murphy seems like he could be better than average.

        • nyyankfan_7 says:

          No where close to that? He missed 6 weeks because of the offseason surgery and he still hit 20 HRS and batted .256 – I’m just an accountant but those numbers look pretty close to what I said in my previous post.

          • Geoff says:

            This year he’s no where close to that. And last year he played only 100 games.

            Point is, if he doesn’t start hitting soon, they have no choice but to play Murphy more. Will they have the courage to make that obvious call?

            • jjyank says:

              How many time does it need to be explained to you why McCann played the number of games he did last year?

        • Mike Axisa says:

          His season started in May because of the offseason shoulder surgery. He started 91 of 131 games after coming off the DL.

          • Geoff says:

            That proves my point, doesn’t it? He’s playing too much now. He’s on pace for what 130 games? Maybe he just needs more rest.

            When do they start playing Murphy more? Has to be soon, right? Or will they let the the contract get in the way if an obvious call?

            • nyyankfan_7 says:

              So because a team gave the guy more time off last year because he was coming off shoulder surgery they should do the same each year afterwards? 130 games is right in line with his other years outside of 2013. Not to mention his games played should increase this year because he can DH; which he has done in 2 games so far.

              He’s played in 28 games as a Yankee, not even 20% of the season is over and you’re writing him off as a platoon player?

  6. willie w says:

    $85 million for a old technology hitter

    there is a shift in the baseball world

    and as usual the yanks are behind the times

  7. Darren says:

    I hope he becomes the player we all thought we were getting, but there’s really no guarantee, is there? The narrative that “he’s pressing but will definitely come out of it at some point” is seductive and easy, but there are plenty of players who switched teams in their prime after signing big free agent contracts and never played up to their expectations.

    • Jorge Steinbrenner says:

      There’s no guarantee with any player.

      He is far from the first guy to have a bad start in a new uniform.

      • nyyankfan_7 says:

        Nope. 28 games is long enough to know we are screwed for the next 5 years. Has any player in the history of the Yankees ever had a bad 28 games? Nope, never. Posada? Nope, he always played well; if he went 0-4 one game, the next one he went 5-5 to make up for it.

      • Darren says:

        Of course there’s no guarantee and obviously the hope and expectation is he’ll get a lot better. I’m not even gonna bother responding to the 28 game comment below. All I’m saying is that it’s not always a matter of snapping out of a funk. Some players don’t. Cough Jason Bay cough cough

        • nyyankfan_7 says:

          Yeah but nobody snaps out of a funk once they realize what a mistake they made singing with the Mets.

        • Jim Is A (Bored) Peckerhead says:


          • Darren says:

            You’re either willfully misunderstanding my comment or legitimately stupid.

            • Jim Is A (Bored) Peckerhead says:

              “Some players don’t. Cough Jason Bay cough cough”

              You cited one player.

              Do you want me to cite every other player who has snapped out of a 28 game funk? I will.

              • Darren says:

                Do you really think Jason Bay is the only free agent bust who never snapped out of an early funk?

        • The Great Gonzo says:

          Thousands of athletes were able to snap out of slumps, but since Jason Bay didn’t, we’re doomed?

          Even for you Darren, this is pretty thin.

          • Jim Is A (Bored) Peckerhead says:

            No, it’s fairly par for the course for Darren.

          • Darren says:

            Come on, where did I say we’re doomed, or even that McCann won’t ultimately be fine? That kind of silly straw man is silly. My original comment was pretty mild – there’s no guarantee he’ll snap out of it, which I don’t see how you can argue with. And Bay is quite obviously one example among many of free agents who fail to live up to expectations. If you want to purposefully misunderstand thatreference, be my guest.

  8. Vern Sneaker says:

    Definitely pressing (chasing pitches and pop-up stats are clear proof), but I have this concern. He’s only 30, but he’s already caught over 1100 games. Last four years his games played are 143, 128, 121,102; his BA .270, .230, .256,.217. Shoulder surgery after 2012. Hmmm . . .

    • Geoff says:

      This. ^

      Jorge hit 1100 games when he was 34. We got spoiled into thinking older catchers can be productive. That’s rare.

  9. Geoff says:

    Meanwhile, letting Russell Martin go rates as one of the worst moves of Cashman’s tenure. It lead directly to the Stewart nonsense. Swapping in Martin last year and they were that much closer to the playoffs. And then they had to overpay for McCann who was clearly in decline. With Martin, they could have gradually broken in Murphy and Sanchez. Sanchez should be in AAA soon.

    I suppose folks just think McCann will snap out of it because there are no other options. We were spoiled by Jorge. Catchers declining fast used to be fairly common. And McCann was headed in the wrong direction for the last three years.

    • Jorge Steinbrenner says:

      There’s nothing that’s going to sway you from thinking a guy who I believe is not even 30 yet is in his decline, is it?

      Let’s just get that out of the way now before people spend the next three hours arguing this with you on there.

      Was losing Martin a mistake? At the time, probably. It create a shitty catching situation for exactly one season. Hardly an eternal dark mark on this organization.

      I don’t think that registers in my “Top Five Cashman Faileds.”

    • The Great Gonzo says:

      Martin was the flukiest catcher in the history of flukiness. He’d go 0-June, have a hot week in August and all of the sudden he’s the answer?

      Lest we forget he had a hot April 2012, a hot September 2012 and the remainder of the season he was an abortion.

      • nyyankfan_7 says:

        He didn’t even have 2 good months in 2012 because in 2012 Martin was batting .167 with 2 HRs and 6 RBI at the end of April. He was batting under .200 until August.

        But only Russell Martin can have a bad month or months and then have a great month to make you forget about it; no way Brian McCann is ever going to be better than a .215 hitter with 3 HR / month power – prior career stats don’t matter.

        • The Great Gonzo says:

          Oh, that’s right. That awesome April was actually a month in 2011 some time.

          Sorry, fact check fail. Point still stands though. He was no savior. Nice player, seemed to be a real good dude, would have liked to retain him, but hes no Carlton Fisk.

    • hogsmog says:

      And do you really think all the people freaking out about McCann right now would have been happier with a Russell Martin who batted .226 last year with 15 homers? He had a lower OPS last year than in 2012, when everyone was already crucifying him. Sure, better than Stewie, but the fact that Stewart would have been the one to replace him is only apparent now with the benefit of hindsight.

  10. wallypip says:

    Is there any chance that McCann trying to change his approach due to the shift is contributing to his slump? His career pitch FX data indicate that he likes the ball out over the plate. Career-wise, he has a pretty good slugging percentage and ISO on pitches that are up in the zone and on the outer half. Also, his lifetime spray charts indicate that he goes with the pitch more often than he gets credit for. He does roll that low outside to 2B a lot, but that is pretty common for lefty power hitters. Odds are, that’s an out no matter how they play him anyway.

    I can’t get into his head to know what he’s thinking, but I would be happy if just relaxed and hit the ball the way he always has. If the shift steals a few hits, then so be it.

  11. Geoff says:

    It’s not a one year mistake if McCann is a huge bust. Sure there’s still time. But if it were Martin struggling like this I have to assume Murphy would be playing more.

    It’s off topic, but Martin would have been the perfect mentor and caddy for Murphy and Sanchez. Playing Martin for 80-100 games would have given them room to grow. Now they feel compelled to play McCann for 120-130 games each year. What if he can’t physically handle that? By games played he’s much older than 30.

    • Geoff says:

      Ugh, sorry newbie posting error. This was to Jorge Steinbrenner.

    • Jorge Steinbrenner says:

      The further ahead you planned on counting on Russell Martin, the less likely it is your idea was going to pan out.

      The bar for McCann to exceed Martin’s production his last season as a Yankee, and since he’s left, is not very high.

      You’re overvaluing Martin quite a bit here. I will gladly give you that he’d have been a better 2013 option. I’m not convinced your “Martin, then mentor Murphy” idea would be any sort of slam dunk improvement over what the team has right now. Sorry.

      • hogsmog says:

        Also, was Murphy even on anyone’s radar at the end of the 2011 season? Gary Sanchez was in single-A and Romine was struggling with a back injury; there’s no way anyone could have considered what the Yankees had at that point as depth of catching prospects. That’s why they got Stewart in the first place.

        • Looser trader droids FotD™ says:

          One could easily argue that the fact that Murphy wasn’t on here radar then makes the point about keeping Martin then stronger, not weaker.

  12. Mike HC says:

    I’m not too worried about McCann. I think he will end up doing what we signed him for. Maybe he does end up with a down year as far as overall numbers go at the end of the season, but I don’t think this is the beginning of some big decline.

    • Mike HC says:

      Another thought, McCann probably spent 99.9% of his energy and focus on learning the new pitching staff and defensive catcherbating with Girardi. With the bad month, I get the feeling he will shift some more focus to his offense, and come out of it soon.

  13. lou says:

    I’m not worried about McCann he’s only struck out 13 times and with the shift had some hits taken away.

    What I’m worried about is the love affair with Gardner 106 abs and 31 strikeouts. Four years of Gardner when I wanted him gone when Melky was around. So now it seems another locked in contract and they are forced to play Gardner instead of the hot Ichrio.

    My concern is Gardner not McCann nor Jeter. Nobody seemed to care about Russel Martin, Andrew Jones, V Wells, Getting those abs.

    • Jorge Steinbrenner says:

      Our goalpost is gone. Where did it go?

    • The Great Gonzo says:

      Wow, did you forget how gassed Ichiro looked last season when he had regular PT?

      A little Ichiro goes a long way. Too much Ichiro would have you pining for that waste of a roster spot Gardner in NO TIME.

      • Jorge Steinbrenner says:

        Am I wrong in pegging lou as the guy getting on Girardi for not having a set lineup every night? And now he’s arguing for ICHIRO?! Get the fuck outta here.

    • Mike HC says:

      Gardner is still playing top level defense, still seems to be as fast as ever, is a perfect 7 for 7 on steal attempts and he is still getting on base ok even though he isn’t hitting great. I do think the big contract extension was a bit of a head scratcher though too.

      • Looser trader droids FotD™ says:

        If (when) he loses a step on D it’ll be far more than a “bit” of a head scratcher.

  14. Jim Is A (Bored) Peckerhead says:

    Since you’re obviously too lazy/ignorant, here.

    Melky has 150 games where he was better than gardner, on offense. If you don’t want to look at the stat pages, or if you’re going to ignore them, then no one here has to listen to your crap.

  15. Prussian General Jordan Brink says:

    I’m not at the concerned phase with McCann. Still need more data from this season before I get to that point.

    But I think the overall lineup is lacking. I’m spoiled, but there is not Yankee who the opposition fears pitching to. We’re used to having that, at least in the 25 years I’ve been watching the team. We have a mix of B offensive players. Maybe we can survive this way. It makes for compelling TV, wondering who will be the hero.

    • The Great Gonzo says:

      Eddard says:

      Fuck Yo Sample Sizes

    • lou says:

      When I watch that video the Riveraave put up last night with Rivera’s last game at the stadium. I couldn’t help think along the same lines that we were spoiled for many not a few many years and we expect the same. But I don’t think we’ll ever see teams like that in both our lifetimes.

  16. Jorge Steinbrenner says:

    If you’d like to further think glass half-full.

  17. Yan Solo says:

    I blame John Sterling’s atrocious vaudevillian homerun call for McCann. It’s that bad.

  18. qwerty says:

    McCann is giving the yankees what they paid for, a catcher who can hit 20 home runs with maybe 15 doubles.

  19. Squints says:

    Huh? I thought Brian McCann was a great hitter. Truth comes out when youre not coming off a 2 homerun game.

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