The bar is fairly low for an offensive catcher — the position has been 11% below league average since Brian McCann entered the league — and so even when the Yankee backstop hasn’t been at his best with his bat, he’s been good. Still, last year wasn’t his best year, and he noticed something he didn’t like, so he “got with Kevin Long” as he told me. Now McCann is back at career production levels, thanks to eliminating something he’s done his whole career: popping it up.
Maybe it’s unfair to call it a problem, but McCann has popped the ball up fairly regularly over the course of his career. Of the 533 qualified batters that have played since 2006, McCann has the 186th-worst pop-up rate (4.1%), which is a bit worse than the league average over that time period (3.5%).
Still, even if he wasn’t the worst at it, he’s made a remarkable change this year. Take a look at his pop-up rate over time, raw, and indexed to league average.
He’s gone from slightly worse than league average to among the best at not popping it up — he’s now 25th in baseball in pop-up rate among qualified hitters.
Turns out, this change started late last year. After we talked for a while about his defense — McCann is the second-best defensive catcher since 2012 if you add up his framing, blocking, and game-calling abilities — McCann offered this nugget about his swing:
“I figured out some stuff towards the end of last year that I wasn’t doing and I took it into this year,” McCann said. “Last year, for whatever reason, my hands weren’t taking a direct route to the ball and I was popping balls up over the third base dugout. In fastball counts where I should’ve been driving the baseball. Got with Kevin Long and straightened things out the last six weeks and I was able to take it into this year.”
We have a time frame that lines up with a change in outcome, or basically what I’m looking for from the players practically every time we talk. Let’s compare some swings — maybe at high fastballs, which is where pop ups are born — and see if we can see what Kevin Long once saw. On the left is a swing from June 2014, on the right one from earlier this year. Both pitches went 93, and both pitches were within a half inch of each other both vertically and horizontally.
Tough to see, even once you correct for pitch location and speed. But is it possible that his first move with his hands is to drop them lower this year than he did last year? There also seems to be less of a load, in that he’s not backing his hands behind his body as much before swinging. These things line up with what he says about Kevin Long’s tutelage, too.
We talked for a second about the shift, since McCann has seen so many since he arrived in New York. Earlier this year, he had been shifted more than any hitter save five. But while some batters go the other way to beat the shift, McCann’s pull rate is the highest of his career.
So you’re not going to change your approach to beat the shift, huh? “Probably not,” laughed McCann. “I’ve tried bunting a couple a times, been successful once. I’ll just clog the bases up anyways.”
That’s okay. The catcher is back to his normal level of offensive production, and eliminating pop-ups has been a big part of that resurgence. Must feel nice after a tough first year with the Yankees, and Brian McCann agreed: “I feel good about where I’m at.”
With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.