McCann makes adjustments, eliminates toe-tap before strong road trip

(Jim McIsaac/Getty)
(Jim McIsaac/Getty)

As we discussed in our Midseason Grades post earlier today, Brian McCann has been a huge disappointment in his first half-season as a Yankee. He is hitting only .239/.294/.377 (83 wRC+) overall despite a strong road trip (13-for-39) heading into the All-Star break. The Yankees didn’t guarantee this guy $85M over five years to hit like that. They expected him to do damage and he has not done that.

In the middle of the road trip we learned McCann had made some changes to his stance and swing mechanics with the help of hitting coach Kevin Long. Minor changes, of course, no one is going to overhaul a seven-time All-Star after a bad half-season, but changes nonetheless. When you struggle for 80-something games, it’s time to start tinkering.

“I’m no longer toe-tapping,” explained McCann to Erik Boland last week. “I’ve gotten wider, I’ve gotten more into my base and basically I’ve been doing four or five unnecessary movements to get to the baseball.”

So, first things first, here is the side-by-side comparison of McCann with the toe-tap (left) and McCann without the toe-tap. I’m not the most tech savvy person, but I did my best to sync the GIFs at the moment his front foot hits the ground:


The toe-tap is pretty noticeable. It also looks like his stance is a little more closed and he isn’t jerking his hands towards his body before his swing, but I’m not sure if that’s something he’s worked to change or if it’s just something that happened on this one swing. The toe-tap is there on the left (game on June 20th) and gone on the right (July 2nd) though, that’s clear and McCann confirmed it was intentional.

Thanks to the magic of MLB.tv, I went back through the archives and found that McCann’s first game without the toe-tap was June 27th, the first game of the home series against the Red Sox, when Vidal Nuno unexpectedly pulled 5.2 scoreless innings out of his behind. McCann did not play on the 26th (team off-day) and he did not play on the 25th either (personal off-day), so he had two consecutive days off and was probably working with Long on these mechanical changes.

“I made some big changes in my swing,” added McCann while talking to Jorge Castillo yesterday. “I just broke down film. I finally got to the point where things that I’ve been doing in the past weren’t working. Long kind of hit the reset button and basically broke down my swing and showed me what I was doing wrong, and I’ve been simplifying my swing.”

McCann actually went 2-for-4 with a double on June 24th, but he went into that game in an 0-for-9 and 4-for-27 (.148) slump. His batting line sat at .223/.284/.360 (76 wRC+) through 268 plate appearances following that game, he took the next two days off, and has hit .310/.339/.448 (115 wRC+) in 68 plate appearances without the toe-tap since. That’s the guy the Yankees thought they were signing, more or less.

Now, courtesy of the amazing Baseball Savant, here are McCann’s spray chart heat maps with (left) and without (right) the toe-tap:

McCann Spray Charts

He’s pulling the ball more! Well, kinda. I know everyone wants McCann to hit the ball the other way because it’s aesthetically pleasing and it beats the shift — McCann already has 20 opposite field hits this year, more than he did in each of the last three seasons — but he’s much more effective when he pulls the ball. He was losing hits to the shift even when he was focused on going the opposite field anyway. Might as well just stick to his strengths and try to yank the ball down the line to right. That’s who he is. Embrace it.

I don’t really know how the toe-tap helps McCann but I assume it’s a timing thing. Get your front foot down earlier and you’ll be better able to see the ball and have a better base underneath you for you swing. That sounds like something that might be right, right? Who knows. All I know is that McCann and Long worked to eliminate that toe-tap and he’s been much more productive since. It might be anything more than a coincidence. I hope it’s not. McCann was very good on the road trip and getting him back to being the guy he was all those years in Atlanta would be the best possible offensive upgrade the Yankees could make in the second half.

The ugly truth of the last three half-seasons

The Yankees officially wrapped up the first half of the 2014 season last night with a 4-3 extra innings loss to the Rays. They currently own a decidedly mediocre 41-40 record with an awful -33 run differential that ranks ninth worst in the game. It feels like this team loses nothing but blowouts and wins nothing but close games, last night notwithstanding. Nothing comes easy.

Now that the season is halfway complete, I want to look back and compare the team’s current position to where they were last year at this point. Last year’s squad, as you know, was decimated by injuries (especially on the position player side) and only the second Yankees team to miss the postseason in 19 years. Here is a quick nuts and bolts comparison of the last three half-seasons:

W-L RS RA Run Diff. AVG OBP SLG ERA FIP Def. Efficiency
’13 1st Half 42-39 310 326 -16 .239 .302 .379 3.87 3.68 0.692
’13 2nd Half 43-38 340 345 -5 .246 .312 .372 4.00 3.90 0.692
’14 1st Half 41-40 326 359 -33 .252 .316 .382 4.00 3.82 0.697

Right now, this year’s club is marginally better than the team the Yankees trotted out there in the second half last season despite a worse record. They’ve performed slightly better at the plate — the difference is basically a few points of batting average, which hasn’t translated to more runs — and in the field and almost identically on the mound. The first half of this year has gone much better offensively and much worse run prevention-wise than the first half of last season.

The difference between this season’s team and the one that closed out last season is very small, which is a big problem. The 2013 Yankees were hit hard by injuries and scrambled for replacements all summer. This year’s team added over $500M worth of contracts to the roster and have not benefited from them in the standings at all. Masahiro Tanaka‘s been outstanding, Jacoby Ellsbury‘s been very good, and just about every other offseason addition has been terrible. Brian McCann and Carlos Beltran have truly been $30M+ worth of dead weight through 81 games.

The problem is two-fold. Not only is like, half the roster underperforming, but now the Yankees are locked into even more big money contracts with even less roster flexibility. They drew a lot of criticism for having an old, expensive, declining, veteran-based roster a year ago, yet they doubled down on that over the winter. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, I don’t think. It only looks really bad when those guys underperform, which is something young players are certainly capable of doing as well. The Yankees needed better players this past offseason, not necessarily younger players. That got neither (in terms of actual, on-field performance).

The Yankees are only 2.5 games out of a playoff spot with half-a-season to play and I think the best thing that can happen to them right now is some kind of streak. Either win a whole bunch of games or lose a whole bunch of games. They have 13 games remaining before the All-Star break and either winning or losing about eleven of them would provide some clarity before the trade deadline. The standings say this team is still in contention, but man, watching them day after day does not inspire confidence. Going on some kind of run, either good or bad, puts the front office in a better position to make decisions before July 31st.

Of course, I fully expect the Yankees to go about 7-6 in these next 13 games and be in just about the same position they are right now. That’s what they’ve been doing all season. Whenever they’ve had a chance to beat up on some direct competition or take advantage of a soft part of the schedule, they’ve broken even. If they continue to do that, they’ll look to add pieces at the deadline, perhaps aggressively so because missing the postseason a second straight year will really take a bite out of the bottom line. There is bound to be some desperation setting in and I have a hard time seeing how that can be good.

The Yankees have been wholly underwhelming this season and the numbers bear that out, especially compared to last year. Outside of about five players (Tanaka, Gardner, Ellsbury, Dellin Betances, David Robertson), I don’t find this team to be particularly enjoyable to watch either. That’s just my opinion. They took steps to improve on last year’s performance over the winter and by and large those moves have backfired. The shape of the production may be different, but overall the team is simply not any better than last year’s mess.

Solarte expanding the zone during recent slump

(Jason O. Watson/Getty)
(Jason O. Watson/Getty)

The Yankees just wrapped up a nine-game road trip through two time zones and return home this week with five wins in the bank. It was a good trip, not a great trip. Stealing one of those last two games from the Athletics would have been awesome, but they are the best team in baseball. What are you going to do? Considering the injury-riddled rotation and mostly sputtering offense, winning five of nine works fine for me.

The road trip was not at all good for infielder Yangervis Solarte, who had four total hits in the nine games. All four came in back-to-back games in Kansas City. Solarte went hitless in his final 19 at-bats on the trip, though his recent slump extends further back than that — over the last calendar month he’s hitting only .208/.269/.313 (60 wRC+) in 105 plate appearances. That’s just bad. That’s what you’d expect from … well, a journeyman infielder who signed a minor league contract.

Despite the slump, Solarte is still hitting .274/.347/.420 (113 wRC+) on the season, which is a reminder of just how excellent he was a few weeks ago. I don’t think anyone realistically thought he could maintain the 144 wRC+ he posted through April or even the 131 wRC+ he posted through May. That’s Josh Donaldson/Hanley Ramirez production. I’ll be more than thrilled if Solarte manages to produce at a 113 wRC+ clip from here on out.

Sort through his day-by-day graphs page on FanGraphs and you can see Solarte’s gradual return to Earth pretty clearly. The AVG, OBP, SLG, BABIP, and wOBA graphs are all moving in the wrong direction, the walk rate slightly less so. The strikeout, K/BB, and ISO graphs show little change. They’ve held steady even through this slump and that’s encouraging. The one graph that stood out to me was the batted balls. Check it out:

Solarte Batted Balls

The green line is ground balls, the blue is fly balls, and the red is line drives. Solarte’s ground ball and fly ball rates have been moving in opposite directions, which is sorta weird because his ISO has held steady. Usually when a hitter stops hitting the ball in the air, he stops hitting for extra bases. Maybe it’s just a small sample thing. Solarte isn’t fast and won’t beat out many infield singles (he has three infield hits all season, including this one), so it makes sense that the increase in ground balls has led to decreased production overall.

One thing that has impressed me about Solarte — really more than anything — is his approach. His 11.6% strikeout rate is much better than the league average (20.3%) and his 9.6% walk rate is a touch better than average (8.0%) as well. He has swung at only 27.9% of pitches outside the strike zone, a tick below the 29.3% average. Has that changed at all during the slump? Here are Solarte’s plate discipline stats broken down into ten-game chunks because ten is a nice round number:

O-Swing% Z-Swing% O-Contact% Z-Contact% Zone%
Games 1-10 27.1% 59.2% 78.3% 95.2% 45.5%
Games 11-20 34.4% 56.3% 74.2% 93.3% 47.1%
Games 21-30 21.8% 66.7% 73.7% 95.7% 44.2%
Games 31-40 20.9% 52.2% 66.7% 97.2% 44.5%
Games 41-50 29.3% 53.3% 82.4% 95.0% 56.4%
Games 51-62 33.7% 52.3% 83.9% 97.8% 48.9%

Solarte has gradually swung at fewer pitches in the strike zone as the season has progressed, and lately he’s offered at more pitches out of the zone as well. That’s not really a good combination. Swing at strikes and lay off balls is a pretty good rule of thumb. Furthermore, Solarte has not only swung at more pitches out of the zone these last 22 games, but he’s made more contact with those pitches as well. Unless you’re a total freak like Vlad Guerrero, it’s really tough to made hard contact with a pitch out of the zone. Usually the hitter is reaching and either grounding out weakly or popping the ball up.

As Joe wrote two weeks ago, it is very rare for a player to make his MLB debut at age 26 and stick around for a few years. At least rare among non-Cuban players. Dan Uggla and David Eckstein have both done it, and Solarte is more Eckstein than Uggla in terms of his high-contact, low-power playing style. Every little slump makes you wonder if this is the end — for what it’s worth, Solarte has hit much better at Yankee Stadium, so coming back home this week could help jump start his bat — but Solarte has rebounded each previous time. A little less hacking at pitchers’ pitches would help get him back in line this time. That might not be his only problem right now, but it is part of it.

Brian McCann and trying to beat the shift

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

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.

Masahiro Tanaka’s Extra Gear

(Jared Wickerham/Getty)
(Jared Wickerham/Getty)

I’ve been at this for a little while now, and one thing I’ve learned over the years is that there is a friggin’ ton of bad information out there. The bad information outnumbers the good information by like, a factor of a hundred at this point. It’s terrible. Sorting through the nonsense is exhausting. It really is. What are you going to do though? It’s all in the game.

International players in particular fall victim to bad information because there isn’t much information out there to begin with. Even in this age of the internet and the 24-hour news cycle, we still don’t know a whole lot about non-MLB players. The tiny little bit of information we have gets extrapolated out and before you know it, Yoenis Cespedes is a five-tool superstar when he’s more like a solid, two-tool everyday outfielder. It happens all the time.

To date, I don’t think we’ve seen anything out of Masahiro Tanaka that we didn’t hear about in the weeks and months leading up to his free agency. Actually, I guess I should say we haven’t seen Tanaka not do something he was said to be able to do in the weeks and months leading up to free agency. That make sense? We’re not waiting to see the gyroball or anything like that. Tanaka has been as advertised.

One thing that stood out to me before the Yankees signed Tanaka was this statement by Darrell Rasner, the former Yankee who was Tanaka’s teammate with the Rakuten Golden Eagles the last few years. Here’s what Rasner told Sweeny Murti back in January:

SM: When you say he has an extra gear, you mean an extra 3 or 4 miles per hour to get somebody out?

DR: I’m talking like an extra 10! I watch him pitch at 88-89 or 90-91, and then I’ll see him jump up to 98-99 when he needs it. I saw him do this (last) year, and there was one game that really stands out to me. I wanna say it was the eighth or ninth inning and he was 140 pitches in and he needed a strikeout, and he jumped it from that 90 to about 98-99 and punched the guy out. It’s just impressive watching the guy, his mentality and his know-how on pitching, especially being so young.

This sounds like a something that could be totally made up, right? We hear about guys cranking it up a notch in big situations quite a bit but it seems like few actually do it.

Anecdotally, I feel like I have seen Tanaka reach back and bring something extra in important spots during his first six starts, but this is 2014. Anecdotal evidence is for suckers. We can test this stuff. First, let’s keep it simple and look at Tanaka’s results. Here is how he’s fared in situations with varying degrees of pressure:

BF AVG OBP SLG BABIP wOBA K% BB% GB% FIP
Bases Empty 109 .262 .275 .514 .318 .341 25.7% 1.8% 40.8% 4.20
Men On 59 .130 .203 .185 .250 .186 39.0% 6.8% 71.0% 2.30
RISP 32 .103 .188 .207 .143 .188 53.1% 6.3% 75.0% 1.75

First things first: take a second to soak in those numbers with runners in scoring position. Hitters had an 0-for-17 stretch against Tanaka in those spots until Ryan Hanigan slapped a ground ball off Kelly Johnson‘s glove on Saturday. When it comes to runners in scoring position, Tanaka is the Yankees’ offense of pitchers. I don’t even care that the performance came in a super small sample — the reason I didn’t use low/medium/high-leverage stats instead is because Tanaka has faced only nine batters in high-leverage spots — it happened and it’s amazing.

Anyway, Tanaka has performed much better with runners on base than he has with the bases empty to date. That isn’t proof that he kicks it into another gear in big spots, but it does support the theory. At least somewhat. Obviously Tanaka isn’t going to sustain a 53.1% strikeout rate and a 75.0% ground ball rate with men in scoring position (lol) because no one does that. I would expect him to be less effective in those spots going forward only because he couldn’t possibly be any better.

The results have been excellent, but when I think of a pitcher reaching back for something extra in big spots, I think of increased velocity. That’s what everything thinks, right? Rasner’s claim that Tanaka can reach back for “an extra 10!” is completely far-fetched — if a pitcher could really do that, he’s probably doing his team and himself a disservice by not doing it more often — but the idea that he throws harder when he really needs an out is not. There are a few guys around the league who can do it, with Justin Verlander jumping to mind.

Courtesy of the amazing Baseball Savant, here is Tanaka’s pitch selection and average velocities in those same three situations:

FB% FBv SNK% SNKv SPL% SPLv SLD% SLDv
Bases Empty 26.3% 91.4 23.0% 90.2 17.9% 86.1 18.1% 83.3
Men On 20.5% 92.2 23.0% 90.5 29.3% 86.3 19.2% 84.0
RISP
25.4% 92.6 14.3% 91.1 38.9% 86.9 21.2% 85.3

Those percentages do not add up to 100% simply because Tanaka throws too many different pitches and I didn’t include them all. PitchFX has recorded eight different pitches from Tanaka this season, though the four-seamer, sinker, splitter, and slider are his four main offerings. The others (cutter, two-seamer, changeup, curve) aren’t used nearly as often, so I’m leaving them out. It’s just too much information.

Across the board we see that Tanaka has indeed thrown harder with guys on base, especially when they’re in scoring position. The increase in the average velocity of his four-seamer, sinker, and splitter is roughly one mile an hour with men in scoring position while the slider jumps two full miles an hour. The increases with men on base in general are smaller but they still exist, especially with the fastball and slider. The average fastball velocity increase with men on base is only 0.2 mph across the league. It’s 0.4 mph with runners in scoring position. Tanaka’s fastball has jumped +0.8 mph with men on and +1.2 mph with men in scoring position. The other pitches have shown even smaller velocity increases around the league, so Tanaka is very much unique.

Tanaka has thrown ten pitches at 94+ mph this year and eight have come with men on base. The two exceptions were a pair of 2-2 fastballs to Brock Holt (95.2 mph) and Grady Sizemore (94.7 mph). Both were fouled off and they were Tanaka’s fastest and fourth fastest pitches of the season, respectively. Here’s the fun part: the pitch to Holt was in the seventh inning (96th pitch), the pitch to Sizemore in the eighth (103rd). Tanaka was really amped up in Boston — ten of his 12 fastest pitches of the season came against the Red Sox — and he was throwing his hardest when his pitch count was approaching or over 100. That qualifies as a guy who ramps it up in big spots to me.

Through his first six starts, Tanaka has shown signs of having that “extra gear” we heard so much about before he joined the Yankees. It is just six starts though, his first six in the big leagues. He admitted to being excited and nervous before both his first overall start and first home start, and I’m sure he felt a little something before his other four starts as well. If Tanaka continues to reach back for more in big situations later in the season, after he has some more innings under is belt and has had more time to adjust to the five-man rotation, then I think we’ll know this is a skill he actually possesses and not just a piece of bad misinformation we heard before Tanaka came over to MLB.