Watching Brian McCann hit last year was almost an exercise in futility at times. It seemed that McCann would come to the plate, and either strike out or bounce a ball into the open jaws of the shift. Or if the game was being played at Yankee Stadium, he'd occasionally shoot one into the short porch. He finished the year at a dismal .232/.286/.408, and some were already calling the new catcher a sunk cost. Woof.
Of course, now McCann is mashing. He's hitting .275/.339/.475 in a nice round 230 plate appearances this year, and he's the third best hitter on the team behind Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira. So is McCann simply not hitting into the shift anymore? We've all seen him bunt up the third base line a little bit more this year.
Well, actually, McCann is pulling the ball more. Per FanGraphs' batted ball data, McCann is pulling the ball 50.3% of the time this season. He only did that 44.1% of the time last year, which was actually the lowest that figure had been since 2006. McCann is simply a better hitter when he pulls, especially in Yankee Stadium. The shift seemed to faze him and part of his struggles last year may have been because he was trying to do things with the ball that he's simply not good at in order to fight the wall of defenders on the left side of the infield. Like Teixeira, McCann's simply said "screw it" this season. The results are evident. The GIF below shows first McCann's spray chart from last year, and his chart from this year. Obviously there are fewer points of data this year by virtue of the where we are on the calendar, but there's a noticeable shift towards the right field line.
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McCann's also made soft contact on 12.1% of his balls in play this season, according to Baseball Info Solutions. That's an all-time low for his career. What's he doing instead is hitting more ground balls, and he's hitting them harder through the shift. One would think that more pulled ground balls would be bad for his batting average, but he's hitting them hard enough that they're getting through. Fewer fly balls also mean fewer popups. A whopping 11.1% of McCann's fly balls in 2014 didn't leave the infield. Those are popups, and he's gotten that rate down to 1.5% this year. Instead, he's making those fly balls matter more by having more of them (14.7%) go out for home runs.
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This is the Brian McCann the Yankees paid a lot of money to sign. He's thirteen games away from hitting the halfway mark of his total from last year, and he's 0.3 WAR away from matching last year's 2.3 fWAR. There's been some concerning decline in McCann's pitch-framing skills, but he's making up for that value with his bat. McCann is a key cog in the resurgent Yankee offense and the team is much better off for it.
Nicolas Stellini is a staff writer at Pinstripe Alley, where he writes about the Yankees and covers the Double-A Trenton Thunder. His national coverage can be found at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @StelliniTweets.