Amid winters that were rather underwhelming relative to the excitement of their respective 2018 seasons, the Braves and Dodgers brought back a pair of familiar, if grizzled, faces, namely 35-year-old Brian McCann and 36-year-old Russell Martin. Now several years removed from their last All-Star appearances, neither figures to do the bulk of the catching duty for their respective teams in 2019. Our new pitch framing metrics underscore what they bring to the table at this stage of their careers, as well as just how valuable they’ve been over the years — valuable to the point of amplifying their cases for Cooperstown.
McCann, a Georgia native who was drafted by the Braves in 2002 and spent 2005-13 with the team, making seven All-Star appearances while playing a part on four postseason-bound squads, signed a one-year, $2 million deal to return to Atlanta in late November, the five-year, $85 million deal he signed with the Yankees in December 2013 having expired (McCann spent 2017-18 in Houston, following a 2016 trade). The plan is for him to share time with Tyler Flowers, who started 70 games behind the plate for the NL East-winning Braves last year; Kurt Suzuki, who started 83 games, signed a two-year, $10 million deal with the Nationals.
McCann is coming off the weakest year of his career, having hit just .212/.301/.339 (79 wRC+) in 216 PA over 63 games with the Astros. He spent over 10 weeks on the disabled list with a torn meniscus in his right knee, which required surgery in early July. That knee, which also sent him to the disabled list in August 2017, may have been a factor in his atypically rough season behind the plate as well. Via Fox Sports South’s Cory McCartney, the knee “became so unbearable that it left the left-hander unable to push off his plant leg at the plate and it became difficult to squat as moving around on it led to a fluid buildup. ‘Every time I would land, my knee would collapse,’ McCann said. ‘I should have gotten the surgery done after the (2017) World Series — but thought I could get through it, I just couldn’t.’”
McCann was 3.9 runs below average both in Jared Cross’ new pitch framing metric, which has been added to our WAR calculations, and overall, finished with a career-worst 0.1 WAR. Framing-wise, he’s been in the red only one other time in his career according to our numbers (-2.9 runs in 2015, his second of three years with he Yankees). He’s been nothing less than the top framer from 2008-18 via Cross’ numbers, stealing an estimated 181.9 runs worth of strikes on the edges over that 11-year period, enough to add an extra 18.8 WAR to his total. His 37.5 framing runs in 2008, the majors’ second-highest single-season total for the stretch, lifts his WAR for that year to an MLB-best 8.9, 0.2 ahead of NL MVP winner Albert Pujols. His 34.1 framing runs for 2011, the majors’ third-highest total, pushes his WAR for that season to 7.4, second in the NL; in the two years in between those marks, he ranked fourth in the league (6.9, including 31.6 framing runs, in 2009) and first again (7.0, with 21.0 framing runs, in 2010). His new total of 42.0 WAR for the 2008-14 period is tops in all of baseball, ahead of Miguel Cabrera (41.5) with two other outstanding framers, Yadier Molina (39.3, third) and Martin (35.6, fifth) also in the top five.
That McCann, Molina, and Martin were so valuable was less apparent in that timeframe than it is currently, but that they fare well in the framing department is no surprise at this point. According to Baseball Prospectus’ framing metrics, which go back to 1988, covering not just the PITCHf/x and Statcast eras (2008-14 and ’15-18) but also the pitch count era, Martin ranks first (218.3 runs), with Molina fourth (176.8) and McCann fifth (171.8).
More on Martin momentarily, but it’s worth noting that with Atlanta, McCann is joining one of the game’s current top framers in Flowers, who via Cross’ numbers ranked fifth with 12.5 runs last year after leading the majors by a wide margin in 2017 (31.5 runs); he ranked among the top five in 2015 (16.4), his final year with the White Sox, and ’16 (13.0), his first year in Atlanta as well. Suzuki has been near the other end of the spectrum, with -9.3 runs last year (10th-lowest) and -2.9 in 2017, though to be fair, he’s been much worse in the past (-22.8 runs in 2014, for example, and -11.3 runs per year from 2009-14). He offset his subpar framing work over the past two seasons with his two highest career marks in wRC+ (122 in 2017, 108 last year), outdoing McCann both in that category and in WAR (3.3 total to McCann’s 2.5). If McCann can recover form, the Braves might gain in the framing department — which could help their young pitching staff — only to see it all come out in the wash when other areas are considered.
As for Martin, he’s second in the 2008-18 period by our framing numbers (165.6 runs), which adds a hefty 17.2 WAR to his total. From 2008-12, he ranked in the majors’ top five in framing runs four times, twice for the Dodgers (2008-09) and twice for the Yankees (2011-12), with his injury-shortened 2010 the only exception. Non-tendered after that season in a gross miscalculation of his value, he was quickly snapped up by the Yankees, who were ahead of the curve in understanding the ramifications of framing. He’s never been quite as high as McCann in the annual WAR rankings, but his career-best 7.6 WAR (aided by 28.2 framing runs, also a career best) in 2008 did rank fifth in the majors, and he was in the NL’s top 10 in both 2013 (5.6) and ’14 (6.5) while helping the Pirates to a pair of Wild Card berths. Indeed, Martin was a key figure in turning around the Pirates’ culture of losing; his reputation was part of the reason the Blue Jays were willing to shell out $82 million over five years to sign him as a free agent in November 2014. Indeed, he helped them end their 21-season playoff drought with back-to-back appearances in 2015 and ’16; they reached the ALCS in both years.
Though Martin gave the Blue Jays above-average offense in his first three seasons, his WAR declined by about one win per year, from 4.3 in 2015 to 3.2 in 16 and 2.2 in ’17. He struggled at the plate last year to the point of finishing below the Mendoza Line (.194/.338/.325), though his 91 wRC+ was more respectable thanks to his gaudy 15.9% walk rate, which ranked second in the league behind only Mike Trout among players with at least 350 PA. As Jeff Sullivan pointed out, while he continues to hit the ball hard (90.6 mph average exit velocity in 2018), he hit a league-worst 30% of his batted balls between 5 and 35 degrees; his 51.2% groundball rate and 19.4% infield fly rate were both career highs.
On the other side of the ball, Martin’s framing was worth 7.0 runs, up from 3.2 in 2017 though just the third year out of 11 that he wasn’t worth at least 10 runs in that department. His 1.4 WAR was a career low, but to be fair, so were his 352 PA. He started just 71 of the Blue Jays’ games behind the plate, with Luke Maile (58), Danny Jansen (23), and Reese McGwire (10) rounding out the slate. Martin did add another 18 starts at other positions, namely 16 at third base (his original position in the minors) and one apiece at shortstop (!) and in left field.
With Jansen, who ranked 47th on our Top 100 Prospects list, showing his big-league readiness, Martin heading into the final year of a five-year, $82 million contract, and the Blue Jays heading into a rebuilding mode, the team sent the aging backstop back to the team that chose him in the 17th round of the 2002 draft out of Chipola College (which Flowers also attended) and brought him to the majors in 2006 in January. The Blue Jays are picking up $16.4 million of Martin’s $20 million salary, and in exchange, they received a pair of fringe prospects.
Though he’s not expected to do the bulk of the catching, Martin has very big shoes to fill. Yasmani Grandal, who signed with the Brewers as a free agent, ranked fourth in the majors in framing (13.0 runs), enough to push him 0.1 WAR ahead of J.T. Realmuto for the lead among all catchers in WAR. The Dodgers explored trading for Realmuto before acquiring Martin — and didn’t rule it out afterwards — but were reportedly unwilling to include Cody Bellinger in a deal.
As it stands, Martin will pair with Grandal’s backup, Austin Barnes, who’s no slouch in the framing department (19.8 runs over the past two seasons, with 101 total starts) but slipped from a sizzling 142 wRC+ in 2017 to 77 last year. With the pair doing virtually all of the catching, the Dodgers project to rank third at the position in WAR, behind only the Brewers (featuring Grandal) and Giants (with Buster Posey doing the bulk of the work). That’s impressive given that the Martin-Barnes pairing is seen less as a major asset to the current lineup than a bridge to the next generation of Dodgers catching. Twenty-year-old Keibert Ruiz placed 15th on our prospects list, while 24-year-old Will Smith placed 80th; the pair shared time for most of the year at Double-A, with Smith playing a considerable amount of third base as well, and then playing both positions during a 25-game stint at Triple-A Oklahoma City. One or both of the pair could debut in the majors this year.
With McCann and Martin both nearing the end of the line, and with the aforementioned framing numbers giving their overall WAR numbers a boost, it’s worth considering how they fit into the Hall of Fame picture. As with relievers, this is an area where the off-the-shelf version of JAWS isn’t enough to take the full measure of the field. Baseball-Reference’s version of WAR (which is used in JAWS) has no framing component, and there are no framing numbers anyway for 12 of the 15 enshrined catchers. Baseball Prospectus’ pre-PITCHf/x stats only cover the last few years of Carlton Fisk’s career, which ended in 1993, though between that version and the PITCHf/x and Statcast numbers, we have the full careers of Ivan Rodriguez and Mike Piazza covered; the former, while known for his all-around defensive excellence, was not much of a framer but the latter, often derided for his defensive shortcomings, was.
Even FanGraphs’ shiny new numbers don’t capture the entirety of the careers of Martin, McCann, Molina, and the recently-retired Joe Mauer, but we can use BP’s pre-2008 numbers to help fill in the gaps. For the seven catchers with at least 50 WAR by our existing methodology — only one of whom started his major league career after 2008 — I did just that, using our runs-to-wins converter to adjust each of their individual WARs for the 1991-2007 period, and calculating seven-year peak totals along with revised career totals in order to generate a FanGraphs WAR version of JAWS for this group:
|Name||Career||WAR||FG Fram||BP Fram||WAR Adj||fWAR||fPeak||fJAWS|
As you can see, including the pre-2008 framing numbers results in about a 10-WAR swing for Piazza relative to Rodriguez, with the game’s greatest-hitting catcher putting some distance between himself and the rest of this pack. The other five catchers, who were already closely grouped together, remain so, albeit with some reordering, and even more reordering in moving from career fWAR (by which I mean framing-inclusive WAR) to fJAWS. Posey, the youngest of the bunch at 32, seems likely to overtake Martin and perhaps Rodriguez, though it’s probably a good idea not to take anything for granted given that he’s coming off season-ending surgery to repair a torn right hip labrum and clean out bone spurs as well. While he’s the only one of this group with an MVP award under his belt, he’s also 722 hits short of 2,000, the magic number for Hall consideration. For that matter, Molina (1,851 hits), McCann (1,522) and Martin (1,372) are all well short of 2,000 hits too, and the last two aren’t likely to get there barring rebounds. Rule of 2,000 aside, Molina and Mauer, whose Hall of Fame cases I’ve examined in this space, actually fall behind Martin and McCann, who are rarely discussed in such light.
Of course, while we can produce a relative ranking via this methodology, we don’t really have standards to compare them to the way we do with Baseball-Reference WAR-based JAWS, where Rodriguez ranks third, Martinez fifth, and Mauer eighth, all above the standard, with Posey, Molina, and Martin are well below. How do we square the two resources, aside from knowing that nobody has to cast a ballot for any of the active players for at least another six years?
As with my conception of JAWS as the average of career WAR and peak WAR totals, my gut instinct at this stage is to meet halfway by averaging the framing-based JAWS with the non-framing one for the players for whom we have that information. By doing this, I’m giving some credit to the players who do well in framing while trying to avoid unduly penalizing the players for whom we don’t have that info. Here it’s worth noting that just as we introduced our framing stats, Baseball-Reference published an update to its catcher defensive numbers and WAR from the 1890-1952 period. Prior to the update, catcher defense for the period was based only on errors and passed balls, where it now includes stolen bases, caught stealing, errors, passed balls, and (from 1925 on) wild pitches — yet another reminder that we’re already doing comparisons based upon uneven sets of data. As I noted at the time, the changes elevated Bill Dickey from eighth in the JAWS rankings to seventh (leapfrogging Mauer) and Gabby Hartnett from 11th to ninth, with Mickey Cochrane slipping to 11th. Among lower-ranked catchers, the most notable gain belonged to Roy Campanella, who climbed from 26th to 21st. The JAWS standard rose by 0.7, with 10th-ranked Ted Simmons slipping from a hair above to a hair below.
Here’s how the rankings look using my proposed 50/50 weighting for the catchers with framing data:
|Avg HOF C||54.3||35.1||44.7||45.1|
Piazza climbs to third, Mauer regains his old spot and remains comfortably above the standard despite spending the latter leg of his career as an intermittently productive first baseman, Posey pushes himself to the doorstep of Cooperstown, and Molina, Martin, and McCann all vault from being nowhere near the standards to being in a gray zone. They’re ahead of six Hall of Famers, of whom only Campanella was elected by the BBWAA, and interspersed with Munson and Freehan, two catchers I feel have been grossly overlooked by the voters, but a pair unlikely to be elected anytime soon. What this says is that “the M&M&M boys” are hardly slam dunks, but they’re credible candidates, particularly at an underrepresented position (there are at least 20 enshrined Hall of Famers at every other position besides third base and center field). With their remaining time in the majors, they may edge closer.
Given the aforementioned hit totals and the disparity in that trio’s Hall of Fame Monitor scores — which give credit for awards, league leads, milestones, postseason performance, and serving as a starter on division-, pennant- or World Series-winning teams based upon things that voters traditionally reward— I suspect that Molina is still far more likely to be elected than the other two. With nine All-Star appearances, nine Gold Gloves, and nine trips to the postseason (including two World Series wins), he scores 160 on the Monitor where 100 indicates “a good possibility” of making the Hall of Fame and 130 indicates “a virtual cinch.” McCann, with seven All-Star appearances, seven trips to the postseason (including one World Series win) but no Gold Gloves, scores just 67, while Martin, with nine trips to the postseason, four All-Star appearances, and just one Gold Glove, scores 54. Of course, it’s worth noting that Molina’s popularity and perceived dominance of the position limited the opportunities to honor the other two during their heydays in the NL, which is why it’s worth turning to JAWS for a second (and now third) look in the first place.
Still, there will be far more to debate down the road, once the M&M&M trio round out their careers and we gain additional perspective on just how good they were relative to their peers in framing. For now, it’s enough to note that while Molina has been viewed throughout the industry as a likely Hall of Famer, Martin and McCann will deserve consideration as well.
Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.