Let’s face it, New York Yankees catcher Brian McCann is known more for his offense than his D. He has hit 18 or more homers in nine consecutive seasons and has an .807 career OPS. He has won five Silver Slugger awards — and no Gold Gloves — and has been named an All-Star seven times, more on the strength of his offense than his glove work.
But guess what — he’s pretty good at defense, too. In fact, when you examine McCann’s performance in peripheral catcher-defense stats such as framing, blocking balls in the dirt and calling a game, just one catcher has been better over the past three years: Yadier Molina (of course it’s Yady — who else would it be?). But while the only currently active Molina brother is widely acclaimed for his defense, McCann doesn’t seem to get his due respect.
I examined what makes McCann a good catcher and spoke with the Yankees backstop, as well as his manager, about the importance of McCann’s defensive skills, and what the catcher has learned over the years about his work behind the plate.
McCann has plenty of flash offensively, including 207 career homers, but he also takes pride in — and works hard to improve — the less flashy, less obvious aspects of the game, too. Yet he was a bit surprised to hear he has had a top-5 career when it comes to framing pitches, according to recent stats by Baseball Prospectus. “Who was first?” McCann asked when I told him that. He nodded approvingly when he learned it was longtime big league catcher and current Tigers manager Brad Ausmus, with another Molina, Jose, in second.
That said, the 31-year-old has seen some decline in his framing stats, slowly going from the best in the league in 2008 to below average so far this year.
What can you do? Father Time comes for us all and framing is an athletic skill, according to McCann. “You have to have soft hands, and when the ball hits your glove, your wrist can’t move,” the catcher said of the physical skills involved in framing a pitch.
Soft hands and tough wrists can be affected by age, as can flexibility. Being limber is important as a catcher. “You have to be able to get low in your stance,” McCann said (which reminded me of a story I wrote a few years on Jonathan Lucroy’s belief that tall catchers are at a disadvantage for framing low pitches). “You can be tall, but you have to be flexible. If you’re flexible, that’s a big asset for you.”
Even as his ability to frame pitches has declined a bit as his athleticism has faded, McCann has still been able to provide value with another important defensive aspect of the catcher’s game: pitch-calling. McCann was recently rated as the ninth-best game caller in baseball since 2012 in research done by Harry Pavlidis for ESPN The Magazine.
Calling the game is a little like being a manager on the field, so it made sense to ask McCann’s manager, Joe Girardi, also a former catcher, what has made McCann so good at the skill. “I think he has a real good feel for how to get pitchers through innings, how to use their stuff against opposing hitters,” Joe Girardi said. “The most important thing he does is that he gains their confidence quickly. That’s really important.”
Being calm and relaxed is how McCann gains that confidence. “You have to let the young guys come up and be themselves and not try to change anything right away,” McCann said. “You get more out of someone if you let their natural ability take over. During the course of the season, once you see it enough, you can give suggestions. You lose people when you try to act like you know everything.”
What’s remarkable about McCann’s ability to be a calm leader on the field is he has done so despite the fact that the Yankees have basically had a revolving door of starting pitchers this season. Only five teams have had more than the 15 starters the Yankees have had since the beginning of last year. Girardi praised his catcher for being good with the young guys: “He’s been really good in adapting to a number of pitchers in the last few years, a ton of them. The rotation has been ever-changing, and I think he adapts really well.”
Stephen Vogt once said that familiarity breeds better framing, but Jeff Sullivan couldn’t find much evidence to support that, and McCann agreed with Sullivan’s report. “It usually takes just a couple sessions,” he said of getting comfortable with a new pitcher. “Once you see someone’s stuff once or twice, it’s no big deal; you kind of know how it’s going to move.”
Once McCann understands a pitcher’s arsenal, his job is clear. “A catcher’s job is to understand hitters’ weaknesses and understand their own pitchers’ strengths and come up with the best formula to get outs. On some days, pitchers aren’t going to have their best stuff, and certain days you can pitch to a certain lineup.”
But it also takes awareness and recognition. When you see that a pitcher is having trouble with a pitch, like Nathan Eovaldi and his new splitter for a few games — Eovaldi said he was struggling with the release — you pocket the pitch until it improves. McCann called for two splitters total in Eovaldi’s second and third starts of the season, then brought it back — he has averaged eight per start since, with above-average whiffs on the pitch — once it improved.
In this table, gcWINSAA is Game Calling wins above average, frWINSAA is Framing Wins Above Average, and blWINSAA is Blocking Wins Above Average. Data courtesy Baseball Prospectus.
So there you have it, the No. 2 catcher. And let’s not forget his offense — for McCann’s career, FanGraphs has him at 14 percent better than league average and 28 percent better than the league’s catchers as a group — even though he saves the preparation for that until later in the day.
Once McCann has spoken with Girardi about the general plan for the day and his pitcher about how he is feeling specifically and then scouted the opposing hitters, is there a lot of time left for hitting? “Nowadays, we have iPads, so I can sit there and flip through dozens of videos,” McCann said.
So he’s solid if unheralded defensively and a productive hitter, yet it’s his leadership that might be his best trait for the team, especially his work with young pitchers. “He’s been great,” said Girardi. Of course, he has a history of being a good teammate, even if he can get a little excitable while doing so. While McCann’s calling card might be his offense, as we’ve detailed today, he’s a lot more than just an offensive-minded catcher.
With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.