Brian McCann became an everyday player at the age of 22 in 2006, and since then has caught 1,223 Major League baseball games according to Baseball Reference. Over that time span only Yadier Molina (1,271 games caught) and Russell Martin (1,238) have appeared behind the plate more often.
McCann will play the 2016 season as a 32-year-old, and will do so coming off a season in which he participated in 135 games, and 126 as the Yankees catcher. He did all this while slugging 26 home runs, driving in 94, accumulating an OPS of .756, a WAR of 2.8, and earning the American League's Silver Slugger for catchers.
McCann was an indispensable cog in the 2015 Yankees machine, and will play an equally critical role in the 2016 campaign. While some of McCann's value is tied to his ability to catch nearly every day, he did show signs that all of those innings behind the plate are beginning to catch up with him.
First, McCann's first-half OPS (.802) was more than 100 points higher than his second-half OPS (.701). This decline in performance is further supported by McCann's hitting peripherals.
According to Fangraphs, McCann's line-drive rate (18.6%) was higher in the first-half of the season than in the second (14.4%), slightly more of his fly-balls found the seats (15.4% in the first-half and 14.3% in the second-half), and he made more regularly solid contact (87.9% medium or hard contact for balls in play in the first-half versus 81.1% in the second-half).
Beyond his drop off as a hitter, there is also some indication that McCann's skills as a receiver began to suffer in 2015. An intriguing recent analysis in Baseball Prospectus Bronx found that McCann's pitch framing metrics took a considerable drop from 2014 to 2015.
In addition, he allowed 55 wild pitches, the most in MLB in 2015, and 11 more than he had allowed in any season prior. While McCann's caught stealing rate (36%) remained solid, these other indicators suggest that his defensive tools are perhaps on the decline at this stage in his career, particularly given another season in 2015 where he caught 1,000+ innings.
The Yankees will enter spring training with Austin Romine and Gary Sanchez as their depth behind McCann. Romine has more MLB experience, having played in just 77 games since he made his debut at the age of 22 in 2011. Sanchez, despite being on Yankees' fans radar as a prospect since he was a teenager, has not caught in a big league game to date. Although Brian Cashman has indicated that he would like to "release the Kraken" in the form of Sanchez at some point during the 2016 season, Joe Girardi has routinely demonstrated a preference for defense-first catchers throughout his tenure as manager of the Yankees.
While Sanchez reportedly demonstrated improvement in his receiving skills in 2015, will those strides forward be enough for Girardi to regularly give Sanchez innings behind the plate in meaningful games? In the case of Romine, should he win the backup job out of spring training, will Girardi be willing to shorten the lineup one to two times per week with a backup catcher who thus far into his career has shown little ability as a hitter at the Major League level?
These questions loom large for the Yankees because there are indications that McCann requires regular time off to maximize his effectiveness as both a hitter and a catcher at this stage in his career. To get the most out of McCann in 2016, the Yankees will need to give regular playing to his backup, whether Romine or Sanchez wins the job out of Spring Training.
On the surface Sanchez would appear to have the upper hand because a) he offers a dangerous platoon option for the Yankees when they face left-handed pitching and b) he could be in line for regular playing time and the accrual of valuable Major League experience with the need to regularly rest McCann. However, Romine is out of options, and the Yankees risk losing him if he does not make the team out of Spring Training.
Still, to get the most out of McCann in 2016 and beyond, the Yankees need to partner him with a backup that they can confidently slide into the lineup and behind the dish on a regular basis. Here, in mid-January, Sanchez would appear to offer that promise, at least for the danger his bat poses to left-handed pitching. But regardless of whether Sanchez or Romine gets the call when the season begins in April, the Yankees' backup catcher will play a vital role in helping to insure that McCann remains fresh in August, September, and hopefully October as he approaches 1,400 games played behind the plate for his Major League career.