The August waiver period can be an interesting time, because it gives you a little bit of insight into how teams around the bigs value certain players. For example, it came as absolutely no surprise that the overpriced and under-performing Carl Crawford and Andre Ethier made it through waivers, or that Cole Hamels, Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg did not. It came as a bit of a surprise that Jon Niese did get through, which maybe tells you something about how other teams view his shoulder and that he’s perhaps not as valuable as Mets fans seemed to think; if the worst-case scenario is that the Mets stick you with the $16 million he has left after this year and still nobody was interested, that’s not a great sign.
For guys like Crawford, Ethier and others, their contracts were signed years ago, and obviously much has changed since then, so it’s most interesting to see how the industry reacts to players who were popular free agents just last winter, a mere eight months or so ago. While obviously not every roster move or claim is public, we know of at least one: Curtis Granderson, who signed for four years and $60 million with the Mets. Even with the desperate need for offense around the majors, Granderson, on pace for only a two-win season despite a rebound from a slow start, went unclaimed. At 33, two years off his last good season and three years away from his last great one, the risk wasn’t worth it.
This isn’t about Granderson, though; it’s about one of the other major New York signings from last winter who is off to an atrocious start in his new home and has a considerable amount of money still coming: Brian McCann, who returned from a stay on the concussion list yesterday. We don’t know if McCann has been put on waivers or if anyone would put in a claim — you imagine a rich team with catching issues like the Dodgers would at least think about it, though not necessarily do it — but isn’t it fascinating to think that if someone did claim him, the Yankees might be best off just letting him go?
I don’t even mean a trade, because McCann has a full no-trade clause, along with $68 million coming his way between 2015-18, $17 million each year. (Plus a potential 2019 $15 million option that becomes a player option if certain playing time incentives are hit.) I mean just a straight “you take him, we don’t want him any longer.” It’s not likely to happen for a variety of reasons, but the main reason is that it would require a team to actually put in a claim on him, and who can really see that happening? Almost no one. The all but certain outcome of the Yankees putting him on waivers would be 29 other teams saying, “thanks, but no thanks.”
To illustrate the depths of McCann’s struggles a bit, here he is, compared to another American League catcher:
With the exception of the huge difference in strikeouts, these two are essentially the same player in 2014. The other catcher? Chicago’s Tyler Flowers, hardly anyone’s idea of a star. You’ll note, also, that of the 28 catchers with at least 250 plate appearances, these two rank 25th and 26th in wRC+. One of the two behind them, A.J. Pierzynski, was already DFA’d this year.
It’s not good company to be in, but let’s look a little deeper at that comparison, specifically how McCann has managed to make so much more contact than Flowers and still end up with the same production. Here’s one reason why: McCann has a .247 BABIP. Last year, it was .261. Two years ago, it was .234. Looking at his career average of .286, it seems like that’s below his normals, but looking at his last three years, it seems like the new normal. That he had a .332 mark back in 2006 doesn’t seem to hold a lot of relevance now, is the point.
Much has been made of McCann and his issues facing the shift, and that’s true to an extent. Just look at the list of the hitters with the worst batting averages on grounders:
Slow lefty pull hitters get shifted on, and that turns balls that may have been hits years ago into outs. News at 11, right? Except, there’s only so much blame to be put on the shift in McCann’s troubles, because this isn’t a new thing. McCann was among the most-heavily shifted players last year, too. He was among the most shifted players in 2010-11. There’s evidence that he’s seeing it more, now, but the shift alone hardly explains his up-and-down last five years of three very similar good seasons (2010, ’11, ’13, all with wRC+ 121-123) and two poor years (2012, ruined by a shoulder injury, and ’14, with wRC+ of 85 and 87). He’s always been shifted on. It’s overly simplistic to put it all on that.
Besides, McCann has been doing what he can to avoid it. His grounder rate of 33.0% is easily the lowest of his career, and he’s hit the ball in play to the opposite field 77 times after having done so only 58 times last year and 74 times in 2011, skipping the shortened 2012. He’s actually in the top 15 as far as lefty hitters going the other way; last year, he didn’t appear in the top 65. McCann is making a concerted effort to beat the shift, and it’s still not really working.
Well, there’s a few things. First, here’s an incredibly depressing list of numbers:
13.1 — 10.8 — 9.0 — 9.7 — 6.4
You don’t know what those are. I’ll tell you what they are. They’re McCann’s walk rate, declining pretty steadily from 2010 until now, where it’s less than half what it was, and this is sort of the thing: McCann’s lousy year isn’t any one thing. It’s a few small things, adding up. Giving back 30 or so free trips to first base isn’t fatal by itself, but it certainly isn’t helping. It’s not why his batting average is lousy, obviously; it is a part of why his OBP is below .300.
There’s also this: McCann’s power, which everyone figured would translate well to the short right field porch at Yankee Stadium, hasn’t come with him. It’s actually less that he’s failed to take advantage of right field in the Bronx, and more that it’s been the only thing making his homer totals look even respectable. Below, McCann’s spray chart, with only the home runs shown:
Every single one is out to right field; all but two are at Yankee Stadium. Per Hit Tracker, just one, off Craig Breslow in June, was a “no-doubter.” Only two had a “true distance” of more than 400 feet, and three of them wouldn’t have made it out of at least 27 other parks. If Yankee Stadium wasn’t his home, he might have about as many home runs as Billy Hamilton.
So there’s the conundrum, really. If McCann pulls the ball, he’ll hit into the shift far too much and generate outs. If he tries to play it smart and go to the opposite field, as he’s been trying to do this year, he won’t hit for nearly as much power, because hitting opposite field homers is generally pretty difficult for most hitters — especially a guy like McCann, who has pulled 151 of his 189 career homers. In years past, he could hit it over the shift. Now, perhaps still feeling the effects of that shoulder injury, it simply hasn’t happened.
To his credit, McCann appears to be trying to adapt, not only by going the other way, but by changing his mechanics to eliminate a toe tap from his swing in June, which has had some effect, but not enough of one. And it’s not all bad, of course, because McCann is still viewed as a positive pitch framer, and that’s not without value.
Unfortunately, McCann will need to improve considerably just to get back to being a league-average hitter, and even with how difficult it is to find offense from behind the plate, that’s not exactly what the Yankees were hoping for when they invested so much in him over the winter. A roughly two-win player, which is what he’s been for the last few years, is nice to have. It’s hard to justify that for the contract he has, though, and to get back to the original point: no, of course he’ll make it through waivers unclaimed. Leaving the Yankees wouldn’t change the shift tendencies he’s seeing; it would just take away that right field safety net. McCann and the Yankees are going to be together for a while, it seems, for better or — perhaps more likely — worse.
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