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Catcher Profile: Is Brian McCann in a steep physical decline?

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Brian McCann's quality of contact plunged in 2014

Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

With the move to Yankee Stadium last year, both professional scouts and projection systems predicted Brian McCann would see a strong rise in production. It makes sense; a pull heavy LHB moving to the short porch in Yankee Stadium should see a rise in production, particularly in home runs. But that isn't what happened. In fact, McCann had the worst (healthy) year of his career, posting a .232/.286/.406 line with a 92 wRC+ and a worse AB/HR ratio than he had the previous year with the Braves.

McCann had a similarly poor year in 2012, but he played that year through a bad shoulder injury that required offseason surgery. Last year, McCann had mild foot and finger injuries, but there were no reports that these were the type of injuries that would have caused a dramatic drop in production.

There is a chance Brian McCann is already in a steep physical decline just one year after signing his 5 year, $85 million dollar deal with the Yankees. For McCann, the most alarming trend is that his quality of contact has dropped off significantly.

Overview

Here’s a quick breakdown of McCann’s 2014 production in comparison with the rest of his career.

Year(s)

wRC+

AVG

OBP

SLG

OPS

2005-13

117

.277

.350

.473

.823

2014

92

.232

.286

.406

.692

And here are the two most recent full season samples:

Year

wRC+

AVG

OBP

SLG

OPS

HR

PA

2013

121

.256

.336

.461

.796

20

402

2014

92

.232

.286

.406

.692

23

538

A LHB moving from the run scoring environment of the NL East to the run scoring environment of the AL East should expect to see a rise in production, yet McCann's numbers surprisingly dropped across the board. Why did this happen?

Declining walk rate

McCann's on base percentage dropped last year to a putrid .286, which was ninth worst in baseball amongst qualified hitters. It was over a 50 point drop from 2013. McCann's walk rate fell below 6% last season, the lowest mark of his career.

Year(s)

Walk rate

2014

5.9%

2013

9.7%

Career prior to 2014

9.5%

Extreme infield shifts

There’s a thought that McCann has been hurt by moving to the shift heavy division of the AL East. Hitting into the shift will decrease the chances of a ball finding a hole, so it's logical that more shifting has affected McCann to some degree. John Dewan of Bill James Online wrote,

Based on research that we have done at BIS, we know that the shift lowers the batting average on grounders and short liners (the ball in play types most affected by the shift) by about 30 points. So far this season, the batting average on grounders and short liners on shifted plays has been .230, and on non-shifted plays it has been .265. That's a significant difference.

McCann says he's been facing shifts since 2010, but he's facing more extreme and more plentiful shifts now. John Harper of the NY Daily News wrote,

On the other hand, baseball’s new emphasis on defensive shifts could explain some of what would otherwise be called bad luck. McCann says teams have shifted on him, to some extent, since 2010, but he admits they are more extreme and plentiful now.

So is this the new normal?

"I haven’t really delved into the numbers," he said, "but I know when you hit a bullet up the middle and the shortstop is standing there…"

McCann stopped himself, not wanting to acknowledge the obvious.

"It’s frustrating," I said, finishing his thought.

"Well, yeah," he said finally.

The shifts amount to something of a conundrum for McCann. He’ll go to the opposite field if pitched that way but doesn’t want the shift to dictate his approach.

"You change to beat the shift," he said, "and then you get into bad habits."

Harper added later in the season,

McCann has downplayed the impact of the shift on him but on Wednesday night he admitted, "With the shift, sometimes it feels like there are 12 guys out there."

There’s no doubt the shift has frustrated the heck out of him, and teams aren’t going to stop using it just because McCann foiled the shift on Tuesday night by pushing a bunt down the third base line for a single.

Although more shifting explains some drop in production, it's not the most alarming trend.

McCann's quality of contact nosedived in 2014

The most concerning trend is that McCann had a massive drop in quality of contact in 2014. His hard hit rate fell from 20.6% in 2013 to 15.4% in 2014.

Year

Hard hit rate

MLB avg hard hit rate

2014

15.4%

17.2%

2013

20.6%

17.2%

2012

22.6%

20.8%

2011

29.4%

20.8%

2010

27.1%

20.8%

2009

27.5%

23.4%

2008

27.7%

23.4%

2007

29.0%

23.4%

The chart above is scary. McCann had consistently been above the MLB average in hard hit rate every year the stat has been tracked until last year. In 2010 and 2011, he was at the top of the league. Even in his injury plagued 2012 season, where McCann put together the worst wRC+ of his career, McCann’s hard hit rate was better than the league average.

In addition to the drop in his hard hit %, McCann saw a steep drop in his average true distance on his home runs. It fell from 398.2 feet in 2013 to 370.2 feet in 2014, a 28 foot drop. League average avg. true distance in 2014 was 392.2, so McCann was well below average. In fact, according to hit tracker, McCann had the lowest avg. true distance on his home runs in baseball amongst hitters with 18 or more home runs in 2014.

McCann just isn’t generating the same force behind his contact that he used to.

Is McCann in a physical decline?

This past summer, two scouts noted that McCann had to start putting more effort into generating power in 2014, which may signal physical decline. John Harper of the NY Daily News wrote,

This season he’s healthy, but two AL scouts say it looks as if McCann, at age 30, has to work at generating power.

"It doesn’t look easy for him," one scout said. "It’s possible all the years of catching, and the shoulder injury, have taken a toll. Maybe we all overestimated what his impact would be in New York."

Don't buy into McCann's September stats or transition year narratives

I have seen some cite hope in 2015 for McCann based on his September statistics. McCann hit 8 HR in 89 PA and had a 121 wRC+ in September, a dramatic difference from the rest of the season, where McCann hit 15 HR in 449 PA and had an 86 wRC+.

Don’t get sucked into this. Baseball is random. Unless there is a tangible, significant change in process at the plate, it’s a bad idea to analyze any small sample like that when it differs dramatically from the rest of the season. September is an even worse month to do that because of September call ups, where a player is theoretically more likely to face a Triple A quality pitcher than any other month of the season.

It’s important in fantasy baseball to not make too much out of small samples.

I also wouldn't buy into the "transition year in New York" narratives. This is often a simple way to attempt to explain why a newly signed player is not performing up to expectations in New York, but there's no way to quantify it. I don't think McCann's hard hit % dropped so significantly because of media pressure or adjusting to a new city. It's more likely that he's in a physical decline.

Should you draft McCann in 2015?

Your league rules will determine how to value McCann in 2015. Despite the concerns of a physical decline, I expect McCann to provide good HR, RBI and R totals for a catcher, but I expect him to drain the other offensive categories.

For this reason, I would be wary of drafting McCann in any league that adds in OPS based on the data I showed you above. For example, I play in a league that adds OPS to AVG, R, HR, RBI and SB for a total of six offensive categories. Drafting McCann in a league like mine would be worse than drafting him in a standard league because you risk him draining both your average and OPS. In a standard league, he only drains your batting average.

McCann will still have value in standard leagues for the reasons stated above.  He’ll probably hit around 20 HR again with the short porch in Yankee Stadium, and the AL East is one of the best run scoring divisions in the game which bodes well for his RBI and R chances. The Yankees have invested a lot in him and he's a good defensive catcher, so he is in no danger of losing playing time. He has the DH slot available to help get extra cracks at more RBIs and Rs, too.

A fantasy catcher who hits 20 HR with good RBI and R totals has value, but I would look elsewhere. He’ll likely be overvalued based on his name, his contract and the home stadium he hits in, and a lot of fantasy owners will be betting on him bouncing back in 2015. You probably won’t be able to get him at the draft slot he should be valued at.

One key to winning your fantasy league is to draft players who will outperform their draft slots. I don't think McCann will fit this description in 2015.

. . .

Talk baseball/fantasy with Tim on twitter at @TimFinn521