Is Brian McCann still an elite pitch framer?

(AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
(AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

Last year when Brian McCann suffered through perhaps his worst offensive campaign as a major-leaguer with a career-low OPS of .692, the one thing that kept his season from being a complete disaster was his strong defense behind the plate. He ranked sixth in caught stealing percentage, and according to the various catcher framing metrics, he was among the elite in stealing strikes.

It’s been a different story this year for McCann. While he’s back to bashing baseballs and putting up his customary above-average offensive numbers, his glovework has been a mixed bag. Yes, he’s still throwing out runners at a high rate, but his pitch framing skills have declined sharply.

There are two catcher framing models — one from the Baseball Prospectus folks and one at StatCorner.com — and both agree that McCann has surprisingly been a poor receiver behind the plate this year.

mccan stats pic2

For the first time in his career (or at least since data became available in 2008), his framing stats are below average and he’s actually losing strikes — i.e. getting fewer called strikes than predicted by the various framing models.

Last season McCann was really good at both stealing strikes outside the zone and getting correct strike calls on pitches that are taken within the zone. Baseball Prospectus credited him with 69 extra strikes gained from his ability to frame pitches outside the zone (16th in MLB); StatCorner calculated that only 10 percent of the pitches he caught within the defined strike zone were called balls, the fifth-best rate among qualified catchers last year.

This season, each of those numbers are in the red and much worse than last year. BP has him with -2 framing runs — meaning he has cost the team two runs based on his poor receiving work — while StatCorner is slightly more optimistic at -0.7 runs. He’s gotten 13 fewer strikes than expected while his rate of called balls within the zone has jumped to 13 percent. Although the raw number of “lost” strikes seems low (13), all it takes is one extra pitch for a batter to deliver a game-changing hit and give away a potential win. That’s baseball, folks.

Digging into the numbers using Baseball Savant’s pitch f/x tool, we can try to figure out where exactly McCann has struggled in stealing strikes outside the zone this year compared to last year. As you can see in the called strike pitch heat maps below, it appears that he’s been less effective in getting calls on pitches to his non-glove side — on the outside corner to right-handed batters and inside to lefties (focus more on the changes in the shapes of the blobs, not the colors):

ezgif.com-maker

There are a couple potential theories to explain McCann’s troubles with framing pitches this year. As the catcher told FanGraphs’ writer Eno Sarris earlier this month, framing is an athletic skill. “You have to have soft hands, and when the ball hits your glove, your wrist can’t move,” explained McCann. When a catcher ages — McCann turned 31 years old this winter — he loses the athleticism and physical skills, along with the critical flexibility, needed to properly execute the framing techniques.

It’s also possible that this year’s pitching staff has thrown him fewer “frameable” pitches. While most analysts agree that the catcher plays a significant part in getting borderline strike calls, framing is a two-way street. The pitcher also has to be able to paint edges with pitches that are just enough off the plate so the batter doesn’t swing but close enough to the zone that the catcher can make it look like a strike.

Regardless of the reasons why McCann is struggling with his pitch framing this year, there is little doubt based on the metrics that his skills have eroded. While the actual impact of these lost strikes on the outcome of a game might seem subtle, we know that one pitch can be the difference between a win and a loss, and one win can be the difference between making the playoffs and playing golf in October.

email

Sunday Links: Harper, McCann, Old Timers’ Day, Draft

(Mike McGinnis/Getty)
(Mike McGinnis/Getty)

The Yankees and Orioles wrap up their three-game series later this afternoon. Until then, here are some miscellaneous links to help you pass the time.

Future Yankee Bryce Harper?

It was inevitable. When the Nationals visited the Bronx to play the Yankees last week, Bryce Harper was asked about his hardly imminent free agency and whether he would consider signing with the Yankees. Harper grew up a Yankees fan because of his father, a big Mickey Mantle fan, and famously said he wants to “play in the pinstripes” in his 2009 Sports Illustrated feature.

“I enjoy playing for the Nationals,” said Harper to Dan Martin last week, astutely avoiding the question about the Yankees. “We try to win a World Series, just like every other team. If I could bring that back to DC, bring that back to the city, that’s what I want to do. I’ve said it for a long, long time. That’s something that I want to do … We have such a great team here. I look at every single day as a new day. I go in and have the same mentality. DC is a great place to play. It’s a monumental town.”

Harper won’t be a free agent until after the 2018 season, when he will still be only 26 years old. He’s already one of the best players in the game and figures to be in position to smash contract records when he hits the open market a la Alex Rodriguez in 2000. Sure, the Nationals have one of the wealthiest owners in sports and could sign Harper to an extension at some point, but Giancarlo Stanton set the bar at $325M, and I’m sure Scott Boras will look to top that with Harper. (Stanton signed his deal at roughly the same service time level Harper will be at after the season.)

It both is and is not too early to look ahead to Harper’s free agency. It is early because geez, it’s still three and a half years away, but it isn’t because Harper is so talented and will be such a hot commodity. He’s a can’t your eyes off him superstar in every way. Buster Olney (subs. req’d) recently wrote it “would be shocking if Harper isn’t wearing a Yankees uniform on Opening Day in 2019,” in fact. Most of the team’s huge contracts will be off the books by then and the Yankees will be in position to go huge for Harper, who might command 12 years and $400M+ come 2018.

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

How McCann stopped popping up

During his first season with the Yankees, Brian McCann was a pop-up machine, hitting weak fly ball after weak fly ball, which resulted in a disappointing .232/.286/.406 (96 wRC+) line with a .231 BABIP. All those weak fly balls were easy outs, hence the low BABIP. McCann has been one of the team’s best hitters this season though, coming into the weekend with a .264/.327/.447 (122 wRC+) line that is right in line with the 121 wRC+ he put up during his healthy seasons with the Braves from 2009-13.

How did McCann improve this year? He stopped popping up, as Eno Sarris explains. McCann credits former hitting coach Kevin Long for some mechanical adjustments late last season. “Last year, for whatever reason, my hands weren’t taking a direct route to the ball,” said McCann to Eno. McCann averaged about 4.0% infield pop-ups from 2006-03, but that jumped to 5.0% last year, and it doesn’t take into account all the weak fly balls to the outfield. This year he’s down to a 0.8% pop-up rate (!), one of the lowest in the game. Fewer pop-ups, more hard contact, better McCann.

Old Timers’ Day attendees announced

Earlier this week the Yankees announced the list of former players, coaches, and personnel who will attend Old Timers’ Day next Saturday. Here is the full list. No Derek Jeter, no Jorge Posada, no Andy Pettitte, and no Mariano Rivera. Also no Mike Mussina or Hideki Matsui either this year. Lame. Oh well, it’ll still be fun. The Yankees will honor Willie Randolph with a plaque in Monument Park that night as well.

Several 2015 draft picks en route to Tampa

According to his Twitter feed, LHP Jeff Degano (2nd round) traveled to Florida earlier this week, which usually indicates he has a deal in place and will sign soon. Bryan Hoch and Jeff Hartsell say 3B Donny Sands (8th) and LHP James Reeves (10th) will turn pro as well. Also, RHP Kolton Montgomery (16th) and 1B Kale Sweeney (29th) told ABC 4 Sports and Norm Sanders, respectively, they are signing with the Yankees and will report to Tampa. The team’s mini-camp for draftees actually started Thursday, so these guys are probably already in uniform working out.

And finally, scouting director Damon Oppenheimer confirmed to Chad Jennings the Yankees will sign RHP Alex Robinett (32nd). Robinett is a second lieutenant and a staff ace at West Point, and will have to finish his military commitment after playing this summer. “Hopefully we can keep him in some kind of baseball shape when he’s able to finish that commitment and come back after serving his country,” said Oppenheimer. Earlier this season Cardinals righty Mitch Harris became the first military academy graduate to play in MLB in nearly a century.

Law’s team-by-team draft breakdowns

Keith Law posted his AL and NL draft reviews earlier this week (subs. req’d). He didn’t hand out grades or anything like that, just said which picks he liked and didn’t like. Law says the Yankees “wanted a bat with their first pick, but all the candidates went before them,” which is what I wondered the other day. He also says Degano has “first-round stuff, but slipped because he hadn’t pitched in more than two years due to Tommy John surgery and will turn 23 this fall,” and that RHP Drew Finley (3rd) “was a steal.” The Yankees reportedly had interest in Finley for their supplemental first round pick, the 30th selection, but they were able to get him with the 92th pick. Neat.

Also make sure you check out Draft to the Show’s review of New York’s draft class.

Game 55: Back from the West Coast

(Otto Greule Jr/Getty)
(Otto Greule Jr/Getty)

That was a really uneven seven-game trip to the West Coast. The Yankees played poorly in losing two of three to the Athletics then had basically the best series ever while sweeping the Mariners. They pounded Felix Hernandez in the first game, had a dramatic ninth inning comeback in the second game, and watched Masahiro Tanaka dominate in his return from the DL in the third game. How could it get any better?

Thankfully, the Yankees are back home in the Bronx for a quick five-game homestand, starting tonight with the first of three against the Angels. The Halos had the best record in baseball a year ago but are kinda scuffling along this year. In fact, they have almost the same record as the Yankees. The Yankees are 29-25 and the Angels are 28-26. Anyway, here is Anaheim’s lineup and here is New York’s lineup:

  1. CF Brett Gardner
  2. 3B Chase Headley
  3. DH Alex Rodriguez
  4. 1B Mark Teixeira
  5. C Brian McCann
  6. RF Garrett Jones
  7. SS Didi Gregorius
  8. 2B Stephen Drew
  9. LF Ramon Flores
    RHP Nathan Eovaldi

The weather is kinda crummy in New York. It’s been raining on and off all day, though there’s nothing more than some drizzle in the forecast tonight. That’s good. First pitch is scheduled for 7:05pm ET and you’ll be able to watch on YES locally and MLB Network nationally, depending where you live. Enjoy the game.

Rotation Update: The Yankees are skipping Michael Pineda‘s next start to control his workload. He isn’t hurt and will start next Friday. CC Sabathia will start on normal rest Sunday in Pineda’s place. The Yankees had an off-day yesterday and have off-days coming up on Monday and Thursday, so they can skip Pineda without needing a spot starter. Big Mike has already thrown 70.1 innings this year and is on pace for about 220 innings. He threw 76.1 innings last year and a career-high 171 innings back in 2011, before shoulder surgery.

Injury Updates: Jacoby Ellsbury (knee) ran some sprints, took dry swings, and played catch today, the first time he’s performed any baseball activity since getting hurt … Ivan Nova (elbow) will make his first official minor league rehab start with High-A Tampa on Monday, the team announced. He is scheduled for 80-85 pitches and will make at least one more start after that before returning to the team … Carlos Beltran (foot) is still day-to-day after fouling that pitch off his foot in Seattle. He may be available to pinch-hit tonight … McCann (foot) got some new orthotics and tested his foot in the bullpen this afternoon. He’s fine and back in the lineup.

Update: Brian McCann day-to-day after MRI, CT scan come back negative

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Thursday, 4:51pm: Both an MRI and a CT scan came back negative today, the Yankees announced. McCann is considered day-to-day. He was examined by team doctor Dr. Ahmad and orthopedic foot and ankle specialist Dr. Justin Greisberg. Ex-frickin-hale.

Wednesday, 4:59pm: McCann left the game with right foot soreness, the Yankees announced. He’ll undergo an MRI in New York tomorrow. Welp, finger crossin’ time. Here’s the unembeddable video of the injury.

4:10pm: Brian McCann left this afternoon’s game against the Mariners for an unknown reason in the second inning. Replays showed him grimacing after grounding out and running to first following his only at-bat, but it’s unclear what was bothering him. Leg, back, oblique … your guess is as good as mine right now.

McCann, 31, left a game with a cramp in his right calf ten days ago, but he returned to the lineup the very next day and hasn’t had any problems since as far as I know. McCann’s been hot at the plate too — he’s 11-for-33 (.333) with four homers in his last eleven games, so if the calf issue lingered, it didn’t show in his production.

John Ryan Murphy took over behind the plate and while I irrationally love JRM, losing McCann for any length of time would be a big blow. Not just offensively, but defensively as well. Hopefully it’s nothing serious and the Yankees are just being cautious. The team has an off-day Thursday, so McCann will get the day to rest either way.

McCann’s May

A predictable thing happens when you don’t look at a player’s statline for a while; it changes. As the year goes on, those changes get less drastic as plate appearances rack up and their results have minimal impact on rate stats like BA, OBP, SLG, wOBA, etc. And though May is about to end, we’re still early enough that things can change pretty drastically if you don’t look for a while. Of course, it helps if you end the month on a big time power surge, hitting homers in four of the last five games like Brian McCann has.

After his home run streak, not including last night’s game, the McCannibal’s season line sits at .253/.319/.473 with a .339 wOBA and a 115 wRC+. The last time I looked at McCann’s line, his wRC+ was stuck somewhere in the high 80s. While the average, OBP, and wOBA are below his career lines, his 115 wRC+ is actually one point above his career mark. That places him third in the AL among qualified catchers in terms of wRC+. There are only four qualifiers at catcher in the AL this year–McCann, Stephen Vogt (184!); Russell Martin (133); and Salvador Perez (106)–and they’re all hitting pretty well. The average AL catcher (not including McCann’s numbers) is putting up a .293 wOBA this year, so not only is McCann above the league average at the plate this year, he’s also obliterating what all but three other catchers in the AL are doing.

If we take a look at the gamelogs, the fifth month of the year was a tale of two Mays for McCann. From May 1 to May 24, McCann reached base just 20 times in 77 PAs and his line was pretty ugly: .203/.260/.319/.579. Then, to end the month, he absolutely exploded and hit homers in four straight games from the 25th to the 29th, raising his monthly line to .244/.319/.488/.807. In April, he hit .266/.319/.453, so May was slightly better, thanks to the home run binge. Now, that binge “taints” what was a bad May, but we can’t pretend it didn’t happen, so let’s hop on over to Brooks Baseball and investigate something that helped McCann get to where he is now.

In April , McCann saw mostly fastballs and, for the most part, he handled them. He hit .333 against them with a .482 slugging percentage (.148 ISo, .348 BABIP), including one homer. He’s continued that in May, though in a slightly different manner. His .304 average against heaters is a big drop off, but he’s smacking them around and out of the park more: .870 SLG; .565 ISO; four home runs–two of those came in the stretch from the 25-29th, two of them didn’t.

Looking farther down on that chart, you’ll notice a big improvement against sliders. Opponents threw just 40 sliders to McCann in April, and he didn’t do a lot with them. He hit just .125 against them with a .000 ISO. In May, opponents must have picked up on his April struggles against the pitch, and challenged McCann with sliders, throwing him 65.  Against sliders this month, McCann has hit .267 with three singles and a home run. The sample isn’t huge, but it does show some recognition of a problem that McCann adjusted to this month.

McCann’s tenure in pinstripes has been odd for sure. Taking the long view, he’s hit well for a catcher and despite some blocking troubles this season, has been more than fine behind the plate. Still, there’s a sense that McCann isn’t doing as well as he could be or that he’s somehow not living up to the lofty expectations we hoisted onto him when he signed with the team prior to last year. The McCann we’ve seen so far is probably the McCann we’re going to see going forward–some ugly stretches and some bursts of power–and that’s okay. Catchers, like always, are hitting poorly in 2015 and McCann is more than likely to outpace what the average AL catcher puts out; adding in his solid defense and that’s something we can be happy with going forward.

Update: Brian McCann leaves game with right calf injury

11:36pm: Following the game, Joe Girardi told reporters McCann had a cramp in his foot and it moved up into his calf, so they pulled him from the game. They won’t know anything more until tomorrow.

11:26pm: Brian McCann exited tonight’s game with an apparent right leg injury in the eighth inning. Replays showed him grabbing at his right calf and stretching his right foot, though he stayed in the game to finish the top of the eighth and bat in the bottom of the eighth as well. Joe Girardi and trainer Steve Donahue did come out to check on him.

McCann, 31, has been remarkably durable throughout his career by catcher standards. He had shoulder trouble from 2012-13 and the typical slate of day-to-day ailments associated with the position, but he never did miss time with any sort of right calf or foot injury. Of course, I’m not even sure that’s the problem. I’m guessing based on the replays.

The Yankees have not yet provided any update on McCann and we might not hear anything worthwhile until tomorrow. I’m president of the John Ryan Murphy fan club, but losing McCann would be a pretty big blow. Losing the starting catcher always is. Hopefully it was just a cramp or something else minor. We’ll find out soon enough.

Lack of production from up-the-middle positions holding the Yankees back

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Back in the day, the late-1990s dynasty was built on excellent production from the up-the-middle positions. The Yankees were getting high-end production from Jorge Posada at catcher, Derek Jeter at short, and Bernie Williams in center. Chuck Knoblauch never did put up huge numbers with the Yankees like he did with the Twins, but he still had a .377 OBP as the starting second baseman from 1998-99.

Those four positions are the hardest to fill in baseball, historically. Third base is tough too, but not as tough. Quality first basemen and corner outfielders are plentiful. Catchers, middle infielders, and center fielders are not, which is why teams are more willing to sacrifice offense for defense at those positions. It’s really hard to find someone who can hit there, so at least get someone who will catch the ball.

Right now, the Yankees have too many defense-first — in some cases, defense-only — players at the four up-the-middle positions. Jacoby Ellsbury in center field is the team’s only up-the-middle player who has been solidly above-average on both sides of the ball so far this season. Brian McCann, Stephen Drew, and Didi Gregorius are providing defense but very little offense, especially the last two.

Position NYY Player NYY AVG/OBP/SLG Average MLB AVG/OBP/SLG
C McCann  .228/.279/.382 (78 wRC+) .235/.302/.363 (83 wRC+)
2B Drew  .188/.271/.350 (70 wRC+)  .262/.321/.391 (96 wRC+)
SS Gregorius  .204/.269/.241 (42 wRC+)  .248/.304/.361 (83 wRC+)
CF Ellsbury .324/.412/.372 (126 wRC+) .257/.319/.391 (96 wRC+)

Those are some really low bars and yet the Yankees are falling short at three of the four positions. Ellsbury’s been awesome at the plate, McCann’s hovering close to average for a catcher thanks to his power, and both Drew and Gregorius have been well-below-average. Those two haven’t hit at all. Like, not even a little. There’s not much of a reason to expect either guy to hit much going forward either, but at least Gregorius has youth on his side.

There’s no good way to measure defense this early in the season. You have to take any stats with a huge grain of salt because the sample is too small. Based on the eye test, all four players have been above-average defenders in my opinion, even considering McCann’s passed ball/wild pitch issues. Didi’s looked much more comfortable at short in recent weeks yet his early season brain farts are still hurting his reputation. He’s been really good in the field of late.

Overall though, the Yankees aren’t getting enough production from these four positions. It’s really just three positions because Ellsbury’s been great. It’s a bit unfair to lump him in here. The other three guys has been far from great though. McCann’s been okay but hardly what the Yankees thought they were getting. Drew and Gregorius have been miserable at the plate, bad enough that their defense probably doesn’t make up for it.

The Yankees have limited options to replace these guys, and the one guy they didn’t want to replace (Ellsbury) just landed on the DL. McCann’s contract ensures he will remain the starting catcher, and besides, finding a better catcher would be damn near impossible anyway. Quality catchers almost never hit the trade or free agent markets. Drew, on the other hand, is totally replaceable and the Yankees do have some internal second base candidates, namely Jose Pirela and Rob Refsnyder.

The best internal candidate to replace Gregorius is, well, Drew. Besides, given Didi’s age and ability, he’s someone the Yankees should stick with this year and ride out every growing pain. Give him a chance to play everyday and see what happens. The first 40 games of 2015 aren’t going to write the story of his time in pinstripes. The Yankees just got done playing a Royals team littered with players who struggled early in their careers before figuring it out, after all. Sometimes it takes time.

The Yankees have gotten great production from first base, left field, and DH this season, which has helped cover for the underwhelming non-Ellsbury up-the-middle numbers. Carlos Beltran and Chase Headley are kinda sorta starting to hit too, which will help even more, though the Ellsbury injury hurts. One step forward, one step back. It wasn’t long ago that the Yankees were getting top of the line production from the up-the-middle positions. Now they’re barely getting average production and it’s one of the reason they haven’t been able to get out in front of a wide open AL East.