MLB: New York Yankees-Workout

In some ways, the Yankees signing of Brian McCann is already old news. Swept aside after the Yankees kept grabbing assets, signing Jacoby Ellsbury, Carlos Beltran, and of course Masahiro Tanaka before they were finished shopping.

Ellsbury was a key member of the World Series champions. Tanaka was the crown jewel of the 2013 off-season. Carlos Beltran is a likely Hall of Famer perfectly suited to the ballpark and role the Yankees ask of him. But of this clutch of new players, it is Brian McCann who might provide the greatest bump to Yankee fortunes.

More than any other player that Yankees added, Brian McCann represents the biggest upgrade for the 2014 Yankees relative to his 2013 counterpart. The Yankees catching corps ranked among the worst in baseball last season, a bitter pill to swallow for a team outbid for Russell Martin‘s services by the cash poor Pittsburgh Pirates.

Yankees catchers managed just eight home runs, worst in baseball last year. As a group, Chris Stewart, Austin Romine, the suspended Francisco Cervelli and others produced just a .213/.287/.298 line as a group. Brian McCann is one of the finest offensive catchers in baseball over the last five seasons, owning a .262/.343/.453 line with 106 home runs since the start of the 2009 season.

The idea of “replacement level” is based on a theoretical player rather than a specific guy waiting in the wings. Brian McCann’s upgrade is the case in point of this ideal – the Yankees catchers were as close to replacement level as you’d like. Going from nothing to an all star in McCann makes a huge difference – the kind of difference that is usually difficult to make up on the free agent market*.

* - that said, going from Robinson Cano to…Brian Roberts…is the same principle but in reverse. That’s a big hole to fill for the first time in a decade.

Using Wins Above Replacement, McCann actually projects to be the Yankees best player according to Steamer. His 3.9 WAR tops Ellsbury and Tanaka. According to the freely available system, McCann could notch a new career high for home runs with his switch to Yankee Stadium. The other systems (ZiPS, PECOTA, Oliver) vary on their outputs but there is no doubting the power potential for McCann switching to a bandbox is tremendous.

The defensive components of Wins Above Replacement are dicey for fielders but for catchers, it’s a whole new ballgame. There is still so much to discover about the value a receiver can add with his pitch framing and game-calling. Baseball Prospectus unveiled their new pitch framing model today. While the usual standouts like Jose Molina and Jonathan Lucroy are prominent at the top of all the leaderboards, Brian McCann’s contributions are nothing to sneeze at.

The actual values aren’t as important to me as the context they provide – some folks are still skeptical that pitch framing can provide twenty or more runs to a team’s ledger over the span of a season. I defer to the architects of these numbers and their diligence in returning credible statistics, but others might not give these new figures the same mileage, understandably.

On a counting basis, Brian McCann does very well. McCann is a the rare catcher who provides real value with his glove while providing enough with his bat to earn maximum playing time. But the BP research suggests McCann consistently puts up great rates, year-over-year. While the Jose Molinas of the world veer close to defensive specialists, McCann is more of a “five tool” threat from behind the plate. No catcher is even with 20 home runs of the new Yankee backstop since 2009.

In addition to his pitch framing excellence, there is a case to be made that Brian McCann helped the Braves young pitching staff over the last few years. These aren’t your older brother’s Braves and haven’t been for a while. Can some credit for the early career successes of Kris Medlen, Alex Wood, and Julio Teheran go to Brian McCann?

The Yankees are betting so. The Yankees paid top dollar for one of the top catchers in baseball. His offense slipped in 2012 and recovered last year, though not to the very high standard of earlier in his stellar career. McCann can offer the Yankees both solid offense and excellent defense, not to mention his professionalism is an ideal fit for the “wins only” Yankees.

The reputation of the Bronx Bombers has long been just that: bombers. Mercenary offensive wonders join the Yanks for a few years as the big spending club fills holes around it’s unprecedented core with sluggers on the corners. As evidenced with the signing of Jacoby Ellsbury and the contract extension with Brett Gardner, these Yankees are more than willing to prize defense and offense in equal measure. Saving runs is just as important as creating them, especially in a ballpark that makes homers out of lazy fly balls to right field. Get the outs where they come. In this respect, Ellsbury and McCann are very similar ballplayers.

While his deal didn’t stretch into hundreds of millions of dollars like his high profile new teammates, Brian McCann could end up as the most important signing Brian Cashman made this winter – both for 2014 and beyond.