There have been plenty of words written about the Yankees' 2013-14 off-season investments, and most of them haven't been particularly kind. Jacoby Ellsbury's seven-year, $153 million contract is an eyesore, Carlos Beltran was fairly miserable for most of the first half of his three-year deal, and while he has managed to avoid Tommy John surgery, it is tough to say whether or not Masahiro Tanaka is deserving of his seven-year, $155 million contract. I don't begrudge the Yankees for the latter two investments, but the decision to sign Brian McCann is one that I will steadfastly defend above all of them.
Before McCann came along, the Yankees' catching situation had not felt stable since arguably 2007. The Yankees won a World Series title in 2009 with a terrific season from Jorge Posada, but it was already becoming quite clear that his days behind the dish were coming to a close with even worse defense than normal. Russell Martin was a decent two-year fill-in after that, but it never seemed like he was a long-term solution. Although the pitch-framing stats were kind to him, he fell into excruciating slumps all too often. Then came an absolute nightmare of a season behind the plate that probably made Yogi Berra cry. Francisco Cervelli's hot start came to a crashing halt with a broken hand on a freak play, and the combination of slow recovery and a PED suspension meant that 2013 was the Chris Stewart Experience.
So even though the Yankees knew Cervelli had talent and both John Ryan Murphy and Gary Sanchez were getting close, it made perfect sense for them to invest in McCann. He was a seven-time All-Star catcher already at age 30 with a perfect lefty power swing for Yankee Stadium. Hindsight might say that they should have just given Cervelli another chance given his later success in Pittsburgh, but he had been a health risk for both regular injuries and concussions for a few years at that point. The media and fans would have ripped them if they gambled on Cervelli staying healthy for a full season again, risking more backup catcher-filled seasons. Signing McCann to a five-year, $85 million deal was a very classically "Yankee" choice to make, and it has been a damn good one.
While McCann hit 23 homers in his first season in 2014, an uncharacteristic drop in walk rate from 9.5% in his career before then to 5.9% meant that his .232/.286/.406 line only translated to a 93 wRC+. It was certainly still a fine campaign given his defensive prowess, but not exactly what Brian Cashman and Joe Girardi hoped he would produce. Thankfully, the McCann of 2015 was right on target. His walk rate returned to normal, he hit a career-high 26 longballs and he ended the year with a 105 wRC+, earning a Silver Slugger nod. He maintained a high caught stealing rate and although his framing stats took a dip (perhaps simply due to umpire correction), he still did more than his share of blocking.
Now in 2016, McCann is only making that contract look even better. He's off to a .258/.357/.444 start with six homers and a 122 wRC+ in 36 games. His CS% might be down, but the season is still young and his framing numbers have gone back to normal according to Baseball Prospectus. The Yankees' pitchers really enjoy working with him too, a simple yet underrated aspect of catching. The "Fun Police" persona thankfully appears to be a thing of the past, as McCann has not caused any benches-clearing incidents since leaving the Braves. PECOTA projections have him hitting 18 more dingers this year to match his 2015 total, and he looks well on his way to earning his first All-Star nod in pinstripes:
Data courtesy of FanGraphs, sorted by AL catchers with min. 80 PA on May 24th.
Salvador Perez seems likely to receive the starting nod in the All-Star Game simply due to his consistency and, more importantly, the droves of Royals votes that flooded the ballots last year. As long as McCann maintains his quality of play though, he seems like a very comfortable pick* to add to the bench via player vote or AL skipper Ned Yost.
*Aside 1: AL catchers sure aren't impressive this year. Aside 2: Holy hell, Russ.
Coincidentally, the All-Star Break will be just about the halfway point of McCann's contract, though there is a vesting option for 2019 based off 2017 and 2018 results. Anyone who thinks that he has not lived up to the contract is paying too much attention to batting average. With player salaries still rising, McCann is giving the Yankees what they paid for--a healthy, reliable catcher who excels both at the plate and behind it. He had an All-Star caliber campaign in 2015, and he is in good position to actually make the team this time around. Although McCann's performance sometimes sneaks in under the radar since this was the expected result, that doesn't mean praise is unnecessary.
Fans can quibble about the 2013-14 off-season all day long, but at least the Yankees can take solace in the fact that signing McCann was the right decision. Dale.
(h/t: Kunj Shah)