It’s Not a Blip: McCann is Old and Declining

McCann HBP 2015 Every off-season, you get emptily hopeful pieces like this one that must’ve taken Newsday reporter Steven Marcus several minutes to write:

McCann wasn’t satisfied with his .232 batting average. “I don’t like looking up there and seeing I’m hitting around .230,’’ he said Friday from Orlando, Florida, where he was participating in a charity golf tournament. “I’ve got to get better. I’d like to hit .300 with 30 [homers].

Don’t scoff yet at an “article” from a 5-minute call Brian McCann returned in a slow golf moment: maybe Marcus got a scoop on McCann's new contact-hitting strategy after years of .230, .256, .232, & .232? Here’s McCann's big quote: “‘I think Tex says it the best: walk more and hit for extra-base hits. The game today is about getting on base and driving runs in.’” So we're told McCann will raise his batting average by improving the non-batting-average OPS components: walks and extra-base hits. Relatedly, I plan to lose weight by putting lifts in my shoes. Publishing dreck like that is an important part of how, when you put up a paywall for online access to your major-market newspaper, you get only 35 (!) paying subscribers.

Ok, enough easy shots at lazy journalists who deserve it. Onto the real question, which is multiple-choice: McCann in 2016 is – ...(a) likely to improve, because Teixeira shared his secret plan, “hit more better”; ...(b) likely to improve, because it’s just a blip that his 2014-15 was worse than his 2008-13; ...(c) unlikely to improve, but that’s ok because batting average is just one component of value, and overall he’s still a strong player; ...(d) unlikely to improve, because he’s in real decline; ...(e) I love Newsday, so STF up, Scott.

Let’s not take (a) and (e) seriously, because if you believe those, then your name is Mrs. Marcus and I’m very sorry for insulting your husband. So the title of this post gave away my punch line: it'd (d); there’s a big bucket of evidence McCann is in real, long-term decline, not suffering a random drop in performance that he’s likely to recover from in 2016.

(1) He’s not hitting the ball as much, or as well. In 2015, his K rate reached a new high (18.1%, after a prior career rate of about 14.6%), his line drive rate reached a new low (16.7%, after a prior rate of just over 20%), and both his 2014 and 2015 hard contact rates also reached new lows (31.0% and 31.5%, after about 35%). It’s easy to say a one-year decline in outcomes (lower BA, fewer HR, etc.) is a blip if the hitter is making as much good contact as ever and not striking out more; in that case, the outcome decline probably reflects bad luck, like fielders happening to be in the right place 10-20 more times than last year. But with McCann, we have a very consistent picture of a hitter in real decline: striking out more, while hitting fewer line drives (the contact most likely to yield hits), and making less hard contact generally.

(2) His catcher framing is in massive long-term decline. The idea that much of a catcher’s value is how well he frames strikes isn’t new, but the stats trying to quantify it are. So I’m glad those stats now exist, but I take with a grain of salt any sudden blips – like these year-by-year estimates of Russell Martin’s 2007-2015 framing runs saved (the data go back to only 2007):

25.1, 30.8, 22.7, NINE POINT SEVEN, 28.7, 24.1, 17.0, 11.7, 3.7.

That’s a really consistent picture: a longtime elite framer, in gradual decline but still good – except the outlier of 9.7 in 2010. Maybe the 9.7 was an inaccurate stat or an accurate reflection of lower ability that year; he missed time for injury in 2010, though not enough to explain this big a drop, but maybe the injury lingered. But when you get an outlier year with a new, unusual stat, a recovery the next year is a solid bet – and Martin did recover with a strong 2011 and 2012. But while the 2010 drop was a blip, his 2013-15 decline looks reliable: his runs saved went from being in the mid-20s for years, to 17.0, then 11.7, then 3.7 – all in all, a pretty consistent decline at age 30-32.

Back to McCann – here are his last several years of framing runs saved:

15.9, 43.5, 44.0, 29.2, 35.1, 23.5, 9.9, 11.4, -2.5

First of all, I hadn’t realized McCann was THAT good a framer in his prime. From 2008 to 2013, -- the six years preceding the Yankees’ signing of him -- his framing alone saved 185.2 runs, or about 31 a year, which is like having +3 WAR, each year, from framing alone. If that guy can hit any better than Chris Stewart’s less talented younger brother, then yeah, he’s worth $17 million a year. Except for the decline. At ages 30-32, Martin’s skills started a gradual decline from elite to good to average -- and the exact same started happening to McCann at ages 29-31.

(3) 32-34 is really old for a catcher! McCann turns 32 in a month. What are the odds that a broad-based multi-year deadline -- in hard contact rate, line drive rate, strikeout rate, and framing skills – turns around at 32? Sure, it’s possible; just don't bet on it. Ignore McCann’s decline and focus just on his age: I did a Baseball Reference Play Index search; in the past 40 years, guess how many age-32 (or older) catchers have had 3+ WAR in a year, which was McCann’s rough level with the Braves (ignoring framing, which BBREF WAR does)? The answer: 39. Various other positions are about 50-100% more likely to have an age 32+ player with 3+ WAR: 1B had 70 players age 32+ with 3+ WAR; 2B, 66; 3B, 70; SS, 44; LF, 58, CF, 49; RF, 76. I’m not surprised SS and CF were closest to C; those are the other most demanding positions. And that 39 is even worse than it looks: 7 of them were Carlton Fisk years; and the decline is really rapid – of the 39 catchers with 3+ WAR at age 32+, only 23 were age 33+, and only 16 were 34+. So there’s a frighteningly rapid dropoff for catchers at ages 32, 33, and 34 – the years McCann remains under contract with the Yankees.

McCann is still an ok player. Adding his framing runs to his WAR on BBREF (which doesn’t include framing), he was worth, total, about 2.9 WAR in 2014 and 2.6 WAR in 2015. So a WAR a tick above 2 is a safe bet for 2016, and maybe he’ll still be around 2 in 2017 – the level of a league-average player. Which is to say that league-average is about the best we’re likely to get from McCann, so it’s the best we’re likely to get from a Yankee catcher, until and unless Sanchez grabs the job.

And Sanchez is probably as good as McCann now: the projections on BBREF and Fangraphs predict a .727 to .745 OPS for Sanchez’s rookie season. That’s about the same as McCann’s OPS’s in his two Yankee years: .692 and .756. The difference is that low-mid .700s is McCann’s likely ceiling (as a 32 year-old in decline), but Sanchez’s likely floor (as a 23 year-old rookie).

So McCann’s fate in 2016 and maybe 2017 is pretty clear: he’ll hover around league-average performance, with rapid decline likely sometime during his remaining three years under contract. The question is when and whether it becomes clear that a league-average catcher already in decline is holding back playing time from a youngster with a lot more potential to help the team.