How good is Brian McCann behind the plate? McCann has a reputation as a solid defender who adds significant value because of his offense, as reflected by his American League Silver Slugger Award for 2015. This reputation, however, masks variation in his skills as a catcher. In some areas he excels, while in others he is merely average or even slightly below average.
This post will examine McCann's catching through three different lenses: his ability to throw out runners, to block pitches, and to frame pitches. I am omitting his game-calling skills and his leadership behind the plate, two areas where McCann also benefits from a strong reputation, but I plan to address that in a separate post. While McCann performs well in terms of his ability to throw out runners and block pitches, his pitch framing leaves room for improvement.
Throwing out runners
McCann threw out 36% of would-be base stealers in 2015, a mark that was bested by only five regular catchers last season (Russell Martin and Wilson Ramos tied with an MLB best 44%). Throwing out runners is a skill that McCann has improved upon dramatically since he joined the Yankees in 2014, when he threw out 37% of runners attempting to steal. Prior to 2014, McCann never had a caught stealing rate of greater than 30%, a mark he reached only once in 2010 for the Atlanta Braves.
McCann attributes this improvement to his work with former Yankees' bullpen coach Gary Tuck, who left the Yankees at the end of last season. Tony Pena, Yankees' first base coach, resumes his role as the team's catching instructor for 2016, which is a position he previously held from 2006 to 2013. It will be interesting to track McCann's catching throughout the season in light of the change in coaches, both in terms of his throwing, as well as in terms of other aspects of his performance behind the plate.
At times it might feel as though McCann struggles to keep pitches in front of him. Amongst MLB regulars in 2015, McCann had the third most pitches not handled, defined as the sum of wild pitches and passed balls. Only former Yankees Martin (70) and Francisco Cervelli (61) had more pitches not handled than McCann (56).
Interestingly, from a statistical perspective, there appears to be only a very weak relationship between pitch blocking and throwing out runners. The scatterplot below reflects the performance of the 25 catchers who caught the most innings in MLB in these two areas, using data from Baseball Reference. Within the sample, the two measures correlate at a level of just 0.13, reflecting a relatively weak relationship. There are some catchers, like McCann and Martin, who have a high number of pitches not handled but also a high caught stealing rate. Others, like Ramos, have a high caught stealing rate and a low number of mishandled pitches, while Cervelli and Tyler Flowers could benefit from improvement in both areas.
A closer look though reveals that there is more to the story when it comes to McCann's pitch blocking abilities. With McCann behind the plate, Yankees' pitchers threw 55 wild pitches in 2015, which equates to the highest number of wild pitches received in the Majors. However, McCann was credited with just one passed ball in 2015, the fewest amongst MLB regulars. This discrepancy between McCann's wild pitches and passed balls is hard to believe at first glance, and it suggests that McCann does an exceptional job blocking pitches for a pitching staff that is difficult to handle.
Given the subjectivity associated with passed ball versus wild pitch scoring, analysts at Baseball Prospectus have recently developed a new metric called Errant Pitches Above Average (EPAA), which aims to measure the effect of a player on passed balls and wild pitches. The procedure for calculating EPAA is pretty sophisticated, but for 2015 it indicated that McCann lead the league in blocked runs with +0.6 (Flowers was worst in MLB with -0.8 blocked runs).
Taken together both the more traditional Baseball Reference measures, and the more analytically advanced Baseball Prospectus approach, suggest that the Yankees' pitching staff is not an easy one to catch, and that McCann is excellent at blocking pitches and thereby saving the Yankees runs.
The weakness in McCann's game as a catcher is his pitch framing. According to Baseball Prospectus, McCann yielded 3.9 runs in 2015 due to his pitch framing. As a point of comparison, Yasmani Grandal saved a league-high 25.6 runs with his framing last season, while Cervelli finished second in the league with 19 runs saved.
The relative wildness of the Yankees' pitching staff could contribute to making McCann look worse than he is in this area. For example, it can't be easy to frame Dellin Betances. It's also possible that as Jeff Sullivan argued on FanGraphs, McCann's previous reputation as a strong pitch-framer has led to umpires correcting potential bias on their strike calls with him behind the plate. Still, McCann has much room to improve in this aspect of his game, which undoubtedly will be a focus of his work with Pena throughout the season.
There is little depth in catching at the Major League level, and in McCann the Yankees clearly have one of the best catchers, both offensively and defensively. However, pitch framing is considered an increasingly vital skill for catchers, and it is one that McCann should look to improve on. Doing so will help him to round out an already strong set of skills behind the plate, and save the Yankees crucial runs in what will likely be a hard fought race for a playoff spot.