The post-Jorge Posada years have been a shock to the system for a generation of Yankees fans. For more than a decade we watched Posada compensate for his poor defense with huge offensive numbers, including a ridiculous .283/.386/.492 (131 wRC+) batting line from 2000-09. As a catcher! Jorge will one day have his number retired and get more than a few Hall of Fame votes, yet I still feel he is somehow underrated by the masses.
Anyway, the Yankees transitioned into the post-Posada years with Russell Martin, who was excellent defensively and slightly better than the league average catcher offensively (97 vs. 94 wRC+) from 2011-12. Martin was no Posada, but he was a perfectly capable starting catcher. When he jumped shipped and joined the Pirates prior to the 2013 season, the Yankees tricked themselves into thinking Francisco Cervelli and Chris Stewart could hold down the fort. Cervelli got hurt less than a month into the season and Stewart had a 57 wRC+ in way too many plate appearances (340).
The Yankees weren’t going to make that mistake again. Stewart was traded a few hours before last winter’s non-tender deadline to, coincidentally, the Pirates to serve as Martin’s backup. Austin Romine was still around following his disappointing year as Stewart’s backup, and John Ryan Murphy wasn’t quite ready for full-time duty after his breakout 2013 season, so the Yankees plugged their catching hole the way they plug most roster holes: they threw money at it.
On November 23rd of last year, the team agreed to a five-year contract worth $85M with free agent Brian McCann. The contract was the largest ever given to a free agent catcher and fourth largest for a catcher overall, behind Joe Mauer ($184M), Buster Posey ($164M), and Mike Piazza ($91M). It was a touch more than the five-year, $75M extension the Cardinals gave Yadier Molina two years ago. McCann’s contract also includes a sixth year vesting option with surprisingly favorable terms — he basically has to be a starting catcher from 2017-18 for the option to kick in.
McCann was a known commodity heading into free agency. He made seven All-Star teams during his nine years with the Braves — Posada only made five All-Star teams in his career — and was widely regarded as the best power-hitting catcher in the game. McCann hit 20+ homers every year from 2008-13 and seven times in his eight years as Atlanta’s starting catcher. He was also very durable, starting at least 110 games behind the plate in seven of those eight years. The only exception was 2013, when he started 91 games because he didn’t make his season debut until May following offseason shoulder surgery.
The right shoulder injury — he had a torn labrum and some cartilage damage — bothered McCann throughout the 2012 season, when he hit a career-worst .230/.300/.399 (87 wRC+) with 20 homers in 121 games. He showed the injury was behind him by hitting .256/.336/.461 (121 wRC+) with 20 homers in only 102 games in 2013, which was identical to the 121 wRC+ he put up from 2009-11, the three years before the shoulder injury. The Yankees looked McCann over during his pre-signing physical, talked up his toughness and leadership, and the deal was done.
As you know, McCann was a massive disappointment his first season in New York. He hit .232/.286/.406 (92 wRC+) with 23 homers — McCann led the team in dingers, though that’s more of an indictment of the rest of the roster than a credit to him — and it took a huge September (121 wRC+ and eight homers) to get his season numbers up even that high. Given the injuries to Mark Teixeira and Carlos Beltran, McCann’s was the team’s only regular middle of the order presence this summer and he didn’t produce as expected. At all.
We all know what happened with McCann and the Yankees this season, so there’s no sense in reliving it all step by step. Instead, let’s look at some specific parts of his game to see where things went wrong as well as the little bit that went right.
Because he’s a left-handed pull hitter, opposing teams shifted against McCann all summer long. Certainly every time he was at the plate with the bases empty, and also sometimes with men on base. I remember seeing a graphic on a late-season broadcast (I think it was an ESPN Sunday Night Game, I forget exactly) that said McCann was one of the two or three most shifted against hitters in the game. I believe it.
Naturally, the shift was blamed for McCann’s poor offensive year by lots and lots of people. Lots. It was too easy. Too convenient. Except, you know, teams have been shifting against McCann for years and years. Don’t believe me? Here’s video of McCann beating the shift way back in May 2009:
Teams have been shifting against McCann for at least five seasons now and it obviously didn’t prevent him from putting up big numbers while with the Braves. He hit .281/.349/.486 (119 wRC+) during that 2009 season, for example.
Now, here’s another thing about the shift: McCann went the other way in 2014 far more than he had at any point in the last five years. Again, it’s easy to pin his struggles on his inability to adjust and go the other way, but McCann did adjust. Or at least he tried to adjust. Look at his ball in play numbers:
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McCann put more balls in play (95) and had more hits (30) to the opposite field in 2014 than he had in any season since 2008 (100 and 30). He averaged only 73 balls in play and 18 hits to the opposite field from 2009-13. His .316 BABIP the other way was his highest since 2006 (.378). McCann even laid down a few bunts — he bunted three balls in play and had one hit — and I couldn’t tell you how many times he tried to bunt only to have the ball go foul. More than I care to count.
Did the shift hurt McCann this season? Of course it did. Among the 132 batters who pulled at least 150 balls in play this year, McCann ranked 132nd with a .194 BABIP. Dead last. (Pablo Sandoval was second worst with a .206 BABIP.) Was the shift the reason he had such a poor debut season with the Yankees? Not entirely. He attempted to go the other way and the result was a lot of weak contact, especially pop-ups. McCann hit more lazy fly balls this year, especially to left and center fields, than I can ever remember seeing a left-handed batter hit. It reminded me of Teixeira in 2012, when he focused on going the other way and the result was a bunch of weak fly balls, so he abandoned the approach midseason.
Joe Girardi said the Yankees will emphasize beating the shift in Spring Training — good luck with that, still unnamed new hitting coach — but McCann is a 30-year-old veteran with almost 5,000 plate appearances in the big leagues. Maybe they can teach this old dog a new trick and get him to consistently beat the shift without turning him into a singles hitter. I’ll believe it when I see it. I think McCann simply needs to go back to doing what made him so successful with the Braves and pull the ball even more. He spent 2014 trying to go the other way and he result was the worst non-injury season of his career.
The Plate Discipline
Along with blaming the shift, I think my favorite generic baseball complaint is “he strikes out too much.” It’s so predictable too. Power hitter like McCann is struggling? He strikes out too much. Except McCann didn’t strike out much this year. His 14.3% strikeout rate was both right in line with his 14.5% career average and well-below the 20.4% league average. Fifty-seven players hit 20+ homers this year and four had a lower strikeout rate than McCann: Posey (11.3%), Albert Pujols (10.2%), Michael Brantley (8.3%) and Victor Martinez (6.6%). That’s it.
Just because McCann didn’t strike out much does not mean his plate discipline was an issue, however. His 5.9% walk rate was a career-low — his previous career-low was 6.3% way back in 2007, his second full year in the league — and way down from the 9.9% walk rate he posted from 2011-13. The weird thing is that McCann’s swing numbers were not out of line with the last few years:
Nothing unusual there. Typical year-to-year fluctuations but otherwise McCann’s in and out of the zone swing rates this season were right in line with the last few years and his career averages. It would have been a red flag if he had suddenly swung at 33% of the pitches he’d seen out of the zone (O-Swing%) or something, but that’s not the case.
McCann did not swing more this summer, but he did swing more often. His pitches per plate appearance average dropped to 3.83 this year, down from 4.06 last year and 3.99 from 2011-13. McCann simply swung a bit earlier in the count, and when you swing earlier in the count, you’re not going to draw many walks. In fact, he saw only 110 three ball counts in 538 plate appearances this year (20.4%), down from 25.4% last year and 23.1% from 2011-13. Explaining why McCann put the ball in plate earlier in the count this season is a fool’s errand. It could simply be an anomaly, or could be the result of moving into a new league with a new team and a new hitting coach. Whatever the reason, it led to fewer walks and fewer times on base given what was happening when he did put the ball in play.
One of the many reasons the Yankees pursued McCann was his left-handed power, which fit perfectly in Yankee Stadium. There was talk of him hitting 40+ homers in Yankee Stadium, though I always though that was far-fetched. Thirty dingers did seem doable, and the fact that he still managed to swat 23 homers while having such an overall poor year supports that.
McCann’s 23 homeruns came with a .174 ISO, which was down a bit from the .189 ISO he posted from 2011-13. (It’s worth noting Yankee Stadium isn’t a good doubles park, which dragged down his ISO a tad.) His 12.2% HR/FB rate was right in line with his career average (12.7%) but way down from his 2011-13 numbers (14.3%). That’s after moving from spacious Turner Field into cozy Yankee Stadium too. McCann hit .242/.288/.496 (115 wRC+) with 19 (!) of his 23 homers at home, so he was particularly awful on the road (.221/.285/.306, 67 wRC+ and four homers).
The weird and kinda scary thing is McCann also didn’t hit right-handed pitchers at all this year. He put up a .256/.349/.452 (118 wRC+) line against righties from 2011-13, but this it was only .209/.272/.360 (76 wRC+) this summer. I mean, holy cow. His .292/.324/.526 (137 wRC+) batting line against southpaws was far better than his .245/.286/.417 (92 wRC+) performance the last three years. McCann’s been vulnerable to a quality lefty specialist throughout his career, but not in 2014. (I remember writing back in Spring Training that starting Cervelli against guys like David Price and Jon Lester was a good way to get McCann regular rest this summer.)
When the Yankees signed McCann, it seemed like a safe bet that he’d rake at Yankee Stadium and against right-handed pitchers just given his career to date and how well his swing fit the ballpark. He did mash in the Bronx, but he was dreadful on the road and shockingly bad against righties. I suspect his success against lefties is small sample size noise (145 plate appearances) and not some kind of revelation at age 30. Improving against righties is a must next season because chances are McCann won’t repeat that performance against same-side pitchers. We have all winter to discuss that though.
For all the offensive struggles, McCann was a rock behind the plate and an exceptional defender. He threw out 29 of 78 attempted base-stealers, a 37.2% success rate that was by far a career-high. McCann threw out a miserable 23.1% of attempted base-stealers from 2011-13, well-below the 28% league average. Only Yadier Molina (47.8%) and Martin (38.5%) had a better throw-out rate among the 22 catchers who caught at least 800 innings in 2014.
While this sudden ability to throw out base-runners could be nothing more than a one-year fluke, it’s worth noting McCann would not be the first catcher to improve his throwing under Joe Girardi and bench coach Tony Pena. Cervelli in particular improved his throwing greatly under their tutelage. Romine and Murphy improved as well. There’s also the health factor — he was now a full year away from shoulder surgery and his strength may have full returned. Who knows how long the shoulder was bothering him while in Atlanta? McCann did throw out 30.0% of attempted base-stealers back in 2010, after all.
Behind the plate, Bojan Koprivica’s work says McCann should have allowed 62 passed pitches (passed balls plus wild pitches) based on his workload this year, but he only allowed 39. Koprivica’s stats put McCann at +4.0 runs saved by blocking pitches, fourth best in baseball. Pitch framing data at StatCorner has McCann at +11.4 runs saved through framing, 11th best in baseball and sixth best among regular catchers. Catcher defense is a very difficult thing to quantify and I don’t love these stats yet, so I won’t make too big a deal about them. McCann scored well and my eyes told me was a pretty damn good behind the plate. That about sums it up.
McCann did more than catch though. He also played first base for the first time in his career. It wasn’t a one or two-game emergency stint either. It was supposed to be when Teixeira when on the disabled in April, but McCann wound up playing 16 games at first this year, including eleven starts. He came into 2014 with literally zero innings at first base in his career, Majors or minors. His inexperience was very evident at times — McCann’s biggest blunders came when it was unclear if he should play a weak ground ball or retreat to the bag and let either the pitcher or second baseman field it — and that’s to be expected. McCann was a decidedly below-average first baseman but I’m not going to hold that against him. The team put him in an uncomfortable situation and he did what he could.
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There’s really no way to sugarcoat it: McCann’s first season in pinstripes was a major disappointment. The most memorable moment of his year was pinch-running for Derek Jeter in Game 162 after the Cap’n singled in his final career at-bat. Yeah. The Yankees expected McCann to be a middle of the order force in addition to providing top notch defense behind the plate, but instead he was a highly paid defensive specialist who rarely had an impact at the plate.
McCann’s late-season homer binge was encouraging heading into the offseason, though it wasn’t nearly enough to salvage his season. With another four years and $68M left on his contract, as well as the team’s continued need for more offense, the Yankees have to hope McCann’s first season in pinstripes was the result of changing leagues and having to learn a new pitching staff. Not some sort of irreversible decline.