Appreciating Brian McCann’s defense

[caption id="attachment_66399" align="alignnone" width="635"]Brian McCann's defense has been elite this season. (Photo credit: www.myyesnetwork.com) Brian McCann’s defense has been elite this season. (Photo credit: www.myyesnetwork.com)[/caption]Brian McCann‘s struggles at the plate are well-documented and represent a real problem for the offensively-starved Yankees.

Yet you cannot ignore the fact that he’s quietly putting together one of the best defensive seasons among catchers this season, and the success of the Yankees pitching staff owes a great deal of credit to the work by McCann behind the plate.

Pitch Framing
Thanks to the terrific research by Baseball Prospectus’ Dan Brooks and Harry Pavlidis, we can now quantify the impact of catcher pitch framing and blocking. This is measured in both raw numbers (extra strikes gained and passed balls/wild pitches prevented), along with runs saved via framing and blocking.

According to this method, McCann has been the best defensive catcher in terms of framing pitches this season, with 11.3 framing runs saved. He has gained 73.5 extra strikes when behind the plate, second only to Miguel Montero among all catchers.

That McCann is atop the pitch framing leaderboards is no surprise. From 2008-13, he led all catchers with 127 framing runs saved and ranked first in the majors in the stat in 2008, 2009 and 2012.

We can also use Pitch F/X data to illustrate McCann’s ability to manipulate the strike zone with his glove.

He has gotten called strikes on 11.1 percent of all pitches taken outside the zone, the third-best rate among qualified catchers this season. His 283 called strikes on pitches out of the zone are also the third-most in the majors behind Jonathan Lucroy and Montero.

Twice this season – April 10 vs the Red Sox and May 13 vs the Mets – he framed 13 called strikes on pitches out of the zone. The only other pitcher that has two games of at least 13 “stolen” strikes this season is the Indians’ Yan Gomes.

McCann is at his best stealing pitches that are belt-high and off either the inside or outside corner of the plate. Nearly 29 percent of all pitches taken by batters in that location are called strikes with McCann as catcher, the best rate in MLB. He also doesn’t lose many called strikes that he should get, ranking fourth in called strike rate on pitches inside the zone.

Pitch Blocking
In terms of pitch blocking, he ranks fourth in both runs saved (1.6) and the number of passed balls/wild pitches saved (5.8).

His actual number of passed balls and wild pitches (19) looks poor on a stand-alone basis. But when put into context – based on the probability of the actual pitch being a passed ball or wild pitch – McCann rates much higher because he has received the highest amount of predicted passed balls and wild pitches this season.

Finally, McCann has also been strong in the more traditional catcher defensive metric of gunning down baserunners. He has thrown out 12 of 33 (36.4%) players attempting to steal, the fourth-best rate among qualifying catchers, and has saved two runs via his arm, tied for the second-most this season.

While his offensive struggles have certainly hurt the Yankees this season, there is no denying the fact that McCann’s defensive play behind the plate has immensely helped the team so far.

Rather than lament the fact that the Yankees are paying $17 million this season to a player with a .645 OPS, we should appreciate the fact that we have a catcher that has saved nearly 15 runs with his arm and glove, and that has greatly improved a pitching staff which has lost three-fifths of its rotation to injury and gotten nearly 40 percent of its innings from rookies this season. Continue reading Appreciating Brian McCann’s defense

Does Pitch Framing Make Brian McCann the Yankee MVP?

Baseball defense is hard to measure. Catcher defense is even harder. There are lots of different aspects of catcher defense, including:

  1. Controlling the running game
  2. Actually fielding the ball
  3. Preventing passed balls and wild pitches
  4. Pitch framing and umpire psychology
  5. Game-calling and pitcher psychology

For the longest time, #1 was all we looked in stats like WAR. #2 a comparatively small part of the game while also being difficult to measure. #5 is anyone’s guess. Some work has been on #3, but I’m not sold on it yet. That leaves us with #4: getting umpires to call balls as strikes, and strikes as balls.

Measuring pitch framing is actually pretty easy. We have Pitch/Fx data about where a ball ended up. We have a good idea of where the strike zone should be. Therefore, we can count up pretty large sample sizes of called strikes that should be balls, and called balls that should be strikes. Do the math, and you know how many more strikes a catcher was able to call versus the average.

How good is Brian McCann? One of the best in baseball. From 2008-2013, McCann saved 22.2 runs per 7000 opportunities with pitch framing alone, according to an article by Pavlidis and Brooks at Baseball Prospectus. Among current MLB starting catchers, McCann is second only to Jonathan Lucroy.
Continue reading Does Pitch Framing Make Brian McCann the Yankee MVP?

Lots of Backup Catcher Options

Last season, the Yankees catchers position was among the worst in all of MLB. Collectively Yankee catchers hit .213/.287/.298/.585 with a 61 wRC+ and a .266 wOBA.

The Yankees solved that problem for this season by signing Brian McCann. McCann is one of the best all around catchers in MLB and should be able to take advantage of the short porch in right field. Also, he should be a good leader going forward in a time when the Yankees will be looking for new leaders.

McCann will be a huge upgrade over Chris Stewart and as long as he stays healthy he will be a key cog in the middle of the order. Austin Romine, J.R. Murphy and Francisco Cervelli are three intriguing options to backup McCann. This will be one of the key battles to watch in spring training.

Cervelli is the only one of the three without minor league options, so if he loses the job he becomes trade bait. However, Brian Cashman recently stated that does give Cervelli an edge over Romine and Murphy.

Cervelli was having a great April for the Yankees last season before breaking his hand on a foul tip. He hit for much more power than he ever has before, as he hit three home runs and had a .231 ISO. His ISO from 2009-2011 was .089 and had five home runs combined in those three seasons. We later found out why, as Cervelli was suspended 50 games by MLB for using PEDs.

Last April was definitely the outlier in Cervelli’s career, as his career batting line is .271/.343/.367/.710. The batting average is good, but it is mostly an empty batting average with a career .319 wOBA and a 93 wRC+. Cervelli’s defense has never been great either, and he has only thrown out 27% of base runners for his career.

After Cervelli got injured Romine became Stewart’s backup and struggled for the majority of the season. He finished with brutal hitting numbers, but over the second half of the season Romine hit .271/.343/.407/.750 (106 wRC+). You hope that improvement can carry over into the 2014 season because Romine’s defense was pretty solid.

Murphy came up with the Yankees for September call ups and is one of the top prospects in the Yankees system. Baseball America ranked Murphy 4th among Yankees prospect and FanGraphs ranked him 2nd.

Murphy posted a .773 OPS between Double- A and Triple-A last season while improving his defense. He will not ever be a big home run hitter, but he has a solid line-drive swing and has gap power, which is fine for a catcher.

Murphy has more potential than Romine, so I would like to see him get more playing time at Triple A. Having Romine and Murphy both at Triple- A would both stunt their growth. Also, what would you do if and when you want to promote Gary Sanchez?

So, Romine should be the backup and Cervelli traded. I cannot see Cervelli putting up numbers again like he did April of last season. Murphy will get plenty of playing time at Triple- A and would be a good catcher to call up if an injury strikes. Continue reading Lots of Backup Catcher Options

Searching For Catchers On The Trade Market

Aside from Russell Martin and AJ Pierzynski, this year’s free agent market was completely bare of starting catchers. It made the Yankees’ decision to let Martin leave for Pittsburgh confusing. Francisco Cervelli and Chris Stewart are hardly starting-caliber catchers, and Austin Romine‘s health and ability are questionable. The team has stated multiple times that 2013’s catcher will likely be an in house option, but what could they reasonably obtain in the trade market? Brian McCann: Before turning 28 years old, McCann was a six time All Star with the Atlanta Braves. Last season, McCann battled injuries, and his typical .800+ OPS fell to .698. Continue reading Searching For Catchers On The Trade Market

Players to Watch: N.L. East

Let’s end our week with an eye towards the Right Coast and the N.L. teams that inhabit it. You know the drill. NL West NL Central Starting, as we so normally do, at the top with the Phillies. Let’s go with t3h 4 @ce$! shall we? No. The obvious choice here is Dominic Brown. He’s the Phillies’ top prospect and is the likely replacement for the departed Jayson Werth. Brown struggled in a brief 70 PA stint in the bigs last year, wOBAing just .259 and striking out 38.7% of the time. Brown will be 23 when the season starts Continue reading Players to Watch: N.L. East