New collision rule is good news for Yankees and McCann

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

In my opinion, the single biggest upgrade the Yankees made this winter was replacing Chris Stewart with Brian McCann behind the plate. They paid top of the market dollars for that upgrade — McCann’s five-year, $85M deal is the largest ever given to a free agent catcher by more than 60% — but the impact on the field will be enormous. Few things in the game are as valuable as a catcher who can hit while playing above-average defense.

Like every other long-term contract, McCann’s deal carries quite a bit of risk. It’s unavoidable. Catchers are riskier than other position players because the position is just so demanding. Squatting behind the plate day after day in the summer heat and humidity sucks enough — between the regular season and playoffs, McCann already has over 9,000 innings at catcher on his legs, most of them in the Atlanta summer — but then you have to add the foul tips and everything else on top of that.

Thankfully, the risk associated with McCann’s contract went down earlier this week. MLB and the MLBPA announced their new “experimental” rule regarding home plate collisions, a rule that eliminates needless contact. The runner can still run into the catcher if he has the ball and is blocking the plate, but that’s it. He can’t run out of his baseline to target the catcher and the catcher can’t block the plate without the ball. Reducing the number of collisions means reducing McCann’s injury risk.

“I don’t know if it’s going to [be hard to adjust to the new rule],” said McCann to Chad Jennings. “As long as you give the guy the plate before you have the ball, it’s kind of the same rule. … We’re taught to be in the right position so if you do get run over, you’re not going to get hurt from it. When you catch the ball, you do have to be in the right position because you are vulnerable for ACL [injuries], you’re vulnerable for concussions. You don’t want to see anybody miss time because of that.”

McCann, 30, has been remarkably durable (for a catcher) throughout his career, but he did miss about a week with a concussion following a collision with Shane Victorino back in 2008. We watched Frankie Cervelli suffer a concussion when he was run over by Nick Markakis in September 2011 (video) and Mark Teixeira send Bobby Wilson to the DL for more than a month with an April 2010 collision (video). Wilson, who didn’t even have the ball, suffered a concussion and a severe ankle sprain. The runner doesn’t even have to be running at full speed for a collision to inflict serious damage.

I’m not quite sure how I feel about the new anti-collision rule — it will take some getting used to, if nothing else — but the league wants the game to be safer, so it’s easy to understand why the ban was implemented. Given all the money the Yankees committed to McCann this winter, anything that can potentially keep him healthier is a big positive. Catching is still going to be crazy dangerous, but eliminating unnecessary collisions may help the team’s new backstop stay healthier and more productive deeper into his contract.

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2014 Season Preview: Power Sources

Exhibition games start tomorrow and the regular season is five weeks away. Between now and then, we’re going to preview the 2014 Yankees not individually, but by grouping players (and personnel) together into different categories. Today we’re going to look at the guys who will put the Bombers in Bronx Bombers.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The Yankees made history last season and not in a good way. They hit 101 (!) fewer homeruns last year than they did the year before, the largest year-to-year drop in baseball history. New York went from leading baseball in dingers (245) and ISO (.188) in 2012 to ranking 21st out of the 30 teams in both categories (144 and .133) in 2013, and their runs-per-game average dropped from 4.96 (second) to 4.01 (17th). The lack of power is a big reason why they missed the postseason for only the second time in 19 years.

Blame injuries (Curtis Granderson, Mark Teixeira) and blame roster construction (Ichiro Suzuki and Chris Stewart replacing Nick Swisher and Russell Martin, etc.) for the decline in power. All of that and more was a factor. The Yankees set out to fix that problem starting at the trade deadline last summer and they continued to add some power-hitting pieces over the winter. I doubt they will be able to hit 240+ long balls this coming season, but they should improve on last year’s power production overall. Here are the team’s primary power sources.

Alfonso Soriano
To the surprise of no one, Robinson Cano led the Yankees with 27 homers last season. Soriano managed to finish second on the team with 17 despite not returning to the Bronx until the deadline. The Yankees were that power starved. Cano left for the Mariners over the winter but the club will now have a full year of Soriano, which will help compensate a bit.

Despite turning 38 last month, Soriano has put together back-to-back 30+ homers seasons these last two years and he’s hovered in the .225-.238 ISO range over the last four seasons. He’s no longer the 40+ doubles threat he was earlier in the career, but he has managed between 27-33 two-baggers the last three years. Soriano is a steady 60+ extra-base hit bat and, most importantly, the average direction and distance of his batted balls has not changed at all since 2007. From Baseball Heat Maps:

Alfonso Soriano Batted Ball Angle and Distance

You can click the image for a larger view. The chart on the left is the horizontal angle of the ball off the bat — so +45° is the left field line and -45° is the right field line — and the chart on the right is the distance. Each red dot is an individual batted ball (grounders excluded, so this is everything he hit in the air) and the vertical clusters are individual seasons, so 2007-13 from left to right.

At Soriano’s age, any change in his batted ball angle or distance would have been a red flag and possibly an indication his bat has started to slow beyond the point of no return. Instead, Soriano continues to hit the ball to all fields (slightly more towards right field) and just as far as he did seven years ago. Sure, he’s had to make adjustments over the years, most notably switching to a lighter bat in 2012, but the end results are the same. He’s hitting the ball the same way he has for much of the last decade.

Now, that isn’t to say this will continue in 2014. Things can go south in a hurry when you’re talking about a player closer to 40 than 35, but there have been no obvious red flags in Soriano’s game to date. Outside of 2009, when he missed a month with a knee problem, Soriano has been a consistent 25+ homer, 25+ double, .220+ ISO hitter for a decade now, and aside from sudden age-related decline or injury, there is no reason to expect anything different in 2014. He is the Yankees’ best full-time right-handed power source by frickin’ far.

Brian McCann
New York’s catchers hit eight total homeruns last season, three of which came from Frankie Cervelli before he got hurt in mid-April. The catcher position was an offensive blackhole in 2013 and the Yankees rectified that problem by giving McCann a five-year contract worth $85M. The just-turned-30-year-old is one of only two catchers with 20+ homers in each of the last three seasons (Matt Wieters) and one of only eleven players (all positions) with 20+ homers in each of the last six seasons.

Of course, McCann hit all those dingers while with the Braves in Atlanta, playing his home games in a park that has been perfectly neutral in terms of left-handed homers over the last five seasons according to the park factors at FanGraphs. His lefty power was extra desirable to the Yankees because of Yankee Stadium’s short right field porch, which is tailor made for McCann’s pull happy swing:


Source: FanGraphs

Don’t trick yourself into thinking McCann is something he isn’t. This guy is a pure grip it and rip it hitter who is going to try to yank everything over the right field wall. He’s going to hit .250-ish and walk enough (9.9% walk rate since 2011) to post decent but not great OBPs, but his real offensive value comes from his power. Homers too, forget about doubles.

I think the whole “sign a left-handed hitter and he’ll automatically hit a bunch more homers in Yankee Stadium” idea is generally overstated — not everyone’s swing fits the ballpark (see: Overbay, Lyle) — but McCann is exactly the kind of hitter who can really exploit that short porch. His career-high is 24 homeruns (2006 and 2011) and I wouldn’t be surprised if he finishes this year with 30-35 homers, especially if he spends some of his catching off-days at DH.

Carlos Beltran
Over the last three years, only ten outfielders have racked up at least 50 extra-base hits in each season. Soriano is one of them and another is Beltran, his new teammate. Heck, if you want to bump up the arbitrary criteria, Beltran is one of only four outfielders with at least 55 extra-base hits these last three years. Soriano is not one of the other three.

The Yankees finally snagged their white whale (well, I think he was the fans’ white whale more than the team’s) this winter by signing Beltran to a three-year deal worth $45M, nine years after declining to sign him at a discounted rate before he joined the Mets. Beltran has aged remarkably well as a hitter, dipping below a 120 wRC+ only once in the last eight years, and that was his injury-plagued 2010 campaign. He’s also managed 20+ homers and 25+ doubles in each of the last three years and six of the last eight years, with 2009-10 being the only exceptions. Injuries limited him to 145 total games those two seasons.

Unlike Soriano and McCann, Beltran is a switch-hitter. He maintained a .200+ ISO against both righties and lefties these last two years (.214 vs. LHP and .202 vs. RHP) but he is a different type of hitter from each side of the plate. Beltran is pretty much a dead pull hitter as a righty and an all-fields guy as a lefty, though he does the most damage from the left side when he pulls the ball to right field at this point of his career (spray charts). That’s perfectly fine and plays right into Yankee Stadium. The concern is the declining distance of his batted balls:

Carlos Beltran Batted Ball Distance

Given his age (37 in April), that little downtick last year (really the last two years) is a concern. It’s not much, but pretty much anything is a red flag with a player this age. On average, Beltran did not hit the ball as far last year as he did the year before. Could be a one-year fluke, could be a sign of age-related decline. We’re going to find out in the coming months.

I am pretty confident Beltran will be a 20+ homer, 25+ double guy for the Yankees this coming season and right now that is the most important thing. He could fall completely off a cliff in 2014 but it would be a surprise to me. (The 2015-16 seasons are another matter for another time.) Even if he is starting to slip due to age, some of Beltran’s would-be homers should still go for doubles in 2014. The guy is such a good pure hitter and it’s not like he was bad in 2013. The somewhat early signs of decline are there though. No doubt about it.

Mark Teixeira
Teixeira is a total unknown heading into this season. He missed almost all of last summer with a wrist injury, an injury that required season-ending surgery after a brief and failed return to the lineup. Teixeira is currently taking batting practice and is slated to start playing in Spring Training games in early-March, but wrist injuries are known to sap power even after the player has been cleared by doctors.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Even as his overall production has declined, the 33-year-old Teixeira has always remained a source of homers, hitting at least 33 dingers from 2008-11 and then 24 in 123 games in 2012. He has never once had a sub-.220 ISO during a full season in his entire career. Teixeira has admitted to changing his hitting style to take advantage of the short porch as a left-handed hitter and there’s no reason to think he’ll do anything differently going forward.

Guys like Jose Bautista and David Ortiz had similar wrist tendon sheath problems in recent years and it took them a few months before returning to their previous form. It’s easy to say Teixeira will hit for power because he’s always hit for power, but there’s just no way of knowing what he can do following the injury. He’s included in this post because hitting the ball over the fence is his thing, but there is a chance he might not do that in 2014, at least not early in the season. It might take him a while to get back in the swing of things.

Kelly Johnson
The Yankees gave Johnson a nice little one-year, $3M contract back in December and he is now their everyday third baseman in the wake of Alex Rodriguez‘s suspension. The 32-year-old isn’t much of a doubles guy but he has hit at least 16 homeruns in each of the last four seasons, and he has power to all fields:


Source: FanGraphs

Johnson can hit the ball of the park in any direction, which is a good thing. He’ll get some help from the short porch but he’s also shown he’s strong enough to drive those outside pitches the other way. Is he ever going to hit 26 homers with a .212 ISO like he did in 2010 again? Probably not, but the 16 homeruns he hit in 2012 and 2013 might become 18-22 in the Bronx. Considering the Yankees only had one guy mash 18+ taters last summer, getting a similar number from a player like Johnson, who is slated to bat seventh, will be a welcome addition.

* * *

On the other end of the spectrum, the Yankees do not figure to get much power from second base (Brian Roberts), shortstop (Derek Jeter), left field (Brett Gardner), or center field (Jacoby Ellsbury) this year. From that group, only Jeter (15 HR in 2012) and Ellsbury (outlier 32 HR in 2011) have managed to hit double-digit homers at some point in the last three years and neither is a lock to do it in 2014. Sure, Ellsbury might pop a few extra dingers with the move into Yankee Stadium, but for the most part his ground ball/opposite field approach won’t boost his homer total all that much. Those four guys will pick up some extra-base hits with their speed, but over-the-fence power isn’t happening. Soriano, McCann, Beltran, Teixeira, and Johnson will be leaned on for homers and extra-base hits.

Press Conference Recap: Girardi talks Jeter, Tanaka, Pineda, Fifth Starter, More

(Photo via @YankeesPR)
(Photo via @YankeesPR)

Pitchers and catchers reported to Tampa today, and a few hours later Joe Girardi showed up to camp. His flight from New York was delayed because of all the snow. My goodness there is so much snow. Anyway, here is a not at all complete recap of Girardi’s annual start-of-Spring Training press conference, culled together from the Twitter accounts of reporters in attendance.

On Derek Jeter

  • Girardi had “no inkling” Jeter was planning to retire after the season until the announcement was made. “We are going to miss him,” he said. “You want a guy like that to play forever.”
  • Jeter’s playing time both in the field and at DH against left-handers is going to be based on how he feels on a daily basis. They won’t put a firm plan in place at this point.
  • As for batting Jeter second, Girardi said “we’ll have to see,” but indicated he would like to split up the left-handed hitters. I wonder if that means Brett Gardner will bat leadoff and Jacoby Ellsbury will bat third. Or maybe Ellsbury at leadoff with Brian McCann batting third. We’ll see.

On the new players

  • “It is the biggest transition I’ve been through … I think its important I get to know these guys,” said the skipper.
  • Girardi believes Masahiro Tanaka loves the spotlight and will handle the move to MLB well.
  • Kelly Johnson is the backup first baseman for the time being. They have not discussed playing McCann at first.

On the fifth starter competition

  • Girardi plans to tell David Phelps, Adam Warren, Michael Pineda, and everyone else to make sure they take it easy early in camp and gradually build themselves up. They don’t want anyone getting hurt by doing too much too soon.
  • “Anything is possible,” said Girardi when asked if they would be willing to use Pineda out of the bullpen. “When we traded for him, we expected him to be in our rotation,” he added. “We envision him as a starter.”

Eric Hinske helped Yankees sign Brian McCann

Via Andy McCullough: The Yankees hired former Yankee Eric Hinske as a pro scout after the season, and he helped the team woo Brian McCann to New York. “He was here, he was involved” said Brian Cashman of Hinske. “He helped me with Brian McCann … because he played with Brian. So I appreciate Eric Hinske giving Brian McCann a lot of good advice about his experience here with the Yankees. He was a great resource for about 30 days.”

Hinske, 36, was with the team for “about the month” before leaving to join the Cubs as their first base coach. You probably remember him as a member of the 2009 World Series team after being acquired from the Pirates at midseason. Hinske actually played for the Diamondbacks this past season, but he was terrible (49 wRC+) and decided to retire after being released in July. Long before he helped the Yankees land McCann, Hinske advised Evan Longoria to sign long-term with the Rays. Sounds like he might have a future in a front office.

Details of Brian McCann’s vesting option

Finally, we have the details of Brian McCann‘s vesting option, courtesy of Joel Sherman. The option for 2019 is worth $15M and vests with 1,000 plate appearances from 2017-2018, 90 games as a catcher in 2018, and if he’s not on the DL at the end of 2018. All of those conditions must be met. If the option vests, McCann can void it and become a free agent. For all intents and purposes, he must still be a starting catcher in 2018 for the option to kick in. Pretty sweet deal if you ask me.

It’s official: McCann’s a Yankee

The Yankees have officially signed Brian McCann to a five-year contract with a vesting option for a sixth year, the team announced. He has passed his physical and all that. “The singular and unwavering desire of this organization is to construct a team each and every season designed to play meaningful baseball deep into October … Our work this offseason has just begun, but we feel this is an important step towards what will be an exciting and rewarding 2014 season for our fans,” said Hal Steinbrenner in a statement.

McCann will be introduced at a press conference on Thursday, which will be broadcast on YES. I’m pretty sure it will be their first press conference to introduce a new player since Mark Teixeira Rafael Soriano. Been a while. The 2014 Draft Order page has been updated.

Managing Brian McCann’s workload

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

At some point soon — probably next week — the Yankees are going to finalize their agreement with catcher Brian McCann. They will add one of the best backstops in baseball at a substantial cost, reportedly $85M across five years with a vesting option for a sixth year. They’re clearly expecting big things out of him and why wouldn’t they? He’s been one of the most productive hitters of the last decade or so, especially relative to his position. Catchers who hit like this are rare.

Because the Yankees invested so much in McCann, they’re likely to look for ways to control his workload behind the plate in an effort to get as much out of him as possible. They want him to catch for all five years of the contract because that’s where he’s the most valuable — McCann is just another guy at first base or DH — even though it may not be realistic. He turns 30 in February and a five-year contract covers the years when most catchers turn into pumpkins, especially guys who have been starters for a long time. All that squatting behind the plate and all those foul tips take their toll.

McCann was a workhorse throughout his career with the Braves. He made his big league debut at age 21 and was an everyday catcher by age 22. From 2006-2012, his age 22-28 seasons, he started at least 113 games behind the plate each year and led all of baseball with 944 games caught total. He was limited to 91 starts at catcher this past season only because he missed April following offseason right shoulder surgery. That’s a lot of wear and tear and the team knows it. They don’t want their new addition to be a full-time DH by year three of a five-year deal.

Thankfully, that DH spot gives the Yankees a little bit of flexibility. It allows them to keep McCann’s bat in the lineup while getting him out from behind the plate for a day. Obviously other players like Derek Jeter will need to rotate through that DH spot — I really don’t like the rotating DH in general, but it’s a necessity for this roster at this point — but there should be enough starts available for McCann throughout the course of the season. Remember, he’s going to be the catcher first and foremost. DH is just an alternative for a day, nothing more.

The Yankees faced between 52-61 left-handed starters in each of the last five seasons, so a straight platoon with presumed backup Frankie Cervelli would limit McCann to roughly 100-110 starts behind the plate next year. That’s a bit below the 123 starts at catcher he averaged from 2006-2012 and it seems like a decent target to me. He could DH another 30-40 games — he will need some full days off of course, catching is hard — and that would get him in the lineup 140-ish times a year.

Sounds like a good plan, right? Well, platoons rarely work out as intended, especially for catchers. Blame injuries and hot/cold streaks and sorts of other unpredictable stuff. At some point next year the Yankees will face nine right-handed starters in nine days, something like that, and that will throw a wrench into everything. The Yankees also might not want to admit their shiny new $85M toy is a platoon player just yet. That stuff does happen. They could run McCann out there everyday against both righties and lefties at first just to see what happens. He did hit lefties from 2010-2012 (104 wRC+), maybe 2013 (72 wRC+) was a blip.

There’s an awful lot of stuff to consider when laying out a plan to keep McCann productive and behind the plate over the next half-decade, including his preferences. McCann might hate being the DH and that would be a factor in how they use him. Ultimately, the team owes him big bucks over the next five years and they should figure out the best way to keep him at catcher for as many of those year as possible. I think that 100-110 starts behind the plate number sounds pretty good because he would still get the majority of the games at catcher while having his workload reduced a bit from recent years. Coming up with a plan that works will be much easier said than done and it will be important. McCann’s going to be here for a while. The Yankees have every reason to look after his long-term well-being.