Brian McCann and trying to beat the shift

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

Through the first month or so of the season, I’m not sure anyone on the roster has been more disappointing than Brian McCann. The backstop has started his Yankees career with a 56 wRC+ in the first five-ish weeks, which ranks 177th out of 188 qualified hitters and dead last out of 15 qualified catchers. Chris Stewart had a 58 wRC+ last season, remember. The Yankees basically swapped Stewart for a balder, more expensive version in McCann. He’s been that bad so far.

As the fine broadcasters at the YES Network are wont to remind us day after day, inning after inning, the infield shift is widespread throughout baseball these days and McCann is one of its most popular targets. He was one of the most shifted against hitters in baseball last season and the same is true again so far this year. That was to be expected. Other teams weren’t going to stop shifting against McCann just because he was wearing a new uniform.

The shift has taken more than a few hits away from McCann this season and again, that is expected. Teams wouldn’t shift if they didn’t work. His .204 BABIP is a career low, especially when compared to his other healthy seasons (.234 before shoulder surgery in 2012), and down quite a bit from last season’s .261 BABIP. This isn’t all because of the shift — 8.3% of his plate appearances have ended with an infield pop-up this year, the fifth highest rate in baseball. Infield pop-ups are pretty much automatic outs and death to BABIP. His career pop-up rate prior to 2014 was only 4.0%, so this is way out of the norm.

Between the increased pop-up rate, the career low (by far) 3.5% walk rate, the career high (by far) 34.8% swing rate on pitches out of the zone*, and the ol’ eye test, I’m pretty comfortable saying McCann is pressing like hell at the plate. He’s trying to squeeze sap out of the bat. It happens. New team, new city, fat new contract, no beard, it’s understandable. Players press. McCann isn’t the first and he sure as hell won’t be the last. We’ve seen flashes of the productive power-hitting catcher the Yankees signed, but he hasn’t shown up consistently yet. It’ll happen, hopefully very soon.

* McCann’s strikeout rate (11.3%) is far below the league average and his best since 2008, so it’s not like he’s having trouble putting the ball in play.

Getting back on track, other clubs have been shifting against McCann quite a bit this season and lately it seems like he’s making an effort to go the other way. He’s always been a dead pull power hitter and that’s a big reason why he was so attractive to the Yankees, but lately I feel like we’ve seen more attempts to go to the opposite field. It doesn’t always work, but the attempt is there. Remember this?

McCann had three hits in that game and all three were to left field. I remember he ripped a line drive foul ball in that direction as well. Obviously a double to the wall is an extreme example of beating the shift by going the other way, but McCann did attempt a simple bunt towards third base to beat the shift on Monday. Here’s the play if you didn’t stay up late for the West Coast game:


The bunt went foul — it’s not easy to bunt Major League pitching, you know — but McCann made the attempt. He tried to beat the shift in the most basic way possible: by rolling the ball to where the defenders aren’t standing. That’s all a bunt is.

I didn’t watch enough of McCann during his time with the Braves to know whether these attempts to beat the shift are new or something he’s been trying for years. I would greatly prefer the former and hope this is a new development. Thankfully, we can check that. With an assist to the intimidatingly great Baseball Savant, here are some numbers on McCann’s tendencies to pull the ball or hit it the other way over the last few seasons. The table doesn’t include last night’s game because stupid West Coast:

Total Pitches Pulled Away Pitches Pulled Total Pitches Other Way Away Pitches Other Way
2014 7.7% 5.6% 7.3% 8.5%
2013 9.6% 8.4% 4.7% 4.4%
2012 9.7% 8.6% 5.0% 4.5%
2011 8.9% 7.3% 4.5% 4.7%

First, some explanations are in order:

  • Total Pitches Pulled: Percentage of all pitches pulled to the right side of the infield or to right field. McCann saw 452 pitches prior to last night and he pulled 35 of them to the right side of the field, or 7.7%.
  • Away Pitches Pulled: Percentage of pitches on the outer third or off the plate away that were pulled to the right side. McCann saw 270 pitches in those locations and pulled 15 of them to the right side, or 5.6%.
  • Total Pitches Other Way and Away Pitches Other Way are the same thing, only with pitches that were hit towards the left side of the infield or left field. Got it? Easy enough.

This season, either consciously or through the mirage of small sample size, McCann has been pulling fewer pitches to the right side of the field. He’s going the other way more often and that is especially true with pitches away from him, the ones you’re supposed to serve to the opposite field for a Nice Piece of Hitting. More than a few players (coughMarkTeixeiracough) will still try to pull those pitches and wind up rolling over on them, hitting a weak grounder right into the teeth of the shift.

We’ve seen McCann roll over on outside pitches this year, everyone does it, but he is doing it less often than he had the last few years. He’s taking those pitches to left field nearly twice as often as he had from 2011-12. I’m not going to bother looking at inside pitches because inside pitches are supposed to be pulled and pulled for power. Not everyone is Derek Jeter, who is going to the Hall of Fame because of his ability to pull his hands in and drive those pitches the other way. You want McCann to pull inside pitches because that’s how he can do some real damage.

Anyway, this is good! I think. We still need to wait a few more weeks to make sure this newfound tendency to go the other way is not just sample size noise, which is always possible. The data matches what my eyes were telling me though. McCann is indeed trying to hit the ball the other way more often. That could absolutely be contributing to his early season slump too. It’s a change in approach and sometimes those changes take time. McCann’s been hitting one way his entire life and now he appears to be changing it up. Of course there are going to be some bumps in the road.

Are teams going to stop shifting McCann because he’s hitting the ball the other way more often? Nope. Here are his spray charts. He still a pull-first hitter who yanks a ton of ground balls and line drives to the right side of the field and teams will stack their defense accordingly. McCann does appear to be making an attempt to go the other way more, particularly with pitches on the outer third of the plate. That will change how teams pitch him more than the defensive alignment. The most important thing is that he is hitting more balls away from the shift. The first few weeks of McCann’s tenure in New York have been ugly, no doubt about it, but there seems to be some serious work going on behind the scenes, and that could have positive results in time.

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Francisco Cervelli has Grade II hamstring strain; Shane Greene to Triple-A

The MRI on Frankie Cervelli‘s hamstring revealed a Grade II strain, the Yankees announced. He will be placed on the DL. CC Sabathia suffered a Grade II hamstring strain last September and he had to wait eight weeks before he could resume baseball workouts, so Cervelli probably isn’t coming back anytime soon.

The Yankees also announced that right-hander Shane Greene has been sent to Triple-A Scranton, so two players will be called up before tomorrow’s game. Obviously one will be a catcher. With Derek Jeter (quad) and Brian Roberts (back) banged up, it’s a safe bet the other player will be an infielder. And, just in case you were wondering, the Yankees say the x-rays on Brian McCann‘s hand were negative after he took that deflected pitch off the barehand last night.

2014 Season Preview: Back To Offensive Basics

(Brian Blanco/Getty)
(Brian Blanco/Getty)

Over the last few years, as sabermetrics and all that stuff has become more popular, batting average has become underrated. It used to be overrated — not making outs and having a high on-base percentage is still the single most important aspect of hitting — but the art of getting a base hit is definitely underappreciated these days. There is more to life than that of course, but getting a hit is a big piece of the offensive pie.

Last season, the Yankees hit a collective .242 with a team .285 BABIP, rates that ranked 24th and 26th among the 30 teams, respectively. Injuries have a little something to do with the team’s low average, but remember, Curtis Granderson and Mark Teixeira aren’t exactly high-average hitters. Derek Jeter and the out of sight, out of mind Alex Rodriguez are, however. Well, kinda. A perfectly healthy Yankees squad might have hit a few points higher as a team, but not much. The team’s .307 OBP (23rd overall) would have quite a bit higher with good health, I’m sure of that.

The Yankees rebuilt their offense over the winter and back in January I explained how the new-look lineup will bring more a patient approach and, theoretically, a higher team OBP. That’s pretty important. The Yankees didn’t just make too many outs last season, they made too many quick outs. It’s not much of a coincidence that two pitchers (Derek Holland and Chris Archer) threw sub-100 pitch nine-inning complete games against New York last season after only one pitcher (Roy Halladay, surprise surprise) did in the previous ten seasons. The makeshift offense was an impatient lot last summer.

Along with a more patient and disciplined offense should come a group that hits for a higher average. How much higher? I don’t think we could say with any degree of certainty. As underrated as batting average has become, it is still tough to predict because it fluctuates so much from year to year. Robinson Cano is my go-to example: he’s a career .309 hitter who hit .342 in 2006 and .271 in 2008. Did his talent level change in those years? No, it’s just baseball. Weird stuff happens in a game built around hitting a round ball with a cylindrical bat onto a 2+ acre swath of grass. Here’s a look at the Yankees’ lineup and its batting average potential.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Likely to hit .290+
With Cano gone, I don’t think the Yankees have a single player you can comfortably expect to hit .300 or better in 2014. I mean, how many players around the entire league would you safely expect to hit .300+ this year? Cano, Joe Mauer, Mike Trout, Miguel Cabrera, Andrew McCutchen, Joey Votto … that’s probably it. Hitting .300 is hard and few guys can do it year after year, especially in age of declining offense. That’s not to say others won’t hit .300, we all know those guys won’t be alone. Like I said before, weird stuff happens.

The Yankees have two players who are safe bets for a .290+ average this summer and both were acquired in the offseason. Jacoby Ellsbury hit .298 last season (.341 BABIP) and is a career .297 hitter (.326 BABIP) , so he seems to be the team’s best hope for a .300+ hitter. I do think Yankee Stadium will work against him though. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great place to hit, but Yankee Stadium is a homerun park. Fenway Park is more conducive to a high batting average with the Green Monster and weird angles. The park factors at FanGraphs bear that out.

Carlos Beltran hit .296 (.314 BABIP) last season and .288 (.313 BABIP) over the last three years, so it wouldn’t be a surprise if he hit .300 or better this summer. Derek Jeter hit .316 (.347 BABIP) in his last healthy season and the guy used to fall out of bed and hit .300, but he’s coming off a series of leg injuries and a lost season at age 40. He hasn’t looked particularly good in camp either, though I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt after missing almost all of last season. So much rust to shake off. Tough to know what to expect from him, but I don’t think many would be surprised if the Cap’n had a big going away year.

As for an out of nowhere .290+ hitter, I’d put my money on Eduardo Nunez, who seems like a lock to make the roster and play more than expected at this point. Nunez makes a ton of contact (career 92.8% contact rate) and he’s fast, two skills that lend themselves to hitting for average, especially in small-ish (~300 plate appearances) samples. I’m not saying he’ll do it, but if you’re looking for a Yankee to come out of nowhere to hit for a high average, Nunez is a good guess. For now, I’ll take Ellsbury and Beltran as the team’s best chances for a .290+ hitter with Jeter an honorable mention.

(Stacy Revere/Getty)
(Stacy Revere/Getty)

Likely to hit sub-.250
On the other end of the spectrum, there are a few Yankees we can count on for a low-ish batting average. Kelly Johnson hit .235 (.276 BABIP) last season and .226 (.284 BABIP) over the last three seasons. He’s the safe bet to finish with the lowest average among the regulars. Johnson’s offensive game is built around hitting for power, stealing bases, and drawing walks. I have no reason to believe 2014 will be any different.

Alfonso Soriano hit .255 (.289 BABIP) last season, including .256 (.286 BABIP) with the Yankees. Over the last three seasons it’s a .254 average (.289 BABIP). He’s right on that .250 bubble at age 38. Brian McCann (.256 AVG/.251 BABIP in 2013 and .252/.263 from 2011-12) and Mark Teixeira (.251/.250 in 2012 and .252/.258 from 2010-12) are right there with Soriano. Brian Roberts managed to hit .249 (.267 BABIP) in 296 plate appearances last season and has a .246 average (.275 BABIP) while batting injuries over the last four years. He’s probably the second safest bet for a sub-.250 average this season behind Johnson.

Likely to hit somewhere in the middle
This is a bit of a cop-out, because the vast majority of players hit somewhere in that .251-.289 range. Or at least most regulars do. Bench players and pitchers are another matter entirely. Soriano, McCann, and Teixeira will probably be on the low-end of this range, Ellsbury and Beltran will probably be at the high-end (if not over), and Brett Gardner (.273/.342 in 2013 and .268/.325 career) will be right smack in the middle somewhere. There’s really nothing sexy about hitting somewhere in the .251-.289 neighborhood. The extremes are far more interesting.

* * *

Last season, American League non-pitchers hit .256 with a .298 BABIP as the league average continues to drop. It was as high as .275 (.305 BABIP) as recently as 2006 and .267 (.300 BABIP) as recently as 2009, but down it goes. Ellsbury, Beltran, and Gardner give the team three regulars who you can pencil in for a better than average batting average with Jeter a possibility for a fourth. Others like McCann, Teixeira, and Soriano will be right around the average. Batting average is tough to predict, but based on their current talent levels and the last few seasons, the Yankees have six and possibly seven regulars likely to match or exceed the league average. Compared to last year, that’s pretty darn good.

2014 Season Preview: Defensive Liabilities

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

I suppose the silver lining of last season’s terrible offense was a strong team defense. The Yankees employed guys like Ichiro Suzuki, Chris Stewart, Lyle Overbay, Luis Cruz, Alberto Gonzalez, Reid Brignac, and Brendan Ryan as regulars at various points of the year, guys who can’t hit but can play some solid defense. The club sported a collective +12.5 UZR and +21 DRS in 2013, rates that are only slightly above-average (13th and 10th in MLB, respectively) on a team-wide scale.

The roster has turned over substantially this past offseason, especially on the position player side. That should greatly improve the lineup, but it will also impact the team defense. Some of the players the Yankees acquired over the winter are very good defenders but others simply are not. Not every player the team added is a two-way threat. Far from it. Let’s look at where the Yankees are vulnerable in the field thanks to subpar defenders.

The Infield
Last month I detailed how the team’s ground ball heavy pitching staff is not a good mix for their generally shaky infield defense, particularly at the non-first base spots. Mark Teixeira is a stud in the field and I have no reason to think a wrist injury will severely compromise his glovework. Maybe he’ll lose a step or two or some hand-eye coordination with age, but I don’t think the injury will have a huge factor on his defense.

Derek Jeter has moved around well in the field and on the bases this spring following all the leg injuries, but he’s still a negative on defense. We all know that. Brian Roberts has looked surprisingly agile during Grapefruit League play, so maybe he’ll be a positive in the field, at least while he’s healthy. Kelly Johnson comes into the season with only 118 career innings at third base and only 18 innings at first base, where he’s expected to be the starter and backup, respectively. He’s muffed a few hard-hit balls in camp so far, the kind that earned the position the nickname the “hot corner.”

The backup plans aren’t much better. Eduardo Nunez is inconsistent at best and an unmitigated disaster at worst defensively, and Scott Sizemore is coming off back-to-back left ACL surgeries. He hasn’t played enough in camp for us to get an idea of how he’s moving in the field. The various scouting reports indicate Dean Anna is an adequate to solid defender. Teixeira should be fine at first but all of the other infield spots come with defensive questions. I think the Yankees would be pretty happy if the infield graded out as a league average unit come the end of the season.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Right Field
As of right now, it seems like the plan is to have Alfonso Soriano and Carlos Beltran split right field and DH duties most of the time in 2014. There have been some rumblings Brett Gardner could wind up in right with Soriano in left, but that seems unlikely to happen. The Soriano/Beltran timeshare in right field appears to be the way things are heading.

Aside from one defensive inning in right field during Game Five of the 2003 World Series, Soriano has never played the position. Moving over there at 38 years old may not be an easy transition, and that doesn’t even consider his weak throwing arm. Runners will be going first-to-third on him all day. Beltran was once a top flight defender but he has slowed down considerably with age and injury, to the point where he’s graded out as a below-average defender over the last few years by the various defensive stats. Regardless of whether Soriano or Beltran starts, the Yankees will have a subpar gloveman in right.

It’s not all bad though. First and foremost, right field in Yankee Stadium is pretty small, so there’s isn’t much ground to cover in the first place. Two, with Gardner in left and Jacoby Ellsbury in center, Ellsbury figures to shade towards right to help cover the gaps. Three, Ichiro will almost certainly come off the bench as a defensive replacement for right field whenever the game is close. Even if Ichiro is traded or released or whatever, Zoilo Almonte can do the same job. Whenever they’re in right though, both Soriano and Beltran will be liabilities.

Outfield Arms
I mentioned this with Soriano in right, but it’s worth pointing out the Yankees have some weak outfield arms in general. Beltran’s is by far the best and might be the team’s best right field arm since Raul Mondesi way back in the day. Ellsbury’s arm is laughably weak and downright Damon-esque while Gardner’s is solid at best. Not particularly strong but accurate. Soriano’s arm is both weak and not accurate while Ichiro’s strong arm plays down because he takes forever to get rid of the ball. Gardner and Ellsbury more than make up for their arms with their range, but don’t expect to see many plays at the plate this summer. Beltran’s the only regular with a quality arm.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Brian McCann‘s Arm
McCann does a lot of things well, specifically hit and frame pitches. He is also said to be very good at blocking balls in the dirt and working with pitchers. The one thing McCann does not do well is throw. Last season he threw out only 24 of 100 attempted base-stealers, below the 27% league average. The year before it was 22%, and in case you’re thinking this might be related to his October 2012 labrum surgery, McCann threw out only 24% of base-stealers from 2006-11. He’s simply not good at shutting down the running game.

In order to compensate for McCann’s arm, the pitcher will have to make sure to pay attention to runners on first base. CC Sabathia should have it the easiest as a left-hander, but runners have been successful in 70% of their stolen base attempts the last three years. Hiroki Kuroda has held runners to a 62% success rate since coming to New York and Ivan Nova has held them to a 63% success rate in his relatively short big league career. Masahiro Tanaka … who in the world knows. Frankie Cervelli has an excellent arm (after some mechanical tinkering last spring) but McCann is going to be the starter because he does so many things well. One of those things is not throwing and it’s something the Yankees will have to deal with this summer. It’s the essence of taking the bad with the good.

* * *

The Yankees have premium defenders at first base and in both left and center fields. The rest of the team will probably be net negative in the field, which is not ideal in an offensive ballpark in a tough division with a sketchy middle relief crew. This club is going to have to out-hit and out-pitch their defensive shortcomings in 2014.

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.