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.

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Yankees activate Brian McCann, send down Austin Romine

As expected, the Yankees have activated Brian McCann off the 7-day concussion disabled list. Austin Romine was sent back to Triple-A Scranton in a corresponding move. McCann missed one week plus a day after taking a foul tip to the face mask. Good to see it was a relatively minor concussion and not something that lingered for an extended period of time.

Yankees place Brian McCann on 7-day DL, recall Austin Romine

The Yankees have placed Brian McCann on the 7-day concussion disabled list, the team announced. He took a foul tip to the face mask last night. Austin Romine has been recalled from Triple-A Scranton and will presumably back up Francisco Cervelli. With Mark Teixeira (finger) banged up and McCann out, Carlos Beltran is the team’s only consistent power threat.

Update: Brian McCann leaves game with mild concussion

11:31pm: Joe Girardi told reporters McCann will be re-evaluated tomorrow, which will determine if he needs to be placed on the disabled list.

10:18pm: McCann has been diagnosed with a mild concussion, though there really is no such thing as a mild brain injury. It’s unclear if he will be placed on the 7-day concussion disabled list.

9:49pm: Brian McCann left tonight’s game for an unknown reason in the sixth inning. He took a hard foul tip to the face mask earlier in the game, but did stay in for another few innings. I supposed the Yankees could be playing it safe with him after taking a big lead. They do have catching depth in the minors, but losing McCann for any length of time would be pretty bad. Stay tuned for updates.

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.

2014 Midseason Grades: The Catchers

Even though it is not technically the halfway point of the season — the Yankees are 58% of the way through the 2014 season, in case you’re wondering — there is no better time to review the first half than the All-Star break. Over the next few days we’re going to hand out some real simple and straightforward grades, A through F, for the catchers, infielders, outfielders, rotation, and bullpen. These grades are totally subjective. Let’s start with the backstops.

(Al Bello/Getty)
(Al Bello/Getty)

Brian McCann — Grade D

If the Yankees wanted a defensively sound catcher with a .294 OBP and an 83 wRC+, they could have simply played on of their young upper-level guys everyday instead of signing McCann to a five-year, $85M contract. His first half was a colossal disappointment overall, especially offensively. McCann’s glovework and apparent leadership guiding the pitching staff are the reasons I’m giving him a D rather than a straight F.

From 2010-13, McCann posted either a 122 or a 123 wRC+. The one exception was the 2012 season, when he managed an 87 wRC+ while battling a right shoulder labrum injury that required offseason surgery. When healthy, he (very) consistently produced at the plate in recent years. This year though, McCann comes into the break with a .239/.294/.377 (83 wRC+) batting line, which ranks him ninth out of the ten catchers qualified for the batting title (only Dioner Navarro has been worse). Even with his strong first half-ending road trip, he’s been that bad overall.

Unlike offense, catcher defense is a very thing to quantify even with all these fancy stats we have today. StatCorner says McCann has one again been an excellent pitch-framer, and he rates right in the middle of the pack when it comes to allowing wild pitches and passed balls. I don’t think that’s been a problem. I mean, we watched Jorge Posada for a very long time, we know what it looks like when a catcher struggles to keep the ball in front of him. Considering all the nasty breaking and offspeed pitches on the staff — Masahiro Tanaka‘s and Hiroki Kuroda‘s splitters, David Robertson‘s and Dellin Betances‘ curveballs, Shawn Kelley’s slider, etc. — I have no complaints about McCann’s receiving work at all. He’s been solid, as expected.

One thing we can measure is the rate at which a catcher throws out attempted base-stealers, and McCann has gunned down 21 of 48 runners, or 43.8%. That’s outstanding. It’s fifth among catchers with at least 300 innings behind the plate and second only to (who else?) Yadier Molina among the 16 guys who have caught at least 500 innings. McCann came into the season with a below-average career 23.8% throw-out rate. Is this a fluke? I don’t think so. I think this is Joe Girardi‘s and Tony Pena’s work. They have helped some others improve their throwing in the past (Frankie Cervelli, most notably) and it appears they helped McCann this year. He might not sustain a 43.8% throw-out rate, that’s pretty high, but I don’t think the improvement is dumb luck.

Overall, McCann has undeniably been a disappointment this season. He was expected to provide not just more offense than he’s given, but a lot more. He has not been able to fully take advantage of the short porch in right, perhaps because he’s been focused on hitting to the opposite field to beat the shift — his 20 opposite field hits are already more than his total from 2011 (14), 2012 (15), and 2013 (19). Given his overall lack of production, maybe it’s best for McCann to be himself and focus on ripping the ball to right. Trying to beat the shift seems to be dragging down his offense overall. The Yankees need more from McCann in the second half. There’s zero doubt about it.

(Jeff Zelevansky/Getty)
(Jeff Zelevansky/Getty)

Francisco Cervelli — Grade C

The first half was a typical first half for Cervelli. He showed enough to keep you interested with the bat, hitting .273/.333/.364 (95 wRC+) in 48 plate appearances. He also threw out some attempted base-stealers, four of twelve (33.3%) to be exact. And he got hurt, missing two months with a Grade II hamstring strain. Cervelli actually played more games before getting hurt last April (17) than he did in the first half this year (16). I can’t possibly go any higher than a C because of the injury and missing so much time. Cervelli is a perfectly cromulent backup catcher for a team with a clear number one (in theory) like McCann. I feel he has performed exactly as expected when healthy.

John Ryan Murphy — Grade C

When Cervelli got hurt, Murphy got the call and showed flashes of why he’s expected to one day be an everyday catcher. He started off very well with that bat before slowing down and finishing his cameo with a .286/.308/.365 (85 wRC+) batting line in 63 plate appearances. Murphy threw out two of ten attempted base-stealers and did allow eight passed pitches in 159.2 defensive innings, so the superficial defensive stats aren’t all that impressive. He looked very much like a young catcher getting his first extended taste of the show. There’s a decent chance Murphy will be traded in the coming weeks, but right now he is a capable backup catcher stashed in Triple-A.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Austin Romine — incomplete

Yes, Romine did actually spend some time with the big league team this season. The Yankees called him up and briefly carried three catchers when Mark Teixeira landed on the 15-day disabled list with his hamstring injury in April. Romine spent four days with the team, played two innings behind the plate in a blowout and struck out on seven pitches in his lone plate appearance. That’s it. Romine’s prospect shine has dimmed considerably over the last year or two, and he is currently a part-time first baseman/Murphy’s backup in Triple-A.

* * *

The bar behind the plate is rather low these days, so even with McCann being such a big disappointment, Yankees’ catchers still rank only 19th out of the 30 teams with an 85 wRC+ this year. I thought it would be worse. They have collectively been very good defensively, throwing out 38.6% of attempted base-stealers (third best) while allowed one passed pitch every 22.2 innings (15th). StatCorner says McCann, Cervelli, and Murphy have all been better than average pitch-framers as well and I buy it based on the eye test.

The Yankees just need McCann to hit more, that’s it. Cervelli staying healthy would be nice too, if for no other reason than possibly upping his trade value. On paper, this should be one of the best and most productive two-way catching units in baseball. They’ve gotten the defensive value in the first half. Now they need to offense to catch up in the second half.

Mailbag: Tanaka, Price, All-Stars, McCann, Dugas

Got eight questions for you this week — one long one and seven short-ish ones. If you want to send us questions or comments or anything else throughout the week, use the Submit A Tip box in the sidebar. We get a ton of questions each week, so don’t take it personally if we don’t answer yours.

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

Jeb asks: It’ll never happen, but what do you think Masahiro Tanaka would net in a trade?

Oh man. Ace-caliber pitchers almost never get traded, especially not 25-year-old ace-caliber pitchers signed for another three and a half years (I think you have to assume Tanaka will use the opt-out in his contract). Cliff Lee was 30 and he had a year and a half left on his deal when he went from the Indians to the Phillies. Roy Halladay was 32 with a year left on his deal when he went from the Blue Jays to the Phillies. Those are the most recent examples of ace trades.

You have to go back a few years, but I think there are three comparable trades we can reference when talking about a potential Tanaka trade. Allow me to reiterate this is all hypothetical and for fun. The Yankees aren’t trading Tanaka. Even if they did decide to sell, he’s someone they could keep and rebuild around. Here are those three comparable deals:

  • Josh Beckett (Marlins to Red Sox): Beckett was 25 at the time of the trade and had three years of arbitration remaining. He landed the Fish two high-end, MLB ready prospects in Hanley Ramirez and Anibal Sanchez, plus two throw-ins. The Red Sox had to take Mike Lowell (77 OPS+ in 2014) and the $18M left on his contract to make it happen.
  • Dan Haren (Athletics to Diamondbacks): Haren was 27 at the time of the trade and had two years plus an option left on his contract. He was dealt for six young players, most notably Brett Anderson, Carlos Gonzalez, and Chris Carter. Anderson and Carter were both very good prospects in High-A. CarGo was in Triple-A.
  • Gio Gonzalez (Athletics to Nationals): Like Beckett, Gio was 25 at the time of the trade. Unlike Beckett, he was four years away from free agency. Washington gave up two good but not great MLB ready arms (Brad Peacock and Tom Milone), a top Single-A pitching prospect (A.J. Cole), and a good Triple-A catching prospect (Derek Norris) to get the lefty.

Based on these deals, any package for Tanaka would have to start with two very good prospects, including one who could step right onto the MLB roster in an everyday capacity like Hanley, CarGo, or Norris. There would also have to be two or three other lesser pieces involved, MLB ready or otherwise. Tanaka is far more expensive than those three at the time of their trades, which is an issue. Few teams can actually afford his contract. Let’s assume the Yankees will eat some money just to make life easy.

Okay, so let’s rosterbate. The Cubs had interest in signing Tanaka and could offer a top position player prospect like Javier Baez, Jorge Soler, or Albert Almora as package headliner. (I assume Kris Bryant is off limits.). The Dodgers are always looking to add and Joc Pederson is a natural fit as a center piece. The Tigers as protection if Scherzer leaves? Unless they offer Nick Castellanos, I’m not sure there’s a fit. The Cardinals have a bunch of outfielders to offer, including Stephen Piscotty if they don’t want to move Oscar Taveras. A trade with the Red Sox would never happen but Mookie Betts would definitely make sense.

Keep in mind I mentioned those prospects as the start of a trade package. The Yankees would need to get one of those guys plus another very good piece (Zach Lee or Julio Urias from the Dodgers? Arismendy Alcantara from the Cubs?) and a few secondary pieces. If they aren’t going to get at least one potential star player plus several other young high-upside players close to the show, it’s not worth it. A Hanley/Anibal package would be the best case scenario given what we know about how things worked out for the Marlins.

Paul asks: Assuming #HIROK retires or otherwise leaves the Yankees after this year, do you think #TANAK will take number 18?

I think so. It seems likely Hiroki Kuroda will be gone after the season, either due to retirement or simply letting him walk, right? I guess he could come back at a discounted salary if he finishes strong. Anyway, the No. 18 is a big deal in Japan, it’s the ace number. Daisuke Matsuzaka and Kuroda both wear it (Yu Darvish wears No. 11) and Tanaka wore it in Japan. It’s a very symbolic thing to them and I think Tanaka will jump at the chance to wear that number again.

(Brian Kersey/Getty)
(Brian Kersey/Getty)

Mike asks: For the last two months Justin Verlander has not been vintage Verlander. Is this a case of just plain old struggling or are the innings catching up to him?

Verlander has been terrible — 7.83 ERA and 5.56 FIP in his last seven starts and 43.2 innings — but he isn’t the only former ace to fall off a cliff recently. Obviously the Yankees have CC Sabathia going through the same thing, and the Giants have seen both Tim Lincecum and now Matt Cain slip in recent years. It happened to Haren not too long ago as well. These guys aren’t breaking down like Josh Johnson, they just stink all of a sudden. It’s kinda scary, no? I don’t know what’s wrong with Verlander and neither do the Tigers fans who have been trying to figure it out like we’ve been trying to figure out what’s wrong with Sabathia. I recommend this Grant Brisbee post for coping with Ace Sucking Syndrome (ASS).

A different Mike asks: Jim Bowden claims that the Rays may be willing to trade Price within the division. He thinks the trade could get done if the Yankees “overpay” by including Gary Sanchez, Luis Severino, and Peter O’Brien in the package. Do you a) think the Rays would accept this offer and b) think this is an overpay?

No, I don’t think the Rays would accept that offer and no, I don’t think it’s an overpay. That’d be a steal for the Yankees. We’re talking about getting a legitimate, AL East proven left-handed ace in exchange for a Single-A pitching prospect, a power prospect without a position, and a catching prospect who hasn’t hit much in Double-A and is being benched for disciplinary reasons. You have to give up something to get something, and Sanchez and O’Brien are among the team’s most expendable prospects. Dealing Severino would sting, but again, he’s in A-ball. You deal him for a guy like Price every day of the week.

Austin asks: Are Derek Jeter and Tanaka the only Yankees All-Stars? I think Brett Gardner and Dellin Betances should be added to the team, but will Farrell add them?

At this point I think Jeter and Tanaka will be the only Yankees elected to the All-Star Game. Jeter is still leading the fan voting at shortstop and Tanaka has been awesome. He’s a candidate to start the game. Keep in mind that Brian McCann is second in the catcher voting behind Matt Wieters, who is done for the season following elbow surgery. McCann might start at catcher by default. I think Betances deserves to go because he’s been one of the five best relievers in baseball this season, but deserving to go and actually going are two different things. Gardner’s been awesome (so have Jacoby Ellsbury for that matter) but I can’t see him going to the All-Star Game. There are too many great/more popular outfielders in the AL.

(Stephen Dunn/Getty)
(Stephen Dunn/Getty)

Ghost of Horace Clarke asks: Better manager, Joe Girardi or Joe Torre?

On the field, Girardi is clearly the better manager. He’s better with the bullpen and more open-minded to platoons and shifts and stuff like that. Torre was very old school and straight forward. We have no way of knowing who is better in the clubhouse, but Torre was a master at dealing with the media and that counts for something. It’s easy to drum up controversy in New York and that very rarely happened under his watch. Girardi has improved in that department but he’s no Torre. There’s no debate who the better on-field tactician is, however.

Ron asks: OK. Am I the only one who notices that whenever McCann has an at-bat, he squints so much that you can barely see his eyes. Does this not beg to ask if he has a vision problem?????

McCann’s facial expresses are pretty funny. They’re definitely one of my favorite sidebars of the season. Anyway, McCann has actually had vision problems in the past. He had LASIK surgery in 2007 but was dealing with blurred vision in 2009, so he wore custom-made prescription glasses for the remainder of the season. McCann has another LASIK procedure the following winter and has had no trouble since. I think the squinting and funny faces are just quirky mannerisms, but I suppose he could be having eye problems again. I think he would speak up if that were the case given his history though.

Yet another Mike asks: Taylor Dugas — How come nobody talks about this kid? He’s 24 and is stuck in Trenton. He has decent numbers especially his .422 OBP.

Dugas was just promoted to Triple-A Scranton yesterday, so he isn’t stuck in Double-A any longer. The Yankees selected him in the eighth round of the 2012 draft out of Alabama and he’s hit .293/.422/.368 (~138 wRC+) with more walks (138) than strikeouts (103) in 226 minor league games, including .294/.403/.424 (134 wRC+) in 54 games with Trenton.

Dugas is a left-handed hitter with no power and only okay defense, so his usefulness is limited. Keith Law (subs. req’d) said “he squares up all kinds of pitching and I would be very surprised if he didn’t hit his way to some kind of major league role, maybe even as the heavy side of a platoon” following the draft that year, though Baseball America (subs. req’d) basically said Dugas is Sam Fuld without the defense. Dugas obviously can control the strike zone, his performance has been great, and he is on the right side of the platoon. He doesn’t have the sexiest tools but he is putting himself in position to have some kind of big league role for the Yankees, maybe even as Ichiro Suzuki‘s replacement next year.