When the Yankees signed Brian McCann after the 2013 season, they were signing a proven All-Star catcher in the prime of his career. The hope was that he'd bring stability to a position that just saw Chris Stewart play 109 games. Through nine seasons in Atlanta, he was a .277 hitter, run producer, and a lock for 20-25 home runs a season.
After the first two years of his contract, McCann couldn't be viewed as a bust, but he certainly could have been better. He was solid behind the plate, as FanGraphs ranked him as the 11th best defensive catcher in 2014, and the 6th best in 2015. I also think that Yankee fans would agree he passes the eye test in terms of his catching ability, handling the staff, and calling a ballgame.
The struggles for McCann were at the plate. Some of his pertinent offensive statistics from the past two seasons are as follows:
Those numbers are not bad by any stretch of the imagination, and they're all the better when compared to Chris Stewart, but the feeling among the Yankee community seems to be that he should be even better. The power is there (expected since he's a lefty playing half his games in the Bronx), but he was striking out more, and his average was way down. He also walked less frequently, significantly so in 2014, and was about at his average career rate in 2015. Last year, he really struggled in the second half, slashing just .200/.306/.395.
Early on in 2016, though, McCann has been nearly unstoppable at the plate. Heading into Wednesday's game (which he didn't start due to a minor toe injury), his numbers are astounding.
Now the key here is obviously sample size. It's only been 22 plate appearances, and I'll go out on a limb and say he won't hit .500 with a 322 wRC+ for the entire season, although that would be awesome. Still, though, it has been a really impressive 22 plate appearances, and it's following a spring training in which he hit .333, so it's worthy of examining his hot start a bit further.
I wrote last week about how the shift has really hurt Yankee hitters, and McCann has been no exception the past few seasons. When facing the shift, his average is 39 points lower and he's overall a much less productive hitter. As I discussed in that article, Mark Teixeira greatly improved against the shift last season not by changing his approach and going the other way, but by being even better in his normal approach, and being more selective at the plate so he can hit for more power.
Early on this season, it's looking like McCann is taking a similar approach. I again want to emphasize what a small sample size this is, just 22 plate appearances, so to expand the sample a bit, we can look at how he's performed against the almost 100 total pitches he's faced. The data shows that he's been incredibly selective at the plate.
According to PITCHf/x data, he's swinging at just 12.5% of pitches outside the strike zone; his career rate is 29.2%. His overall Swing% is down, 33% as opposed to his career mark of 44%. Teixeira and McCann are both selective hitters, but by being even more selective at the plate, they can focus on swinging at pitches they can hit hard and far, instead of maybe rolling over pitches and hitting them into the shift.
Hitting the ball hard and far is exactly what McCann has been doing. He's hitting less ground balls and way more line drives. His GB% this season is 28.6%, compared to his 36.9% career mark. His LD% is 35.7%, as opposed to his 20% career rate. This is causing him to hit the ball harder much more often. He's making hard contact 50% of the time, which us up from his career Hard% rate of 34.3.
There's obviously a chance this is just a hot streak for McCann, and we'll see him revert back to his typical ways shortly. However, it does seem like McCann may be taking a similar approach to Teixeira when it comes to combatting the shift and still being productive. If McCann continues to swing at less balls outside the zone and instead focus on pitches he can drive, we can't expect him to hit .500 all year obviously, but he should be a lot better at the plate this season than he was the past two.
When McCann went cold last season, so did the Yankee offense. It also coincided with Alex Rodriguez, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Brett Gardner slowing down, as well as Teixeira getting hurt. Even so, the Yankees offense is more productive when McCann is hitting well, especially since he's in the middle of the order and usually has runners on base when he's up. He's been a huge part of their early success this season.
Also, with the light-hitting Austin Romine and the promising, but still unpolished Gary Sanchez behind him, it's not like the Yankees have any solid backup options if McCann's not hitting.
If McCann continues to be more selective at the plate and hit the ball hard, the Yankees offense is going to be a force all year.
Statistics provided by FanGraphs and Brooks Baseball