How Brian McCann Stopped Popping Up

The bar is fairly low for an offensive catcher — the position has been 11% below league average since Brian McCann entered the league — and so even when the Yankee backstop hasn’t been at his best with his bat, he’s been good. Still, last year wasn’t his best year, and he noticed something he didn’t like, so he “got with Kevin Long” as he told me. Now McCann is back at career production levels, thanks to eliminating something he’s done his whole career: popping it up.

Maybe it’s unfair to call it a problem, but McCann has popped the ball up fairly regularly over the course of his career. Of the 533 qualified batters that have played since 2006, McCann has the 186th-worst pop-up rate (4.1%), which is a bit worse than the league average over that time period (3.5%).

Still, even if he wasn’t the worst at it, he’s made a remarkable change this year. Take a look at his pop-up rate over time, raw, and indexed to league average.

Season PU% PU+
2006 4.3% 115
2007 3.9% 106
2008 4.5% 125
2009 3.4% 94
2010 3.9% 112
2011 4.0% 104
2012 4.1% 121
2013 4.1% 125
2014 5.0% 152
2015 0.8% 24

He’s gone from slightly worse than league average to among the best at not popping it up — he’s now 25th in baseball in pop-up rate among qualified hitters.

Turns out, this change started late last year. After we talked for a while about his defense — McCann is the second-best defensive catcher since 2012 if you add up his framing, blocking, and game-calling abilities — McCann offered this nugget about his swing:

“I figured out some stuff towards the end of last year that I wasn’t doing and I took it into this year,” McCann said. “Last year, for whatever reason, my hands weren’t taking a direct route to the ball and I was popping balls up over the third base dugout. In fastball counts where I should’ve been driving the baseball. Got with Kevin Long and straightened things out the last six weeks and I was able to take it into this year.”

We have a time frame that lines up with a change in outcome, or basically what I’m looking for from the players practically every time we talk. Let’s compare some swings — maybe at high fastballs, which is where pop ups are born — and see if we can see what Kevin Long once saw. On the left is a swing from June 2014, on the right one from earlier this year. Both pitches went 93, and both pitches were within a half inch of each other both vertically and horizontally.

McCann14McCann15

Tough to see, even once you correct for pitch location and speed. But is it possible that his first move with his hands is to drop them lower this year than he did last year? There also seems to be less of a load, in that he’s not backing his hands behind his body as much before swinging. These things line up with what he says about Kevin Long’s tutelage, too.

We talked for a second about the shift, since McCann has seen so many since he arrived in New York. Earlier this year, he had been shifted more than any hitter save five. But while some batters go the other way to beat the shift, McCann’s pull rate is the highest of his career.

So you’re not going to change your approach to beat the shift, huh? “Probably not,” laughed McCann. “I’ve tried bunting a couple a times, been successful once. I’ll just clog the bases up anyways.”

That’s okay. The catcher is back to his normal level of offensive production, and eliminating pop-ups has been a big part of that resurgence. Must feel nice after a tough first year with the Yankees, and Brian McCann agreed: “I feel good about where I’m at.”

We hoped you liked reading How Brian McCann Stopped Popping Up by Eno Sarris!

Please support FanGraphs by becoming a member. We publish thousands of articles a year, host multiple podcasts, and have an ever growing database of baseball stats.

FanGraphs does not have a paywall. With your membership, we can continue to offer the content you've come to rely on and add to our unique baseball coverage.

Support FanGraphs




With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.

newest oldest most voted
Cool Lester Smooth
Guest
Cool Lester Smooth

Great stuff, Eno.

Fun fact: Since Mike Petriello’s “Brian McCann Probably Couldn’t Be Given Away For Free” article last year, he’s put up .241/.301/.479 line, despite a BABIP of just .224, good for a 114 wRC+, which is identical to his career line.

It would be interesting to pinpoint exactly when he stopped popping up, but I figure that would be impossible and arbitrary.

TKDC
Guest
TKDC

And of course most guys who sign free agent deals to the highest bidder can’t be given away for free. Almost all contracts are back-loaded, if not in real dollars,at least when you account for expected decline in skills.

Cool Lester Smooth
Guest
Cool Lester Smooth

Yup, anyone coming off of a healthy season with a track record of success will be signed to more than any other team is willing to pay them.

phoenix2042
Guest
phoenix2042

Also, with very few exceptions, a guy signs to the highest bidder. Meaning no one else was willing to pay that much. Meaning, by definition, that no other team was willing to take that contract and player for free. And that’s before (in this case) a poor first year. So that article title was just stupid.

everdiso
Guest
everdiso

Are you saying somebody was wrong about something one time?!

I don’t believe you.

Cool Lester Smooth
Guest
Cool Lester Smooth

Nah, I just thought it was interesting serendipity that McCann essentially went totally back to normal the minute that article was written.