Maybe Brian McCann Can’t, but Likely He Will

Brian McCann, whose batting average rests at .230 after a 3-for-5 performance on Monday night, is acutely aware of the quality of his performance at the dish this season. Despite the usual shortage of media attention on the New York Yankees, his feelings on the subject weren’t lost in the shuffle. He’s notorious for high expectations of himself, and he may have taken that to a new level this year, but he’s confident that he’ll turn it around. So is his manager. “He’ll figure it out,” Joe Girardi says.

But what if he doesn’t? McCann, 30, hasn’t hit .270 or better since 2011. His ISO is at .149 and his home run and doubles totals are at just 10, however. Fantasy owners drafted McCann with the expectation that 20 home runs were practically a given and that 25 or even 30 were possible, thanks to the move from spacious Turner Field to the new Yankee Stadium, complete with short right-field porch. It seemed like a good fit. What kind of effect does pressure on oneself have? What if he just stinks?

McCann has been a frequent potential victim of the infield shift. Jeff Zimmerman’s early-season data on the topic indicated just that. The catcher’s results in those situations at that point hadn’t adversely affected his performance. He’s shown a greater willingness to go the other way than he has in recent seasons, and the shifts must help to explain that. A Bronx Bombers blogger suggested that this might explain the backstop’s dip in power, but the writer went on to note that McCann’s power is down even when he’s pulled the ball.

I’d venture to say that hope isn’t really lost, though. McCann, 30, has this season struck out only 14.4% of the time, a rate that’s in line with those of his career. He’s walked less frequently (6.6% of the time), which might disturb his owners, but there’s nothing in his marks for plate discipline that indicate a lost hitter. His swing, chase and swinging-strike rates are right around their norms, just like his contact rate (85.8%). His line-drive rate is again at a comfortable 22.9% – not the be-all but certainly not discouraging. His batted-ball distribution in general doesn’t suggest that anything is off, other than a bit of a spike in his infield fly-ball rate.

This is the kind of thing that a mental and emotional burden can create, can’t it? It seems likely to come with the goals to learn a new pitching staff, to game-plan for a mostly new set of hitters – as well as pitchers – every day and still to hit like you have in previous seasons. It’s easily conceivable that this is what the results of stress that comes with one’s first major free-agent contact – signed with the most visible franchise in the sport – look like.

Instead of shying away from the attention that his slow start to this campaign has received, McCann has confronted it. He’s spent extra time in the cages and working with Yanks hitting coach Kevin Long. I’ve developed a real appreciation, buoyed by one of my former coworkers, Tim Heaney of KFFL.com, for Long’s influence on turnarounds in the Bronx. McCann is riding a four-game hitting streak (7-for-18, one home run) – no small feat for him in 2014 – that has raised his average to .230 and slugging percentage to .379, the highest those marks have been in about a month’s time. He’s done so in spite of a sore left foot that sidelined him for a couple of days.

Maybe those outcomes are just fool’s gold. Maybe they’re evidence of the effort that this major offseason signee has put forth in order to bust out of his batting doldrums, however. Either way, let’s not draw conclusions just yet. McCann wouldn’t be the first player to move to a new team and league for the first time in his career and struggle initially. None of his underlying statistics, other than a mild upswing in his rate of pop-ups, portend a hitter who has changed much, let alone drastically.

There are reasons McCann owners are fed up with him. I figured that there were some substantial statistical concerns which help to explain his tribulations this year. I kind of assumed that I’d find reasons to be worried. But I haven’t. I think that pressure can do things like this, his track record counts for a lot, and Long’s does too. I think that McCann will have a much better second half of this season.

I don’t have crazy expectations here, but I haven’t found something about which to freak out. I expect that I’ll move McCann up my catcher tiers, unless I see something different between now and August. I’d even be so bold as to recommend that fantasy owners seek to trade for him, before the surface numbers have a greater chance to show signs of improvement. It may sound heinous, but that’s part of the beauty of it. Fingers crossed.

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Nicholas Minnix oversaw baseball content for six years at KFFL, where he held the loose title of Managing Editor for seven and a half before he joined FanGraphs. He played in both Tout Wars and LABR from 2010 through 2014. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasMinnix.

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jim S.
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jim S.

McCann is a 30-year-old catcher. Period.

2009 V-Mart
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2009 V-Mart

Exclamation point.

Brian
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Question mark.