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.