After batting just .162 with zero extra-base hits and two RBI headed through his first 10 games, Brian McCann’s bat finally came alive over the weekend.
In Saturday afternoon's contest against the Boston Red Sox, the 30-year-old hit his first two home runs in a Yankees uniform and plated three of his team’s seven runs in a 7-4 win. McCann’s long-ball tear didn’t carry over to Sunday’s game, but he still turned in another strong performance at the plate, going 1-for-3 with a double and walk.
McCann’s weekend outburst raised his triple-slash line from .162/.184/.162 to .205/.239/.364, and he’s in a good position to build on his success this week in the Yankees' upcoming two-game series against the Chicago Cubs.
However, it’s still too early to declare that McCann has overcome his early-season slump.
In looking at McCann’s batting-average zone profile from 2013, courtesy of Brooks Baseball, the first thing that stands out is his ability to consistently drive pitches located in the lower portion of the strike zone:
The same can’t be said about McCann’s success with pitches in the middle and at the top of the zone, though; the left-handed hitter batted .105 last year against pitches in those specific locations.
This season, however, McCann’s only success—including his pair of home runs on Saturday—has come against pitches at the top of the zone:
Considering McCann’s track record as a notorious low-ball hitter, his success against high pitches this year likely has more to do with luck than any adjustment he’s made at the plate. Plus, when he’s at his best and feeling good at the plate, McCann is more inclined to take an offering at the top of the zone rather than swing out of his shoes.
Surprisingly, McCann has struggled against fastballs in the early going this season, posting a -1.4 wFB through his first 46 plate appearances (which means he’s produced -1.4 runs against the pitch compared to the league average), according to FanGraphs. I say surprisingly because McCann has feasted on fastballs during his career, with a 60.1 wFB, .284 batting average and .485 slugging percentage in 10 seasons.
As one can see, the hits haven’t fallen for McCann this year when he’s put fastballs in play, and his aggressive approach against the pitch has only highlighted his overall struggles at the plate. Specifically, of the 108 fastballs McCann has seen this season (including sinkers and cutters), the left-handed hitter has swung at 59 (or 54.6 percent) of them.
Lastly, McCann’s career batting average on balls in play (BABIP) against fastballs sits at .286, which means it’s highly unlikely that the 30-year-old backstop will continue to bat .179 against the pitch this season, as he’s done through the first 12 games.
McCann hit 176 home runs in nine seasons with the Braves, so it was only human to dream about the type of power numbers he might put up at Yankee Stadium given its short porch in right field. That could still happen; however, McCann hasn’t been able to cut it loose at the plate through the first two weeks of the season. Instead he’s been dealing with one of the consequences of being a pull hitter in the AL East: the infield shift.
The American League East is leading the way. In 2013, the Boston Red Sox shifted 478 times, more than the entire National League East combined. If those figures hold, McCann will face roughly four times as many shifts this season as he has in the past.
Unfortunately for McCann, who so often hits balls toward the right side of the field, few players in baseball are more susceptible to the shift. Across baseball, hitters pull about 27% of their hits. McCann, by contrast, has pulled 39% of his hits to right field in his decade-long career. When he was younger, those balls fell in for hits. In the age of shifting, with extra infielders crowding the area between first and second base, it's not quite so easy.
Having already faced an endless number of shifts this season, McCann also acknowledged that the only way to counter it is by using the entire field (via the Wall Street Journal):
"What you have to do is you have to do use the whole field," McCann said. "And if you're feeling good, where you can manipulate the ball, and you're not just using one side of the field, it's going to be harder to put on the shift. You've got to get your swing to where you can go foul line to foul line, and they can't take away one part of the field."
McCann’s overall zone profile this year paints a clear picture about how pitchers are attacking him: away.
Basically, if McCann wants to be successful this season—not just in the power department—he’ll have no choice but to use the entire field, at least to an extent. However, that’s obviously easier said than done for a pull-oriented, left-handed power hitter like McCann. Right now, he seems to be stuck between two distinct approaches: looking to beat the shift and drive outer-half pitches the other way, and waiting patiently to turn on something in his wheelhouse.
While McCann’s career trends suggest that he’ll overcome his early-season struggles against fastballs and pitches at the bottom of the strike zone, adapting a line-to-line approach won’t come as naturally, if at all.
McCann has put up All-Star-caliber numbers for most of his career, and there are more reasons than not to believe that this season won’t be any different. His weekend outburst at the plate was encouraging, but it’s too soon to say that the 30-year-old’s early-season slump is over. So, be patient. It might take time for McCann to determine the type of hitter he needs to be in his new environment.