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Brian McCann is healthy, and that’s good news for his bat

Brian McCann is matching or exceeding nearly all of his career norms in 2016. Could health explain his resurgence?

Texas Rangers v New York Yankees Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

When Brian McCann inked his five-year/$85 million deal with the Yankees back in 2013, he was expected to play like a star. He brought the reputation of being both an impact bat, a real middle-of-the-lineup threat, and a defensive wizard behind the plate. He had future fan favorite written all over him. Instead, he has been one of the more maligned players in the last three seasons. In fact, it doesn’t take much more than a cursory glance at Twitter to find fans who argue that the Yankees should have handed the starting catcher’s job to Francisco Cervelli and avoided McCann entirely.

What explains this disaffection with the Yankees catcher? He didn’t exactly make a good first impression, batting just .232/.286/.406 (93 wRC+) in 2014. His sequel campaign saw McCann hit .232/.320/.437 (105 wRC+) but that included an ice-cold second half where he put up a weak .200/.306/.395 (91 wRC+) slash line. Those numbers are actually above average for a catcher, especially when you consider his power output, but a vocal crowd suggests that they don’t live up to his lofty contract.

Heading into Wednesday night’s series finale against the Chicago White Sox, McCann has managed a .232/.337/.441 (107 wRC+). Give the man some credit for consistency! He keeps rattling off those .232 batting averages, but that doesn’t endear himself to fans who expect a return to his halcyon batting average days in Atlanta. That doesn’t tell the full story. In fact, a closer look at the numbers indicate that McCann is mostly matching or exceeding his career norms.

Let’s start with power, since that is one of McCann’s trademarks. So far this season McCann has posted a .209 ISO. While that’s not the most precise barometer of power output, it’s higher than his career average of .196. He is hitting the ball with more authority, which is very good. The Yankees expected a middle-of-the-order power threat, and he has been just that this season. The power output is also visible in his propensity to hit the long ball. His 13 home runs this season puts him on pace to match last season’s 26 which was his career high.

McCann’s walk rate is currently at 12.2%, the highest since he signed with the Yankees. It’s also above his career average of 9.3%. That’s a good sign. He’s taking the free pass and getting on base at a fairly high clip. One of McCann’s trademarks was the ability to get on base, and he’s doing the job well. It might not be sexy, but taking walks is a very useful part of the game.

The spike in walk rate can be explained with seemingly improved plate discipline. He is swinging at only 40.4% of all pitches, which is the lowest of his career to date. It’s well below his career average of 44.9%. The drop in overall swing percentage can be attributed to a decline in swinging at pitches outside of the strike zone. He has 25.9% swing rate at pitches out of the zone, the lowest of his stint in Pinstripes, and also below his career average of 28.1%. McCann is seeing the ball well and as a result he is rewarding the Yankees with the highest on-base percentage since he signed his free agent contract.

That said, McCann’s strikeout rate of 20.0% is well above his career average of 15.0%. He is swinging at fewer pitches, especially those outside of the zone, so what explains the increase in strikeouts? It might actually be as straightforward as his health. McCann has been pretty banged up this season. He missed time in April after fouling a ball off of his toe, and then again in early June with a hyperextended elbow. Even if he saw the ball well, which the data indicates, he just might have been physically capable of avoiding those strikeouts. If his strikeout rate falls during the second half, it stands to reason that they were injury induced.

Improved health could also explain his recent hot streak with the bat. Looking at the last 15 games, McCann has put up a .286/.397/.612 slash line with five home runs and eight walks. Most recently, he’s hitting .318/.483/.727 with three home runs and six walks in the last seven games. The further removed he is from injuries, the better his bat plays. It’s so simple but so significant. A healthy McCann in the lineup makes the Yankees offensive better and deeper.

The days of McCann being a .250s - .260s hitter, like he was in Atlanta, are over, but that doesn’t mean that his contract is bad. In fact, in almost all other areas McCann is matching or exceeding his career averages. He has essentially been the player the Yankees expected, not a disappointment. Given the current state of American League catchers, McCann stands out as one of the better options.

Data courtesy of Fangraphs and Major League Baseball