Five years after leaving his hometown Braves for New York City, and two years after winning a title in Houston, Brian McCann returned to Atlanta Monday night on a one-year deal worth $2 million. This deal would have made sense even if the Braves hadn’t also signed Josh Donaldson Monday night; Kurt Suzuki and Tyler Flowers shared catching duties for Atlanta in 2018, and Suzuki is now a Washington National. But with Donaldson also in the fold, the picture is crystal clear: The Braves expect to win the National League East for a second straight year, and Brian McCann, fresh off the high of two straight trips to the LCS, wants a piece of the action.
The upside for the Braves here is pretty obvious. McCann probably isn’t going to put up a wOBA above .350 ever again, as he did five times in his previous nine seasons for Atlanta, but he’s only one season removed from three consecutive years of wOBAs above .320, and Baseball Prospectus‘ catcher metrics still have him as a passable if not exceptional defensive receiver. Package that on-field skill-set with the kind of gruff, beardy clubhouse leadership that big-league executives always seem to think young teams need, and you’ve got a perfectly solid backup catcher at a reasonable price. In a catching market that saw Jeff Mathis get $3 million a year on a multi-year guarantee, the Braves could have done a lot worse. Steamer certainly thinks so:
I can hear some of you now wondering how reasonable it is to look at McCann’s 2018 season — in which he posted an 82 wRC+ and 0.5 WAR — and take the over. The man will, after all, be 35 years old when he plays his 2019 campaign, and his knees have already caught 1,529 big-league games. What reason do we have to think that McCann’s numbers won’t nosedive next year, putting the Braves out $2 million and back in the market for a backup to Mr. Flowers? (Jeff Mathis is unlikely to be available.) Well, first of all, catcher aging is a curve, not a cliff. If all you knew about McCann was that he was a 34-year-old catcher about to play his age-35 season, you’d expect him to be worth about 29 fewer runs than he was the year before, which would put him right around replacement level. Replacement level is fine. Replacement level won’t kill you. Replacement level sounds just about right for $2 million and a one-year deal.
But his age and his position aren’t all you know about Brian McCann. You also know, with just a little digging, that he missed all of July and August last year with a knee injury, and reached base at a .372 clip in his 43 plate appearances after returning from that injury after posting a .283 mark before hitting the disabled list. You know that he is now apparently fully recovered from that injury and will be playing 2019 in his hometown in a backup role, where his manager can shield him from the lefty starters that he’s always struggled against (Flowers, by contrast, loves hitting lefties). And you know that his strikeout and walk rates in 2018 were largely in line with his career numbers, despite that debilitating knee injury, and that his average exit velocity was diminished by only a single mile per hour from its 2017 mark. Brian McCann in 2019 is a player in decline, yes, but not one without a little bit more left to give.
Yes, the Braves could have gone out and spent more on a catcher this offseason — perhaps on Jonathan Lucroy, maybe on Yasmani Grandal. But their more pressing needs were elsewhere on the diamond, and so the dollars that they might have spent reeling in a marquee backstop were far more reasonably expended on Donaldson, and could be put to futher use in the rotation, or elsewhere in the lineup. McCann will suit Atlanta’s purposes just fine, and will certainly serve as a better platoon partner for Flowers than Raffy Lopez or Alex Jackson. He likely won’t be as good offensively as Suzuki was in 2018, sure, but then again 2019 Suzuki probably won’t be either, no matter what Mike Rizzo thinks of him. Both men are, after all, 35 years old.
This deal makes sense for McCann as well. According to his agent, at least, he turned down “more lucrative offers” to return to Atlanta, a team with a lot of good, young players for him to shout at. And why wouldn’t he? McCann already has his ring from his pitstop in Houston and he has already made — by Baseball Reference’s estimate — $126 million dollars playing baseball, which is more money than you or I could ever dream of. He doesn’t really need more money, and he doesn’t need to be the backup catcher for just any team. He needs to be the clubhouse leader of the team he grew up rooting for as a boy in suburban Georgia — the team that finally won that elusive title for his home state when he was just 11 years old (such an impressionable age!) and that has not been closer in the last half-decade than they are now to returning to that highest peak. Brian McCann wants another ring, and he wants it cast in Dahlonega gold.
Rian Watt is a contributor to FanGraphs based in Seattle. His work has appeared at Vice, Baseball Prospectus, The Athletic, FiveThirtyEight, and some other places too. By day, he’s a public policy researcher in housing & homelessness.