Brian McCann’s Move to the AL East

This article was inspired by the phenomenal work on 2013 shift data at THT by Jeff Zimmerman:

Brian McCann’s 5 year 85MM signing by the Yankees has been noted as a pretty good deal as far as Free Agent contracts go. I do not necessarily disagree since he brings leadership and not wholly quantifiable defensive contributions as a marquee catcher. He posted an ISO above the .200 mark in 2013 for the first time since 2009 and reached 20HR for the 7th time in 8 seasons despite only playing in 102 games due to injury. His generally above average OBP rebounded from a career low .300 in 2012 to .336. His heinous .234 babip from 2012 regressed upward somewhat back to .261. While there are many outward signs that his 2013 bounce back re-established him as a premier offensive contributor (122 wRC+) there are some other numbers that give me pause about his future in New York.

I found Jeff Zimmerman’s 2013 infield shift data article fascinating in so many different ways but one of the major takeaways that I got from it was the disparity of shifting frequency across MLB divisions. Granted, a division with more extreme ground ball pulling shift candidates may lead to more shifts. However, the league leading Orioles had 470 shifts implemented on ball in play events compared to just 473 shifts in the ENTIRE NL EAST in 2013 (108 of those 473 NL East shifts were implemented by the Braves). Overall there were 1800 ball in play shift events in the AL East in 2013 compared to 473 shifts in the NL East. 11 of the top 15 shifting teams in 2013 MLB were AL clubs. (AL East teams are #’s 1,2,6,8,16 overall in # of 2013 shifts)

This is where Mr. McCann and his offensive future comes in: Brian McCann hit into 123 shifts out of 402 PA (30% of PA) in 2013. He hit .179 on balls in play against the shift and .299 when the shift was not on. For comparison David Ortiz hit into 338 shifts in 2013 in 600 PA (56% of PA). Obviously there are smaller than ideal samples in this data and we all know babip fluctuates wildly. That being said the shift deflated McCann’s babip to some degree unquestionably last season and probably has been doing so for a while (I’d love to see this data for 2012, 2011 etc. broken out by batter).

If generally shift-conservative NL East teams were exploiting this aspect of McCann’s game then you can bet he’ll see even more shifts in the shift-happy AL East and across the AL in general. McCann’s GB/FB distribution has stayed slanted toward FB throughout his career around a 0.88 ratio. He has seen his babip decline like most MLB veterans do post-peak. There’s a good chance that his babip will continue to decline and perhaps quite precipitously upon his move to the AL East.

I’ll end this article with an intentionally scary and possibly not totally fair comparison since it’s a strictly left handed hitter compared to a switch hitter: McCann’s career line is .277/.350/.473 with a .289 babip and 0.88 GB/FB ratio. Mark Teixeira’s Left Handed Hitting career line is .267/.359/.518 with a .277 babip and 0.87 GB/FB ratio. If McCann’s batting average/babip were to decline at a similarly faster than normal rate like Teixeira’s I’d blame those shifty AL rivals. The short porch in New York may create some extra HRs but the AL East defensive environment could take those gains away and then some on balls in play.

It will be interesting to compare the 2014 shift data to the 2013 season and see which teams decided to implement the shift more and less frequently. The caveat must also be mentioned that not all shifts are created equal and some teams were much more effective at converting shift balls in play into outs than others. Does that have to do with superior personnel/positioning?

Thanks again to Jeff Zimmerman for the inspired shift research that made this piece possible.

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Known as Swing and a Miss Puiggy , The Gregorious D.I.D.(i), and a bunch of other silly chat handles the author is currently beating you in your fantasy league or at least consuming baseball content feverishly in an earnest attempt to do so.

11 Responses to “Brian McCann’s Move to the AL East”

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  1. Matt says:

    I don’t think using his 402 PA is the best number to use here, because he had 191 PAs with men on base and 108 of those were with men in scoring position. You can’t use a shift on a lefty with RISP. I have seen it with men on first, but rarely. We’d have to look at individual PAs to see when he was actually shifted. But I bet on PAs with no one on base he was probably shifted over 50% of the time.

    McCann appears to be an anomaly in this regard. He actually had a lower BABIP with runners on base and RISP than he did with the bases empty. Most of the guys at the top of the spreadsheet actually had much higher BABIPs with men on, especially with RISP.

    Also teams in the AL East use the shift a ton, but not necessarily effectively. The Red Sox and Rays had significant success with it. The orioles, were pretty good with it, but the Yankees and Blue Jays actually allowed higher BABIPs with the shift on.

    I still think you are probably right, that McCann will see a dip in his BABIP next season specifically because of the defensive environment, but there is some statistical noise with McCann last season that may cause a smaller drop than expected.

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    • scotman144 says:

      Thanks for the comment. I agree that the sample from 2013 is too small to draw any concrete conclusions from. That’s why I went with a Jeff Sullivan style “these #’s are interesting and could mean something” conclusion without predicting a certain quantitative % effect.

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  2. cs3 says:

    This is a pretty fascinating take on how McCann’s value could change going to his new team.
    I never would have imagined that the disparity in shift frequency between 2 divisions could possibly be so drastic.
    Thanks for sharing this.

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    • scotman144 says:

      Thank you very much for the feedback and for reading! I have no way of knowing what the 2014 shift #’s will look like but given the trend of more SABR-principles friendly teams being at the top of the shift leaderboard for 2013 I’d guess that shifting will continue to see a rise in popularity throughout the game. One counter note of interest: The Cardinals are near the bottom in terms of # of shifts and are of course still very successful and regarded as a good defensive team. More shifts does not equal more success in all cases.

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  3. Vision says:

    This is great information and helps illustrate the evolution advanced fantasy players will need to at least have knowledge of to maintain a competitive advantage.

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    • scotman144 says:

      Thank you for reading! When I see babip outliers I can’t help but go investigate the root causes. I have been very inspired by Steve Staude’s (great hire FG!) findings on the sustainability of popup% (IFFB%*FB*) as an explanatory factor in supressed babips for pitchers and hitters.

      Tony Blengino (who has been another phenomenal addition to the FB writers lineup) has brought up the topic of players that are or become “extreme ground ball pullers” and how they see depressed babip #’s as a result of extreme shifting.

      Looking at batted ball data (and hopefully eventually batted ball velocity!) plus factoring in popup% and ground ball pulling/shift proneness will give you a much better idea of what a batter’s “true talent” babip should/could be.

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  4. bstar says:

    Braves fan here. I certainly would shift the crap out of McCann.

    Two more things which might influence how McCann hits as a Yank:

    -the park factor for HR for LHH is 113 in Yankee Stadium compared to 100 in Atlanta. McCann hit a ton of hard, fliner outs to the warning track in right and right center in his career with the Braves. Maybe some of those balls translate to “just barely” HRs in Yankee Stadium.

    -switching leagues and learning new pitchers and new parks is difficult. Whatever boost McCann might get from the possible HR increase might just be offset by this. I would say, “Wait ’til 2014″ on McCann, but he’ll be even a year older, so who knows.

    I’ll be rooting for him either way.

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  5. cavebird says:

    One thing that might help McCann here—he did on more than a couple of occasions try to bunt against the shift last year. If he faces it pretty much all the time, he seems like the type of guy who would work on his bunting to take advantage. I have no idea how that would play out—he would have to bunt decently for it to work—he’s slower than dirt—but if nothing else, if he does that enough, he might get the shift to slightly modify and leave someone in a shortstop type position.

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