The New York Yankees are working on retaining the services of second baseman Robinson Cano, but they’ve already made an impact on the free agent market.
In the early weeks of free agency, catchers have been flying off the shelves at a crazy rate. In fact as of Tuesday, six backstops have already received major league deals. Of the approximate $230 million that clubs have shelled out to position players since the market opened, $120.5 million, or 52 percent, has gone towards catchers. The majority of that money went to Brian McCann, who recently agreed to a lucrative five-year deal worth $85 million with the Yankees, with a $15 million vesting option for a sixth year.
On the whole, the general reaction towards the McCann signing has been very positive. And it should be; McCann has been one of the elite catchers in the game since he debuted in 2005. Using Baseball Reference’s SIM score to compare McCann’s career through his age-29 season to other catchers, he compares most similarly to Lance Parish, Gary Carter, Frankie Hayes, Bill Freehan, and Yogi Berra. That’s not bad considering that group includes two Hall of Famers and a combined 50 career All-Star selections.
McCann is a great fit for New York, too. For the past three seasons, the catching position has been a major weakness in their lineup, and they have suited up nine different backstops without any real success. Their production from their catchers last year was painfully bad, as their primary starter, Chris Stewart, posted an OPS that was 53 percent worse than league average. New York’s lineup in general desperately lacked power, as the only player on the team who hit over 20 home runs last year was Robinson Cano, who is currently a free agent.
McCann’s swing is tailor-made for Yankee Stadium. The spray chart at right, courtesy of Brooks Baseball, shows that McCann hit all but four of his 20 home runs to right field in 2013. Yankee Stadium’s short right-field porch should be conducive to his swing, particularly for power.
Perhaps the most important thing that McCann brings to the table is his pitch framing abilities. A lot has recently been made of Jose Molina’s legendary prowess for framing pitches, but it should also be noted that McCann is also particularly adept at this skill. In fact, over the past four seasons McCann has helped his pitchers get an average of 1.5 additional strikes a game, which over the season translates to 23.7 runs. To put that in perspective, Troy Tulowitzki’s entire offensive production over the last four seasons has been worth just an average of 19.2 runs. If there is a significant issue with WAR, it is probably that it doesn’t truly measure all of a catcher’s defensive contributions. It is possible for a catcher to have his greatest impact through his ability to manipulate the strike zone.
Next season, Steamer’s projections predict that McCann will be worth 4.4 fWAR. That seems a tad rich considering that would be his best season since 2010, but it is not altogether out of the realm of possibility. If you factor in the 23.7 runs he could save with his framing abilities, you are looking at an even more significant value. Given those additional runs, McCann would be worth 6.8 wins. For what it is worth, Robinson Cano is projected to be worth 5.5 wins.
This essentially means that the unthinkable is possible; the Yankees could be a better baseball team without signing Robinson Cano. Even with a more conservative projection, McCann could still be worth roughly Cano’s value with his pitch framing skills factored in. They could also reallocate the resources they intended to use on Cano towards other free agents. The Bombers have been connected to numerous other players, most specifically Carlos Beltran. Mark Feinsand of the Daily News recently reported that Yankees had made Beltran, not Cano, their primary target this off-season.
So while Cano will likely once again don pinstripes next season, the Yankees don’t necessarily have to play Jay-Z’s game if they don’t want to. With their aggressive approach so far this off-season, they might just have replaced the production of the face of their franchise, and without spending anywhere near $300 million to do it, which gives them even more flexibility to add the starting pitching they so desperately need.