Brian McCann announces his retirement

After a brutal exit to the playoffs for the Braves, Brian McCann announced his intention to retire. It brings to end an excellent 15-year career, one that might actually be Hall of Fame worthy. He finished his career with the same team that drafted him and employed him for ten years.

I am not aware of any rumors that McCann was expected to retire after this season, but I doubt many people were surprised. He is a 35-year-old catcher who is now a free agent, and he is coming off a season where he played only 85 games, hitting .249/.323/.412. That is not too bad for a catcher, but one would expect that to get worse next year, not to mention the concerns over how a 36-year-old catcher would hold up. Only McCann can testify to how he is feeling mentally and physically, but it was probably the right time to retire.

McCann happens to be a Georgia native, so I bet he was thrilled when the Braves selected him out of high school in the second round of the 2002 draft. Scouts believed he could hit, but there were concerns about his defense, which is not surprising for a high school catcher. If it were not for those defensive questions, he undoubtedly would have been a first rounder, and likely an early pick, too.

It took only three years for McCann to make the majors, as the Braves promoted him straight out of Double-A in 2005. He was not too bad that season, hitting .278/.345/.400 though without any defensive value. He broke out big time the following year by hitting .333/.388/.572. His 142 wRC+ ranked 16th in all of baseball among all qualified hitters, not just catchers. Baseball Reference and FanGraphs rated his defense in the average to fringe average range, and both valued him at 4.3 WAR for the year.

FanGraphs now factors in pitch framing into its WAR values, but it only goes back to 2008. Baseball Prospectus, on the other hand, goes back to 1986, and rated his framing in 2006 as 15 runs below average. That surprised me when I saw it, as I am sure it would surprise anyone else who is familiar with McCann’s reputation as a good pitch-framer. As a result, his WARP was a bit worse at 2.8.

The Braves realized they had something special with McCann, so they extended him before the 2007 season with a contract worth six years and $26.8 million plus a team option for a seventh year at $12 million that the team would exercise. I’m guessing that baseball writers and analysts were praising the Braves for this deal because value was king back then, but it looks grossly exploitative looking back at it now.

McCann greatly improved his framing in 2007 to over four runs above average, but he regressed badly with the bat, with a .329 wOBA that was 72 points lower than his breakout 2006 season. He never again duplicated the offense of that stellar 2006 season, but he hit very well for a catcher in the subsequent six seasons, with a wRC+ of 119 or better in five of them.

McCann became an expert framer in 2008, with 36.5 runs worth of framing. That combined with another great season at the plate made him worth nearly 9 WAR at FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus! His offense and pitch framing more than made up for his other defensive deficiencies over the bulk of his career. At BP, he was worth at least 7 WARP each season from 2009-2011.

After seven seasons of being very underpaid by the Braves, the Yankees gave McCann a five-year, $85 million deal plus a $15 million team option. Peak McCann was in the rear-view mirror, but he was still able to provide above average offense and crack 3 WARP in each of his first three seasons with the Yankees.

With the rise of Gary Sánchez, the Yankees traded McCann to the Astros after the 2016 season. His framing was not what it used to be, but his bat was still productive, and he was worth 2.0 WARP in only 97 games. Unfortunately, he was barely above replacement in 2018, so the Astros declined to pick up his option for 2019. He signed a measly $2 million deal to return to Atlanta.

When McCann is eligible for the Hall of Fame, his worthiness is going to be hotly debated. The reasons why were discussed in detail by BtBS Managing Editor Matt Provenzano in the sidebar above, and more recently by The Ringer’s Ben Lindbergh. McCann falls far short of the JAWS standard — as does Yadier Molina, by the way — but JAWS uses bWAR, which does not factor in pitch-framing.

McCann has a career 31.8 bWAR, but that skyrockets to 62.2 at BP. Obviously nobody is saying that WAR is the only thing that should be considered for evaluating Hall of Fame cases, but one number is nearly double the other. Considering a 32 WAR career for the Hall is laughable, but one over 60 WAR merits serious consideration.

(It should be pointed out that the difference in these WAR values is not purely pitch framing, though it is the bulk of it. BP uses different defensive and offensive metrics than B-Ref does, the latter of which evaluates McCann’s offense more favorably.)

Yadi has 58.0 WARP and Russell Martin has 59.8 WARP. As with McCann, they are both helped tremendously by their excellent pitch-framing. The problem is that we don’t have much of a historical comparison for it. We have no pitch-framing data for all-time greats such as Johnny Bench, Gary Cater, Yogi Berra, and Carlton Fisk.

McCann, Martin, and Molina compare favorably to those guys thanks to the fact that umpires never call pitches according to where they cross the plate like they are supposed to, but would the catching greats mentioned above also see their career WARs shoot up too if we could go assess their pitch-framing skills? In the case of Iván Rodríguez, framing cost him about nine career wins, so it could have a negative effect. You can be a great defensive catcher and be a poor pitch-framer, so you can’t assume anything. Salvador Pérez is a good modern example of this.

I never put any stock in the beliefs that pitch-framing is “cheating,” but some do. Thankfully our own Sheryl Ring took a look at the rule book and firmly concluded that it was not.

You can see how difficult this problem is now. I once wrote a fun article comparing describing how similar Yadi’s career is to Jim Sundberg’s in both stats and narratives, a catcher who got only one vote in his only year on the ballot. I concluded over two-and-a-half years ago that he was not a worthy Hall of Famer, but I have softened my stance since them. Right now I just don’t know. If I had to vote on his or McCann’s or Martin’s Hall of Fame induction, I can’t say I know how I would vote.

I suspect that Molina will get in eventually, if for no other reason than if the writer’s decline to do so, he is just the kind of candidate that the Veterans Committee will love. I am not going to sit here and tell you that McCann definitely deserves Cooperstown, but he does deserve serious consideration. At the very least he deserves for the Braves to retire his number and induct him into their own Hall of Fame. Whatever happens, he had a great career and has a lot to be proud of.

. . .

Luis Torres is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. He is a medicinal chemist by day, baseball analyst by night. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.

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