12 November 2013

Signing Brian McCann Makes Sense for the Orioles

One of the most important things I have learned over the course of my life is that no matter how sure you are about something that there is some degree of potential wrong-headedness attached to my ideas.  I try to combat this tendency to assume that I know things by continually challenging my perspective.  Two remarkable items came across my news feeds this week: (1) an article from NPR about how our knowledge of a particular subject tends to be inversely related to our openness about that subject and (2) a TED Talk discussing how infants make sense of the world around them, utilizing hackneyed series of experimentation.  Those two articles inspired me to consider a baseball move that on face value is ridiculous, but whether there may be a sound band of logic behind it.

The move I wish to consider: signing Braves catcher Brian McCann while extending Baltimore's Matt Wieters.

Braves' Brian McCann | Photo by Keith Allison

That smacks of lunacy doesn't it?  Those with the Baltimore frame of mind might think back to the 2006 off season when the Orioles signed Ramon Hernandez even though Javy Lopez was gainfully employed by the team and had enjoyed two relatively successful seasons.  The reasoning then was two fold.  One, Lopez had suffered a broken hand on a Bret Boone foul ball, was rushed back, and looked awful at the plate.  Hernandez would provide the team a catcher the Orioles could depend on while Lopez could split time with him and use his bat at designated hitter or, in hindsight way too optimistically, play some first base.  Second, even with Lopez at full health, the team considered Hernandez to be a superior defensive catcher.  That perspective had more to do with his throws and his coverage of bunts.  Lopez was below average in those areas (and his arm increasingly seemed completely shot), but he was perhaps one of the best pitch framers to have played the game.  That part of catching was and is continually overlooked.

Anyway, the 2006 season wound up with Ramon Hernandez looking like a great signing with solid defense and a strong bat for a catcher.  Javy Lopez never regained his performance level and was eventually dealt to the Red Sox who were looking for catching depth after Jason Varitek went down with an injury.  He wound up hitting 190/215/270 over 65 plate appearances as the Red Sox sank into third place.  The Orioles were sent Adam Stern after the season (the Rays claimed Stern to prevent him being moved to the Orioles during the season) who appeared in two games for the Orioles in 2007, but never got to the plate.

Looking back, the addition of a second catcher was more about replacing the current one with hope that they both would flourish over the course of their one concurrent season.  Signing McCann and extending Wieters would be an exercise that would be meaning to keep both players over the long haul as opposed to a one year experimental phase.  In that way, it would be different from the Hernandez acquisition.  The move would be more similar to the 2011 Detroit Tigers who signed Victor Martinez (beating out the Orioles who wished to pair the catcher/first baseman with Matt Wieters).  Martinez joined the Tigers to provide his bat to a lineup that had Alex Avila fixed as catcher and Miguel Cabrera solidly locked in at first base.  Martinez would pick up the games Avila did not catch, give Cabrera some rest, and then spend the rest of the time as a designated hitter.  With a career slash of 303/369/464 (.360 wOBA), it made some sense.

At the time, Dave Cameron had concerns about the deal that he expressed in a column at FanGraphs.  Basically, he thought for the 4 year, 52 MM deal the Tigers gave him to work out, he would have to catch.  Cameron undershot how well Martinez would do in 2011 with the Tigers only having Texas between them and a World Series.  Martinez' 330/380/470 slash was perhaps his best season at the plate.  He followed that up with missing the entire 2012 season and then doing just what Cameron thought he would do this past season as a lackluster designated hitter (who incidentally mashed the ball in the playoffs).  The Tigers certainly look like they paid too much for Martinez, but what is too much when your team is highly successful and in the playoffs.  It is, in a way, a window opportunity.  The Tigers have the players currently to compete, so might as well load up on as much talent as possible to push yourself into the Series.

This is especially true if you needed a bat in 2011.  Martinez simply was the cheapest plus bat you could depend on.  Lance Berkman and Adam LaRoche were available, but they certainly were considered a lesser tier with Berkman supposedly zeroed in on St. Louis.  Below are the position players who signed that off season for more than 5 MM annually.

Years Total (MM)
Carl Crawford Red Sox 7 142
Jayson Werth Nationals 7 126
Adrian Beltre Rangers 6 96
Adam Dunn White Sox 4 56
Derek Jeter Yankees 3 51
Victor Martinez Tigers 4 50
Paul Konerko White Sox 3 37.5
Aubrey Huff Giants 2 22
Juan Uribe Dodgers 3 21
John Buck Marlins 3 18
Adam LaRoche Nationals 2 16
Orlando Hudson Padres 2 11.5
Jhonny Peralta Tigers 2 11.25
Magglio Ordonez Tigers 1 10
Carlos Pena Cubs 1 10
Lance Berkman Cardinals 1 8
Derrek Lee Orioles 1 7.5
Miguel Tejada Giants 1 6.5
Johnny Damon Rays 1 5.25
Lyle Overbay Pirates 1 5
Based on availability and hindsight, I think you can argue that it was a decent move.

Brian McCann would be a slightly different pickup than Victor Martinez because McCann is actually capable of catching.  He is not great, but he is somewhere between average and slightly less than average.  His bat is maybe a tad better than a poor man's Victor Martinez (277/350/473, .338 wOBA).  He would certainly be an improvement over what the Orioles accomplished at DH during the 2013 season (234/289/415, .307 wOBA).  Of course, there may be other, cheaper ways to find a .338 wOBA bat.  McCann would be different from those bats because he could give Wieters more time at DH and make the season less of a grind.  It is uncertain if McCann can play first base.  He has never played a single inning there as a Major Leaguer.

I decided to run McCann's numbers through a simple projection system.  Briefly, I weight performance from the previous three years and then apply a generic age curve factor.  This gives us a ball park expectation.  For McCann, I did it two ways.  I used his raw rates from the past three seasons and also an adjusted history where I decided to replace his injury plagued 2012 season with a composite of 2011 and 2013.  In order to devise Wins Above Replacement (WAR), I assumed that he would catch 50 games and DH 100 games each year with those games caught as performing league average.



.332 1.6
.348 2.1
.322 1.1
.337 1.8
.319 1.1
.332 1.7
.313 0.8
.326 1.3
.307 0.6
.320 1.1


The simple model I used suggests that McCann would be worth a 5 year deal somewhere between 36.4 and 56 MM.  Other teams may view him as a catcher during those five years.  If they assume league average catching, then a 5 year deal between 90 and 112 MM would be in line.  For the Orioles, it would perhaps mean them paying two to three times what he is worth to them due to the team's positional scarcity for catcher.

So, there is potential there for McCann to make sense for the Orioles if they really need that DH bat and perhaps a catcher who hits right handers well.  However, are there better bats out there?
  • Shin-Soo Choo probably signs somewhere in the neighborhood of a 5 year deal and 105 MM.  He has a much better bat and can be a natural fit in left field for the Orioles.  
  • Mike Napoli could potentially provide Wieters with a backup and has a better bat than McCann's, but with no glove.  At perhaps 3 years and 50 MM, he probably would fit better given positional scarcity.  That said, can he really still catch?  
  • Carlos Beltran would be the last bat I would find of that level and above.  He could be slotted into the Orioles left field position or designated hitter, but his defense is pretty tough to watch these days.  He will likely see a 3 year, 50 MM deal as well.
You may have noticed that my free agent predictions are higher than what I used last Monday (FanGraphs community projections).  Based on something I heard, I think those FanGraphs projections might need to be bumped up 30%.  I recognize that an increase like that is pretty massive, but that seems to be the word.


Anonymous said...

No WAy. This dude is a d-bag.

Anonymous said...

probably breaks some unwritten rule.