Yankees finalize Opening Day roster with latest round of roster moves

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

3:25pm: The Yankees have officially announced their Opening Day roster. It is exactly as presented below. No surprises.

10:00am: The Opening Day roster has been slowly coming together over the last several weeks, and yesterday afternoon the Yankees made the roster all but official with their latest round of moves, including Austin Romine being designated for assignment. Here is the 25-man roster the Yankees will take into the regular season tomorrow:

CATCHERS (2)
Brian McCann
John Ryan Murphy

INFIELDERS (7)
Stephen Drew
Didi Gregorius
Chase Headley
Garrett Jones
Gregorio Petit
Alex Rodriguez
Mark Teixeira

OUTFIELDERS (4)
Carlos Beltran
Brett Gardner
Jacoby Ellsbury
Chris Young

STARTERS (5)
Nathan Eovaldi
Michael Pineda
CC Sabathia
Masahiro Tanaka
Adam Warren

RELIEVERS (7)
Dellin Betances
David Carpenter
Chris Martin
Andrew Miller
Esmil Rogers
Chasen Shreve
Justin Wilson

DISABLED LIST (4)
Chris Capuano (quad) — retroactive to March 27th
Ivan Nova (Tommy John surgery) — retroactive to March 27th
Jose Pirela (concussion) — retroactive to April 2nd
Brendan Ryan (calf) — retroactive to April 1st

Pirela was placed on the 7-day concussion DL while Capuano, Nova, and Ryan were all placed on the regular old 15-day DL. Petit takes Romine’s spot on the 40-man roster, which is full. The Yankees can transfer Nova to the 60-day DL whenever they need another 40-man spot since he’s not expected to return until June. Romine, Petit, and the DL assignments were the moves announced yesterday.

Despite those injuries, the Yankees made it through Spring Training as the healthiest team in the AL East, just as we all expected. The rest of the roster is pretty straight forward. Warren was named the fifth starter a few days ago and it was clear Shreve and Martin were going to make the Opening Day roster once Chase Whitley was optioned to Triple-A. Joe Girardi is planning to use Betances and Miller as co-closers to start the season, which is pretty cool. Hopefully it works as planned. Carpenter and Wilson figure to be the sixth and seventh inning guys.

As always, the 25-man roster is going to change throughout the course of the season. Quite a bit too. Petit figures to be replaced by Pirela or Ryan, whoever gets healthy first, and those bullpen spots belonging to Shreve and Martin could be revolving doors given the team’s relief pitcher depth. That includes Capuano, who could wind up working in relief if Warren fares well as the fifth starter. For now, this is the group of Yankees to start the new season.

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2015 Season Preview: The Power, Defense, and Leadership of Brian McCann

Opening Day is five weeks from today. Between now and then, we’re going to preview the 2015 Yankees by looking at what the team needs from individual players and what they can realistically expect.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The first year of Brian McCann‘s five-year contract did not go according to plan last season. The just turned 31-year-old backstop did lead the Yankees with 23 home runs and play solid to excellent defense, but he hit just .232/.286/.406 (92 wRC+) overall and had too many no impact games. Everyone kept waiting for McCann’s bat to come around but it never happened.

Year two will be different, we hope. McCann was coming over from a different league last season and had to learn basically everything. New pitchers on his staff, new opposing pitchers, new ballparks, new coaches, the whole nine. He also had to deal with the pressure of receiving the largest free agent catcher contract in baseball history. I can’t imagine that was not in the back of his mind.

“(Coming to the Yankees) was the best decision I’ve made. Just to be able to lace ’em up for this organization is amazing,” said McCann to Ken Davidoff last month. “I didn’t play as well as I should have (in 2014). I didn’t get off to a good start. I had some mechanical flaws in my swing, and it took me four months to get it ironed out. It really did.”

McCann did indeed finish strong, hitting eight of his 23 homers in September, but he still only had a .222 AVG and a .281 OBP that month. That doesn’t necessarily mean he didn’t iron out his swing, of course. Either way, McCann is being paid to be an impact player — on both sides of the ball at that — and the Yankees will need him to be one in 2015 to return to the postseason. Time to break down what the team needs from McCann and what he can actually provide.

Yankees Need: Offensive Impact

This goes without saying. McCann is going to hit in the middle order this coming season because he is the team’s top power threat — if not overall than at least left-handed — and has a history of being an above-average producer at the plate. He was a very consistent hitter from 2008-11 before hurting his shoulder in 2012, though he then rebounded to 2008-11 levels in 2013 following surgery. Then last year happened.


Source: FanGraphsBrian McCann

The Yankees don’t need McCann to put up huge numbers like Buster Posey. (Would be cool if he did though.) They just want the Braves version of McCann, the guy who hit .256/.336/.461 (121 wRC+) as recently as 2013, and with some consistency. Day-to-day consistency in baseball is a myth — no .300 hitter gets exactly three hits every ten at-bats for example, or even hits .300 every month — but they want to see McCann not be invisible for weeks at a time again. McCann is healthy and not yet all the way over the hill in catcher years. An offensive rebound is not totally out of the question.

McCann Can Provide: Power

We do know McCann can still hit the ball out of the park. He’s hit at least 20 homers every year since 2008 — only five others can say that — and his pull happy swing is tailored for Yankee Stadium. In fact, 19 of his 23 homers came at home last year. Yeah, road production was a major problem. McCann’s late season homer binge was, if nothing else, encouraging because it did indicate something had clicked. He was hitting the ball with more authority.

The problem is McCann might not be able to provide much offensively aside from power. He’s a left-handed pull hitter and one of the most shifted players in the game. But, as I wrote in our Season Review last year, McCann went the other way more often in 2014 than he had in any season since 2008. He was trying to beat the shift last year and the result was a lot of average-killing weak contact — his 45.1% fly ball rate was the second highest of his career and 11.1% of those fly balls were infield pop-ups, a career high. Lots of lazy fly balls last year.

At this point of his career hitting for a decent average probably is never happening again. Teams aren’t going to stop shifting against McCann just because he bunts or sneaks a few singles through the left side. They’re going to take away his strength and they effectively did that last year because McCann seemed to make such an effort to go the other way. I’d like to see him pull the ball more in 2015. Stick to his strengths and try to rip it through or (preferably) over the shift. A full season of trying to go the other way had disastrous results.

McCann’s walk rate plummeted to a career low 5.9% last season but I’m not too concerned about that, to be honest. His in (28.3%) and out (59.4%) of the zone swing rates were actually below his career averages (29.4% and 62.2%), and his strikeout rate (14.3%) and pitches per plate appearance rate (3.83) were both his lowest since 2008. McCann put a lot of balls in play early in the count last year, hence the low walk rate. It could also be a sign he was pressing last year and not being as patient as usual. I think McCann’s walk rate has a much better chance of returning to his career rate (9.1%) than his batting average (.272) in 2015.

Yankees Need: Quality Defense Behind The Plate

The Yankees very clearly place a high priority on catcher defense. The only below-average defender they’ve had behind the plate over the last seven or eight years was Jorge Posada. Everyone else was regarded as a strong defender and the available stats backed that up. McCann is no different.

Last season, McCann threw out a career best (by friggin’ far) 37.1% of attempted base-stealers and that ranked third among regular catchers behind only Yadier Molina (47.8%) and Russell Martin (38.5%). He also rated well at blocking pitches in the dirt and pitch framing according to the various metrics. McCann has been one of the best defensive catchers in the game in recent years and he took it to another level last season thanks to the improved throw-out rate. The Yankees expect more of the same this summer.

McCann Can Provide: Quality Defense Behind The Plate!

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Given his reputation and skill set, the only reason to think McCann will not again be a top notch defensive catcher in 2015 is sudden age-related decline. He might not throw out 37.1% of attempted base-stealers again, that’s a really big number, but other catchers have improved their throwing under Joe Girardi and Tony Pena (Frankie Cervelli, most notably) and McCann is now two full years removed from shoulder surgery. There’s reason to believe the throwing improvement is real. Otherwise available data has consistently rated him as excellent at framing pitches and blocking balls in the dirt. Defense is the one aspect of McCann’s game we don’t need to worry about.

Yankees Need: Leadership

Let’s face it, with Derek Jeter gone, the Yankees are going to have a leadership void this year. Maybe not all year, maybe someone will emerge as the new leader early in April, but right now there’s no Jeter in the clubhouse and that’s not negligible. Derek always seemed to be a lead by example type, not an in your face type, but leadership is leadership, and Jeter was undoubtedly a leader.

No one player is going to be able to replace Jeter’s intangible qualities. It’s just not going to happen and basically everyone in camp who has been asked about it has acknowledged that this year. Girardi, Brian Cashman, everyone. That includes McCann, who will be asked to fill some of the leadership void. He’s a catcher and catchers are expected to be leaders by default, but he’s also a veteran guy signed to a huge deal. Being asked to be a leader comes with the territory.

McCann Can Provide: Leadership, Probably

As outsiders, we usually know next to nothing about a player’s leadership ability. We all saw McCann stand up to Carlos Gomez and Jose Fernandez after they pimped some homers two years ago and that’s a leadership-y thing, but did anyone talk about him as a leader before that? We have no idea how popular McCann is with teammates or anything like that. I have no reason to doubt his ability as a leader, I’m sure he’ll step in to help fill some of the void with Jeter gone, though ultimately I have no idea how effective McCann is as a leader. That make sense? Intangibles are difficult to gauge and very easy to overstate. Without being around the team day in, day out, we can’t understand this stuff with any certainty.

The five most interesting Yankees ZiPS projections

2015 ZiPS

Early last week, as part of his annual series at FanGraphs, Dan Szymborski released his ZiPS projections for the 2015 Yankees. As always, projections don’t mean a whole lot of anything. They aren’t predictions — projections are an estimate of current talent level — and while ZiPS has historically been accurate on a macro level, there are always individual outliers. Projections are a completely objective look at a player and a conversation starter, that’s all.

The graphic above shows the rough WAR projections for the Yankees’ regulars. The team’s full ZiPS projections are right here, so check them out at your own convenience. I want to focus on five players with projections that stood out as interesting to me, either for good reasons or bad reasons. Let’s get to it …

Brian McCann: +3.0 WAR

Catcher defense is still very difficult to quantify and ZiPS doesn’t handle it well, so there’s no point in looking at McCann’s projected WAR. The most important thing is ZiPS sees him as a .249/.316/.431 (.325 wOBA) hitter this coming season, which is way better than the .232/.286/.406 (.306 wOBA) line he put up last year. It’s down slightly from his .252/.329/.441 (.332 wOBA) line with the Braves from 2011-13 but still in the same ballpark. That’s encouraging.

Remember, ZiPS knows all about McCann’s heavy career workload and catcher aging curves and all that. It knows that catchers McCann’s age tend to continue declining once they’ve started declining, yet it still expects him to bounce back in 2015. That’s because it sees his .231 BABIP last summer and knows it was out of line with his .283 career mark. That said, it only has him getting back to .260 BABIP. This 100% objective computer system doesn’t expect McCann to slide into uselessness just yet and for some reason I find that reassuring.

(Patrick Smith/Getty)
(Patrick Smith/Getty)

Didi Gregorius: +1.6 WAR

Defensive stats are sketchy and defensive projections are even sketchier. ZiPS pegs Gregorius as a +1 defender, which is actually better than his career UZR (-3.6) and DRS (0) numbers at short, but not in line with his reputation. Is it possible Didi’s defensive skills have been overstated? Oh hell yeah. It happens all the time, especially with players who can’t hit. But, as I explained a few weeks ago, the scouting reports and Inside Edge data make it seem Gregorius is a standout defender with a knack for the occasional mental mistake on routine plays. That is something that can be improved with experience, in theory.

Anyway, aside from the defense, ZiPS has Didi as a .251/.307/.369 (.295 wOBA) hitter and that sorta stinks. The league average shortstop put up a .251/.306/.363 (.297 wOBA) line last year though, so Gregorius is projected as almost a perfectly league average hitting shortstop. There’s nothing sexy about that, but Derek Jeter did hit .256/.304/.313 (.279 wOBA) last season, and that’s really really bad. Even at the league shortstop average, Didi will be a big upgrade at the plate. Add in even +1 defense, and he’s an even bigger upgrade. The Yankees got -2.3 WAR from their shortstops a year ago, easily the worst in baseball. Gregorius is looking very much like a multi-win upgrade even with the modest ZiPS projections.

Nathan Eovaldi: +1.1 WAR

To me, Eovaldi is the perfect example of a pitcher poised to exceed projections. ZiPS only knows the stats, remember. It doesn’t know Masahiro Tanaka has a tiny tear in his UCL, for example. It doesn’t know Chasen Shreve decided to throw harder last year. And it doesn’t know Eovaldi appeared to improve his changeup late last season or that he is going from an atrocious pitch-framer (Jarrod Saltalamacchia) to an elite one (McCann) or that pitching coach Larry Rothschild has a long history of improving strikeout rates. Those are three ZiPS ignored factors that could have a major impact going forward. Eovaldi is projected for a 4.51 ERA (4.16 FIP) and I wouldn’t be surprised if he outperforms that by a full run this coming season. Okay, fine, let’s say half-a-run instead. Either way, I like Eovaldi’s chances of exceeding ZiPS.

Justin Wilson: -0.1 WAR

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

So ZiPS isn’t a fan of New York’s new lefty middle reliever. Wilson has a 2.99 ERA (3.45 FIP) in 138.1 career innings and the projection system has him as a true talent 4.31 ERA (4.54 FIP) pitcher in 2015. His strikeout and walk rate projections (23.6 K% and 12.8 K%) are right in line with his 2014 performance (23.8 K% and 11.7 BB%), so the difference is all in home run rate. After allowing eight homers in his first 138.1 big league innings, ZiPS sees Wilson as an eight homers in 64.2 innings guy right now. That … seems weird.

Yes, Wilson is moving into a much more hitter friendly ballpark. Yankee Stadium had a 111 HR Park Factor last summer — that means it inflated homer production to 11% more than the league average — while PNC Park had an 88 HR Park Factor, so that’s a big difference. Enough to go from a 0.52 HR/9 from 2012-14 to 1.11 HR/9 in 2015? Maybe! That just seems like an exorbitant spike in homer rate, especially for a pitcher with a career 50.9% ground ball rate.

Reliever homer rates can be pretty volatile year to year because they inherently work in small samples, maybe 60-70 innings per year. One single homer results in a pretty big change in a reliever’s homer rate. Five dingers in 50 innings is 0.90 HR/9. Four is 0.72. Six is 1.08. Those are pretty big swings that result from one swing of the bat, one gust of wind, a couple degrees of temperature, stuff like that. ZiPS sees Wilson being replacement level because it expects him to start serving up long balls, but reliever homer rates are really volatile. The computer is being pretty pessimistic.

Bryan Mitchell: -1.3 WAR

Yikes. ZiPS pegs Mitchell for a 5.92 ERA (5.68 FIP) with mediocre strikeout (15.0 K%) and walk (11.5 BB%) rates, which isn’t good at all but not completely unexpected for a non-elite 23-year-old pitching prospect. The problem is Mitchell is more or less the team’s sixth starter. Maybe he’s more like the eighth starter behind Adam Warren and Esmil Rogers, but the point is he’s not all that far down the depth chart. ZiPS won’t have any impact on Mitchell’s real life performance, but geez, it would have been nice to see the system be a little more optimistic heading into the season.

Ranking the 40-Man Roster: Nos. 6-10

Over these next two weeks we’re going to subjectively rank and analyze every player on the Yankees’ 40-man roster — based on their short and long-term importance to the team — and you’re inevitably going to disagree with our rankings. We’ve already covered Nos. 11-14, 15-16, 17-19, 20-25, 26-31, and 32-40.

(Patrick Smith/Getty)
Miller. (Patrick Smith/Getty)

As we enter the top ten of our 40-man roster rankings, we’ve reached the cornerstone players. The guys who are under contract or team control for multiple years and are expected to be key contributors going forward. Everyday players, no-doubt starting pitchers, late-inning relievers. The core of the roster.

Today we’ll cover Nos. 6-10, which are something of a mixed bag with three position players and two pitchers. But, again, these guys are all going to play major roles for the 2015 Yankees as well as the 2016 and 2017 Yankees, if not longer. Maybe not the stars of the show, but the best of the supporting cast. To the next group of rankings …

No. 10: Andrew Miller

2015 Role: High-leverage reliever. Maybe even closer. It remains to be seen exactly how the late innings will shake out, though there is no doubt Miller will factor into the eighth and/or ninth inning somehow. He’s left-handed but no lefty specialist — Miller is a very high-strikeout pitcher who dominates both righties and lefties. Joe Girardi won’t have to worry about platoon matchups when using his new bullpen toy.

Long-Term Role: The same, high-leverage reliever. The Yankees gave Miller a four-year contract worth $9M annually to replace David Robertson — Robertson got a bigger contract from the White Sox and New York gained a draft pick in the process — which maybe wasn’t the most popular sequence of events, but it was a sound baseball move. At age 29, Miller should have multiple peak years remaining before fading into a LOOGY later in his career. Then again, relievers age differently than everyone else. Either way, Miller was given that contract to be a factor in the late innings.

No. 9: Chase Headley

2015 Role: Starting third baseman. Make no mistake, the Yankees didn’t re-sign Headley to be a part-time player and Headley didn’t come back to the Yankees to be anything less than the starter at the hot corner. There is no third base competition between Headley and Alex Rodriguez. The job is Headley’s. The Yankees have made it abundantly clear.

As the starting third baseman, Headley will be expected to be a two-way threat. His defense is his best tool and he’s well-above-average at third. We all saw it last year. Headley’s offense is more of a question. He hit .243/.328/.372 (103 wRC+) with 13 homers overall last year, down from .250/.347/.400 (114 wRC+) with 13 homers in 2013 and .286/.376/.498 (145 wRC+) with 31 homers during his career year in 2012. The 2012 version of Headley ain’t coming back, but the 2013 version sure would be nice.

Headley. (Elsa/Getty)
Headley. (Elsa/Getty)

Long-Term Role: The third base job is Headley’s going forward even with 2013 first rounder Eric Jagielo slated to open the season at Double-A. (Jagielo has to work on his glovework before we have to worry about him displacing Headley.) The Yankees gave Headley a nice four-year contract worth $52M that I think we’re going to look back on next offseason and say it’s one hell of a deal. There are no good third basemen set to hit free agency these next few years.

Ideally, Headley would slot in not as a middle of the order guy, but into the sixth or even seventh spot of the lineup. He did hit .262/.371/.398 (121 wRC+) with six homers in 58 games for New York after hitting .229/.296/.355 (90 wRC+) with seven homers in 77 games for the Padres last summer, and there’s no doubt moving from spacious Petco Park into tiny Yankee Stadium will help his offense. Headley is right in the prime of his career at age 30, and hopefully the guy we saw in the second half is the guy we’ll see the next four years. Maybe with more power too.

No. 8 Brett Gardner

2015 Role: Everyday left fielder and table-setter for the rest of the lineup. Derek Jeter‘s retirement means Girardi is free to use Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury — two leadoff hitters by trade — in the one-two spots of the lineup, in whatever order that may be. Gardner’s role is simple: catch everything in left and get on base for the middle of the order. If he hits 17 homers again like he did last year, great! But I don’t think that’ll happen.

Long-Term Role: Same thing, everyday left fielder and someone who hits high in the order. The Yankees finally got with the times and put an end to that silly “no extensions” rule last spring by signing Gardner to a four-year, $52M contract. That extension starts this year — the four-year contract was tacked on top of his existing one-year deal for 2014 — which means Gardner is locked up through his age 34 season. The Yankees have always spoken highly of him and they put their money where their mouth is last year.

Eovaldi. (Eliot J. Schechter/Getty)
Eovaldi. (Eliot J. Schechter/Getty)

No. 7: Nathan Eovaldi

2015 Role: Innings eater. Eovaldi, who turns 25 next month, will have a full-time rotation spot this coming season, though sticking a number on him (No. 2 starter, No. 3 starter, etc.) is pointless. He’s going to get the ball every fifth day and be counting on for innings, like the 199.2 he threw for the Marlins last year.

There’s more to the story though. In addition to eating innings, the Yankees will work with Eovaldi to get better results out of his high-end stuff. It’s a development year as well. No soon-to-be 25-year-old pitcher is a finished product. The Yankees acquired Eovaldi with the idea of getting good innings out of him now and great innings out of him later.

Long-Term Role: Frontline starter, or close to it. That might be a little too much to ask. I’m sure the Yankees would be thrilled if Eovaldi developed in a consistent above-average innings eater, a guy good for 200+ innings and, say, a 3.50-ish ERA. They paid a good price to get him in a five-player trade with the Marlins – second baseman Martin Prado and the generally reliable David Phelps — and control Eovaldi’s rights through 2017. The plan is to get good innings this year and dominant innings by 2017. Eovaldi’s development is critical to the future of New York’s rotation.

No. 6: Brian McCann

2015 Role: Starting catcher and middle of the order power source. McCann’s first year in pinstripes was a mostly disappointing mixed bag. His defense was very good — he threw out 37.2% of attempted base-stealers and again ranked as one of the game’s elite pitch-framers — as expected, and while he provided power at the plate (team-high 23 homers), his overall .232/.286/.406 (92 wRC+) line was less than hoped.

This coming season, the soon-to-be 31-year-old McCann will again handle everyday duties behind the plate. The Yankees are also hoping for a rebound at the plate, that his poor 2014 season was simply the result of moving to a new league and having to learn an entirely new pitching staff. With any luck, McCann will be more comfortable this time around and get back to being the guy he was with the Braves, who put up a 119-123 wRC+ four times in five years before coming to New York. He’s expected to drive in runs and lots of ‘em.

McCann. (Elsa/Getty)
McCann. (Elsa/Getty)

Long-Term Role: There are four years left on McCann’s contract and the reality is that there aren’t many everyday catchers at age 34+, which McCann will be in the last year of his contract. Since 2000, only 41 catchers age 34 or over have managed 400+ plate appearances in a season, and most of them were flat out awful. Here’s the list.

At some point the Yankees will have to scale back on McCann’s workload behind the plate, and it could start this year. That doesn’t mean he won’t be in the lineup — McCann could always DH, and, as we saw last year, the team is open to sticking him at first for a day — just that they have to protect him from the wear and tear of catching. They knew that going into the contract.

So, McCann’s long-term role is starting catcher and mentor to John Ryan Murphy, the obvious in-house candidate to take over as the No. 1 catcher down the road (unless Gary Sanchez shows marked improvement behind the plate this year). The perfect world scenario would be a Girardi/Jorge Posada-esque apprenticeship, where McCann’s time behind the plate gradually decreases and Murphy increases these next four years. No matter how many games he catches, McCann’s power is an important competent for the team’s offense.

Coming Wednesday: Nos. 3-5. Three young players, all with less than two full years of MLB experience, expected to be part of the core of the next great Yankees team.

Going from Saltalamacchia to McCann will be a big plus for Nathan Eovaldi

(Marc Serota/Getty)
(Marc Serota/Getty)

For the second time in four offseasons, the Yankees traded a player who was expected to be a prominent part of their lineup for a young starting pitcher yet to reach his 25th birthday. Three years ago it Jesus Montero for Michael Pineda. This offseason it was Martin Prado for Nathan Eovaldi. There were other players involved, but those were the principals.

Unlike Pineda, Eovaldi was coming off a disappointing season at the time of the trade, a season in which he led the NL with 223 hits allowed and posted an 87 ERA+ in 199.2 innings. There’s obviously more to the puzzle than that — Eovaldi did have a shiny 3.37 FIP, 27th best out of MLB’s 88 qualified starters — but in its most basic form, pitching is about limiting hits and runs. Eovaldi indisputably stunk at both last year.

The good news is that in the other 260.1 innings of his career, Eovaldi has allowed as many hits as innings pitched — as opposed to many more hits than innings pitched — with a 101 ERA+. He’s shown he can be effective at preventing hits and keeping runs off the board at a very young age, which bodes well for future. If Eovaldi had pitched like that in 2014, it would have taken much more to get him than Prado. The Yankees got him at a discount thanks to his poor year.

Clearly though, the Yankees are banking on Eovaldi improving going forward. They don’t want the 2014 version of him — though given the state of the rotation, I’m sure they want those 199.2 innings — and they don’t want the 2011-13 version either. They want someone better. And stuff like this …


Source: FanGraphsNathan Eovaldi

… suggests a better pitcher is on the way. It’s not a guarantee, but improving your FIP every year of your career is promising.

Since Eovaldi’s strikeout and home run rates have held fairly steady throughout his career, the FIP improvement comes in his walk rate, which has gradually dropped from 13.7% in 2011 to 5.0% in 2014. Young pitchers walk people. That’s what they do. They walk people and they get hurt. As they gain experience, they tend to walk less people (but still get hurt!) and that’s what’s happened with Eovaldi.

Pitching coach Larry Rothschild, pitching coordinator Gil Patterson, and whoever else will be charged with boosting Eovaldi’s strikeout rate, which sat at 16.6% last year and is 16.2% for his career. That’s comfortably below the league average, which topped 20% for the first time in 2014. Eovaldi has the stuff to get strikeouts, including a big fastball and a nice slider and an improving changeup, but so far the whiffs aren’t there. They have to be unlocked somehow.

One way the Yankees hope to unlock those strikeouts is Brian McCann. The Yankees were way ahead of the pitch-framing curve — they traded for framing god Jose Molina in 2007 and since then the only below-average framer they’ve had is Jorge Posada — and they clearly value the skill, so much so that they deluded themselves into thinking Chris Stewart could play regularly. McCann happens to be an excellent pitch-framer. Eovaldi’s old catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia? Not so much.

Here is the pitch-framing leaderboard for the 2014 season according to StatCorner:

1. Miguel Montero
2. Mike Zunino
3. Jonathan Lucroy

11. Brian McCann

105. Jarrod Saltalamacchia (out of 105!)

For a second opinion, here are the pitch-framing leaders according to Baseball Prospectus (again out of 105):

1. McCann!
2. Lucroy
3. Montero (Miguel, not Jesus)

92. Saltalamacchia

I intentionally omitted the runs saved values because I don’t trust them. Not enough to say this player is precisely X.X runs better than that guy anyway. I use framing metrics like I use all defensive stats: directionally. They tell me who’s good at it and who isn’t. Otherwise there’s no need to act as if a certain level of accuracy exists when it just isn’t there.

Anyway, McCann once again rated as one of the very best pitch-framers in baseball last summer. And after watching him all year, I totally buy it. Saltalamacchia, on the other hand, was very bad at framing borderline pitches. I didn’t watch him nearly as much as McCann a year ago, so I have to trust the StatCorner and Baseball Prospectus rankings when they say he’s a bad framer of pitchers.

Eovaldi faced 854 batters last season and Saltalamacchia was behind the plate for 536 of them, or 63%. He had a 16.2% strikeout rate and a 5.4% walk rate with Salty. With backup catcher Jeff Mathis, who the numbers say is an average to slightly above-average pitch-framer, it was a 17.3% strikeout rate and a 4.4% walk rate. (If we remove intentional walks, the walk rates are 3.5% to 5.1% in favor of Mathis.)

Every pitcher in the world would benefit from having a good pitch-framer behind the plate, though Eovaldi might stand to benefit more than most because he lives on the outside corner to righties/inside corner to lefties. Here is the strike zone breakdown of his pitch locations and called strike rates last year. The views are from the catcher’s perspective.

Pitch locations on the left, called strike locations on the right. (click to embiggen)
Overall pitch locations on the left, called strike rates on the right. (click to embiggen)

Eovaldi got only an average number of called strikes just inside the corner on the left-handed batter’s side of the plate — it was basically a 50/50 chance — and a below-average number of called strikes (hence the blue squares) just off the plate on that side. That’s a problem for him because look at his pitch locations, his comfort zone is away from righties and inside to lefties. (That is skewed somewhat because he’s a slider pitcher and sliders break towards that side of the plate.)

Based on the pitch-framing data, McCann will help Eovaldi get many more called strikes in general, and especially on that corner of the plate because that’s where Eovaldi throws the majority of his pitches. It should be a significant number of extra strikes considering Saltalamacchia is one of the game’s worst pitch-framers and McCann is one of the best. This means not only more called strike threes, but more 1-1 counts turned into 0-2 counts, more 2-1 counts turned into 1-2 counts, more first pitch strikes, more stuff that makes hitters defensive.

I have zero doubt the framing upgrade from Saltalamacchia to McCann is a major reason why the Yankees believe they can unlock Eovaldi’s potential. McCann’s pitch-framing alone — projected backup catcher John Ryan Murphy has rated well as a pitch-framer during his brief MLB time, for what’s it worth — won’t get Eovaldi’s strikeout rate to match his stuff, but it will definitely help. As long as he keeps living on that left corner of the plate, the Yankees’ catching tandem will help Eovaldi much more than Miami’s.

2014 Season Review: The Disappointing Brian McCann

Wasn't much to clap about this year, Brian. (Al Bello/Getty)
Wasn’t much to clap about this year, Brian. (Al Bello/Getty)

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.

The Shift

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:

% Pull % Center % Opposite
2008 46.4% 31.3% 22.3%
2009 48.6% 30.7% 20.8%
2010 46.2% 33.2% 20.6%
2011 45.1% 35.1% 19.8%
2012 47.5% 33.9% 18.6%
2013 48.6% 31.5% 19.9%
2014 44.1% 33.4% 22.5%

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:

Brian McCann plate discipline

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.

The Splits

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.

Catchers, man. (Rich Schultz/Getty)
Catchers, man. (Rich Schultz/Getty)

The Defense

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.

* * *

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.

McCann’s recent homer binge an encouraging sign heading into the offseason

(Andy Marlin/Getty)
(Andy Marlin/Getty)

The Yankees are one loss (or one Royals and Athletics win) away from being eliminated from postseason contention because their offense simply did not produce enough this summer. Specifically, the team’s big money middle of the order bats did not perform as expected. Carlos Beltran, Mark Teixeira, and Brian McCann have all been major disappointments in 2014, combining to hit .229/.302/.403 in nearly 1,500 plate appearances. The Yankees won’t be playing in October for many reasons and those three are among the biggest.

Unlike Teixeira and Beltran, who have battled nagging wrist and elbow problems down the stretch, McCann is actually finishing the season on a high note. He went 2-for-4 with a two-run homer off the ultra-tough Andrew Miller in last night’s loss, his eighth homer in 21 games this month. His .240/.308/.560 batting line in September is both better than what he did from April through August (.234/.287/.384) and a reminder that 82-plate appearance samples can produce weird slash lines.

McCann is 6-for-23 (.261) with three homers in six games on the homestand but his run of solid production really dates back to the beginning of July. He’s hit .252/.301/.473 with 14 homers in 62 games since the start of July, which is basically last year’s .256/.336/.461 batting line minus a bunch of walks. McCann has a career-low 6.0% walk rate this year (5.3% since July), down from 9.7% last year and 9.1% for his career. His 14.5% strikeout rate is identical to his career rate and he’s swung at 28.3% of the pitches he’s seen out of the zone, in line with his 29.4% career average.

For whatever reason, McCann stopped walking this year. It could be a decline in pitch recognition, it could be unfamiliarity with the new league and new pitchers, he could be pressing, it could be all of that and more. We’ll have a nice long offseason to sit around and wonder why McCann has suddenly stopped accepting free passes this year. The most important thing to me are the results he’s getting when he puts the ball in play. The first three months of the season were miserable, but since July McCann has been recording base hits and hitting for power at the same rate as last year. That’s good! That’s what we want.

My theory is McCann focused on trying to go the other way to beat the shift this season and it fouled him up. I don’t think it’s a coincidence he’s put more balls in play to the opposite field this year (94) than he has in any season since 2008 (100). (His high from 2009-13 was 86 balls in play the other way in 2009.) I know I’m not the only one who thinks this because an unnamed team official said “I wish (McCann)  would pull more” to Ben Lindbergh earlier this year. Here’s a quick look at his pre- and post-July 1st spray charts, courtesy of Baseball Savant:

Left: Before July 1st. Right: Since July 1st.
Left: Before July 1st. Right: Since July 1st.

It … kinda looks like he’s pulled the ball more since July 1st? Maybe. McCann did eliminate his toe tap and make some changes to his batting stance at midseason, but he abandoned those changes a few weeks ago (I’m not sure when exactly, but I noticed it in early-August) and went back to the setup he had been using at the plate previously. It could be that he simply stopped trying to be something he wasn’t, so he went back to what worked with the Braves and sent him to seven All-Star Games. Toe tap, pull the ball, whatever.

Either way, McCann has gotten much better results these last two and a half months whenever he’s put the ball in play. He still isn’t walking for whatever reason and that might be a long-term problem. The power is still there though — his 23 homers are second only to Devin Mesoraco’s 25 among big league catchers — and his average has climbed back into the mid-.250s, where it normal sits. McCann is not going to be a .300-ish hitter. That’s just not who he is at this point of his career.

Of the team’s three disappointing middle of the order bats, I felt McCann was by far the most likely to rebound even before this recent homer binge. He’s the youngest of the trio and also the healthiest, as far as we know. Beltran will turn 38 soon after Opening Day and is scheduled to have elbow surgery in like a week. Teixeira will turn 35 next April and his surgically repaired wrist continues to be a problem, not to mention all his other nagging injuries. It’s tough to look at these two and feel good about their performance in 2015.

The same would have been true of McCann had he not started to turn things around in July and put an exclamation point on his season with all these dingers this month. These last few weeks don’t erase his overall disappointing season, but at least now McCann and Yankees fans can go into the offseason encouraged by his strong finish and feeling better about what he might bring to the table next year as well as the final four years of his contract.