Why Brian McCann and the New York Yankees Are the Perfect Fit

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Why Brian McCann and the New York Yankees Are the Perfect Fit
USA Today

New York Yankees catchers made for a living, breathing definition of the term "pushover" in 2013. Combined, they managed just a .289 on-base percentage and 26 extra-base hits.

Thanks to the club's latest signing, however, the position can now be considered upgraded.

As Evan Grant of The Dallas Morning News was first to report, the Yankees have agreed to terms with the top catcher on the free-agent market: 29-year-old slugger Brian McCann. Ken Rosenthal of FoxSports.com has the terms of the now-former Atlanta Brave's deal:

That would be an average of $17 million per year, which Rosenthal subsequently noted is the highest average annual value ever given to a free-agent catcher. Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com says the deal also includes a full no-trade clause.

This is the first free-agent contract worth over $80 million handed out by the Yankees since that wild spending spree they went on prior to the 2009 season. After they didn't even want to match the Pittsburgh Pirates' offer of two years and $17 million for Russell Martin last winter. This deal with McCann does have a sort of "Back in the game!" feel to it.

And in the end, it should prove to be money well spent.

Now, before we get into the good stuff, it should be acknowledged that there are red flags growing out of McCann's head (not literally...to my knowledge). Chief among them are that he has a lot of miles on his body and that his bat isn't foolproof.

McCann is only through his age-29 season, but he's already started over 1,000 games at catcher. That's an awful lot of time in the crouch, and it's taken its toll. Three of his McCann's four trips to the disabled list have happened since 2009, and he battled shoulder woes in 2012 before going in for surgery. His recovery cost him the beginning of the 2013 season.

It's because of the shoulder trouble that the 87 OPS+ McCann posted in 2012 can be forgiven. But while he did turn around to the tune of a 115 OPS+ in 2013, his OPS dropped from .910 in the first half to .680 in the second half. With no injury to blame these struggles on, maybe he was just worn out.

But here's where we start tiptoeing into the bright side. 

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

Simply by virtue of being an American League team, the Yankees should be able to keep McCann fresher than the Braves were able to. All it will take is some semi-regular duty at designated hitter.

McCann's hardly a defensive liability behind the plate, mind you. He's not among the greats at controlling the running game, but he works well with pitchers and is one of the better framers out there. He's not one of these guys who's a hitter first and a catcher second (a la what Mike Napoli used to be).

However, getting the most out of McCann's contract undoubtedly means getting the most out of his bat. Getting him out of the crouch as often as possible is the best way for the Yankees to do that.

Any American League team could have done the same, of course, but only the Yankees could give McCann the other thing that should help them get the most out of his bat: Yankee Stadium.

Debby Wong-USA TODAY Sports

We all know what the deal is with Yankee Stadium's right field porch. Second basemen have to be careful not to bump into it when they turn around for a leisurely stroll, and all it takes for a left-handed batter to hit the ball over the fence is a flick of the wrists.

Per Baseball-Reference.com, the 598 home runs Yankee Stadium has yielded to lefty hitters since its opening in 2009 is the most in MLB. The only ballpark even remotely close is Orioles Park at Camden Yards, which has yielded 500 home runs to lefty batters since 2009.

The lefty-swinging McCann ought to like the idea that this is about to be his new home ballpark. He already holds the distinction of being one of the 10 best power-hitting catchers through the age of 29 in MLB history, and he owes that to his pull power.

According to Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs, McCann's career power splits look like this:

Brian McCann ISO by Direction
Stat To Left To Center To Right
ISO .093 .176 .396
HR/FB 1.7 5.7 33.8

Baseball-Reference.com

Few lefty batters have hit for as much pull power as McCann since he came into the league in 2005. From then until now, his .396 ISO on balls to right field ranks 15th among all lefty batters who have hit at least 700 balls in that direction.

And lest the thought cross anyone's mind, McCann's not losing his touch. His .514 ISO on balls to right field in 2013 ranked fourth-best among lefty hitters. Not even Chris Davis was his equal at pulling the ball for power.

McCann is always good for 20 home runs a year. He's hit that number six years in a row, and seven out of eight overall. Yet he's never tended to go that far over 20 home runs, topping out at a 24 home runs on two occasions.

But now that he's going to be a Yankee, it's not crazy to think that McCann will be a regular bet for 25 or even 30 home runs. His new home ballpark is bound to give him a few extra dingers, and his power will have an easier time lasting a full season if the Yankees make sure he gets his days at DH.

That signing with the Yankees ought to increase McCann's annual power output makes $17 million per year sound like a more-than-fair deal. That's not a ridiculous amount of money in this day and age, especially not for a power-hitting catcher. They're as rare a breed as they've ever been.

There's another thing about $17 million per year, though. In addition to a more-than-fair rate for a catcher with great power, that's also an acceptable rate for a first baseman with relatively not-great power.

And we bring that up, of course, because that's bound to be what McCann is a few years down the line.

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The end of Mark Teixeira's eight-year contract is nigh. He's only signed through the 2016 season, giving him three more seasons in pinstripes before he goes poof.

We can envision the following scenario for McCann: He'll spend his age 30-32 seasons catching and DH'ing, and then he'll pull a Joe Mauer and transition over to first base for at least the last two guaranteed years of his contract after Teixeira is gone.

Based on his track record, McCann doesn't profile as anything more than an average first baseman. He owns a 117 career OPS+. As Dan Szymborski pointed out in an ESPN Insider piece (subscription required) back in October, all of MLB's first basemen combined for a 116 OPS+ in 2013. According to FanGraphs, 10 qualified first basemen did better than McCann's .205 ISO. It is indeed the position for a power hitter.

But since we're taking it for granted that playing regularly at Yankee Stadium will serve to increase McCann's power, the Yankees could well have more than just an average offensive first baseman on their hands if and when they have McCann take Teixeira's place after the 2016 season. And by then, $17 million per year may actually be under the going rate for a first baseman who can hit a little bit.

There's always risk with these big-money long-term deals. Due in no small part to their own numbskullery, the Yankees know this as well as anyone. 

But here's me going out on a limb to say the Yankees aren't going to regret this one. McCann's now in a league that can take care of his battle-hardened body, in a ballpark that's a perfect fit for his power stroke, and on a team that should have him out of the crouch by the time his deal is up.

In short, this is a rare time when celebrating in McCann's vicinity should be OK.

 

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.

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