During his twenties, Brian McCann raked like few other catchers ever have. McCann has clubbed the eighth-most home runs (176) among regular catchers through age 29, and his park-and-league-adjusted OPS (117 OPS+) ranks 13th, just behind Gary Carter and Thurman Munson. Those credentials -- at a position where sluggers are practically nonexistent -- earned McCann a five-year, $85 million free agent deal from the Yankees, with a vesting option that could bring the contract's total value to $100 million.
Did the Bombers invest wisely in a down-ballot MVP candidate, ending the procession of punch-and-judy backstops who produced a collective .298 slugging percentage last year, or did they potentially waste six figures on another aging star? The answer to that question depends upon how long McCann remains a threat at the plate -- and how long he can keep squatting behind it. Let's be honest: the prospect of paying top dollar to a guy whose occupational hazards include crouching for three hours a day while getting pummeled by foul tips, backswings and base runners is terrifying. But if his resurgent 2013 season and the history of other sweet-swinging catchers are any indication, McCann might just prove to be worth every penny.
Low stuff no longer a problem
The former Brave endured the worst season of his career in 2012, posting an 87 OPS+ as he tried to play through a right shoulder injury that required off-season surgery. He missed the first month of 2013 rehabbing, but he rebounded at the plate to the tune of a 115 OPS+. The big difference was McCann's performance against pitches thrown at the knees:
McCann's slugging percentage vs. low pitches, 2012
McCann's slugging percentage vs. low pitches, 2013
McCann slugged a paltry .310 versus pitches thrown to the lower third of the strike zone in 2012 -- ten points below the major league average. This past year, he slugged .437 against low stuff. He wasn't able to loft those low pitches in '12, hitting a grounder about 54% of the time that he put the ball in play, but he took to air in '13 (42% ground ball rate).
Will McCann hold up behind home plate?
Few doubt that McCann will be a massive upgrade for the Yankees in 2014, but what about in the following years? Will he continue to be an offensive stalwart at catcher, or will he be an ultra-expensive DH? Believe it or not, catchers who rake in their twenties like McCann hold up pretty well in their thirties.
Eleven other catchers have posted an OPS+ above 110 in their twenties while logging at least 1,000 games. Using Baseball-Reference's Play Index Tool, I found how these guys performed from age 30 to 35 (the years covered by McCann's contract if his option vests). Joe Mauer was excluded, as we have yet to see how the now former catcher's career unfolds. Thurman Munson, whose life came to a tragic end at 32, was also excluded. That left nine McCann comps: Johnny Bench, Yogi Berra, Ted Simmons, Mickey Cochrane, Gary Carter, Bill Freehan, Darrell Porter, Lance Parrish, and Ivan Rodriguez.
From age 30 to 35, these players continued to hit and mostly stick behind the plate. Collectively, they:
The results aren't really skewed by a few great performers, either: All nine remained average or above-average hitters from age 30-35, and all had at least 11 Wins Above Replacement during that time frame. Nobody busted, and several remained All-Star caliber players.
While this mini-study doesn't prove that McCann will deliver on his mega-contract, it does suggest that he's not necessarily a ticking time bomb destined for the DH spot in a year or two. If he provides the Yankees with 15-16 wins over the course of his contract, it will be $100 million well spent for a team with exceptionally deep coffers and a gaping hole at the position. Many catchers struggle to hold up both offensively and defensively as they age. But, as McCann's career comps show, he's not like most catchers.