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Entries in free agency (5)


McCann Bounces Back at Plate, But Can He Stay Behind It? 

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:

  • Posted an OPS+ of 113
  • Averaged about 113 games per season, with 81 percent of those games coming behind the dish
  • Averaged 15.7 Wins Above Replacement (WAR)

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.


Cano's Comps: The Good, The Bad and the Ugly

Whether he re-signs with the Yankees or takes his talents elsewhere following the 2013 season, Robinson Cano is about to become an absurdly wealthy man. Cano's blend of contact, power and durability, coupled with new TV money swelling owners' pockets, could make him the game's highest paid player this winter.

Is Cano, 30, a good bet to keep producing as he ages? 

To explore that question, I found some players comparable to Cano using Baseball-Reference's Play Index tool and charted their career paths in their thirties. I considered Expansion-Era second basemen who had at least a 110 OPS+, a .280 average and 50+ home runs during their twenties. While you can quibble with those cutoffs, they give us a sample of keystone players who produced at the plate with both contact and power (Cano has a career 123 OPS+ to this point, with a .308 average and 177 homers).

The results are mostly positive, but Cano's comps also include a pair of players who declined dramatically and one active guy who's still great -- when he's capable of taking the field.

Here's the good, the bad and the ugly when it comes to Cano's possible post-twenties career path.

The Good

Lou Whitaker 

  • During his 20s: 5,394 PA, 110 OPS+, 37.3 WAR
  • During his 30s: 4,573 PA, 125 OPS+, 34.1 WAR

Sweet Lou was the rare player who was every bit as productive in his thirties as in his twenties. He remained a power threat deep into his thirties, actually hitting far more homers after age 29 (151) than before (93). He also stuck at second base for the duration of his 19-year career with the Tigers, saving a collective 13 runs compared to an average second baseman after age 30, according to Baseball-Reference. Whitaker represents the best-case scenario for Cano: he raked, remained relatively healthy and retained his range.

Ryne Sandberg 

  • During his 20s: 5,385 PA, 112 OPS+, 36 WAR
  • During his 30s: 3,897 PA, 118 OPS+, 28.9 WAR

Ryno emerged as a huge power threat at second base, leading the league with 40 home runs during his age 30 season and finishing with the career home run record among players at the keystone (since broken by Jeff Kent). Sandberg racked up a ton of value from age 30 to 33 (135 OPS+, 24.5 WAR), then got off to a poor start in 1994 and retired. He sat out his age 35 season but returned to the Cubs the following year, producing modestly through age 37.

Roberto Alomar 

  • During his 20s: 6,232 PA, 119 OPS+, 40.9 WAR
  • During his 30s: 4,168 PA, 112 OPS+, 22 WAR

Alomar hit for average during his early Padres years, but he became an offensive dynamo during his mid-twenties as he combined excellent contact skills, a good eye and ample power, all while collecting a cabinet full of Gold Gloves.  He remained a major threat at the dish through age 33, posting a career-best 150 OPS+ and hitting 20 homers during his last year in Cleveland, but his power plummeted upon a trade to the Mets that winter (90 OPS+, 11 HR). He was done as a regular after another sub-par season at age 35 (80 OPS+) and retired after his age 36 season.

Chase Utley 

  • During his 20s: 3,126 PA, 128 OPS+, 33 WAR
  • During his 30s: 2,014 PA, 123 OPS+, 20.3 WAR

Utley was the gold standard among second baseman prior to his injury issues and Cano's ascension as an all-around offensive threat. Now, we're not really sure what to expect. Utley is still darned good when he's on the field, but his knees are held together with Super Glue, Big League Chew and platelet-rich plasma injections from the Philadelphia Phanatic. He could be an MVP candidate in 2013, or he could play 50 games. I placed Utley in the "good" here, but would the Yankees really be pleased if they inked Cano to a megadeal and he provided intermittent, injury-plagued excellence? Thankfully, Cano has been just about the most durable player in the game to this point. But predicting durability can be a fool's errand -- Utley averaged about 675 plate appearances as a full-time player from age 26 to 29.

The Bad

Chuck Knoblauch 

  • During his 20s: 5,279 PA, 112 OPS+, 38.9 WAR
  • During his 30s: 2,108 PA, 91 OPS+, 3.1 WAR

Knoblauch batted nearly .300 during before his 30th birthday, and he ramped up his power production as he reached his mid-to-late twenties (he belted 50 homers and slugged .453 from age 26-29, compared to 10 homers and a .373 slugging percentage from age 22-25). After that, the wheels came off. Knoblauch had a good age 30 season at the plate (118 OPS+), but he fell apart in the field as he struggled to make even the most routine throws to first base. Baseball-Reference estimates that he was 15 runs worse than an average defensive second baseman that year. He was even worse the at age 31 (-10 runs in just a half season's worth of games), and he was a full-time left fielder/DH by age 32. After one wretched season in Kansas City, Knoblauch retiredly

The Ugly

Jose Vidro 

  • During his 20s: 3,895 PA, 113 OPS+, 15.5 WAR
  • During his 30s: 1,813 PA, 96 OPS+, -0.6 WAR

Vidro never reached the heights that Cano has during his career, but his post-20s playing record represents every fear talent evaluators have about second baseman declining sharply coming true. Vidro routinely hit double-digit homers and produced scads of contact, batting .304 with 101 homers through age 29, yet he never topped seven homers and hit a hollow .284 in his 30s. Knee, ankle and hamstring injuries made him a statue at second, and he mostly DHed after being traded to Seattle before his age 32 season. Suffice it to say, his bat didn't play at the position. Vidro was done at age 33.


I excluded Alfonso Soriano because he was moved off the position at 30 and sent to Wrigley's outfield.


Edwin Jackson, Slider Specialist

At long last, Edwin Jackson can unpack -- we think. While his four-year, $52 million contract with the Cubs doesn't include a no-trade clause, Jackson should at least call Wrigley Field home for the next couple of years. Considering that the 29-year-old righty was on pace to obliterate Octavio Dotel's record for most teams played for in a career -- Jackson has been a Dodger, Devil Ray, Tiger, Diamondback, White Sock, Cardinal and National, and was technically a Blue Jay for a brief moment (though he never suited up) -- that's a step in the right direction.

It's surprising that it has taken Jackson this long to settle down in one city. He might not be the Cy Young contender that people envisioned when he celebrated his 20th birthday by outdueling Randy Johnson during his MLB debut, but Jackson has been above-average since he reached Detroit (106 ERA+ from 2009-12) while tossing slightly over 200 innings pitched per season. That combination of quality and quantity has made Jackson the 29th-most valuable starter over that time frame, judging by Baseball-Reference's Wins Above Replacement.

Jackson's slider is the main reason that he has evolved from a perceived bust to a solid starter making serious bank. Here's a closer look at his mid-to-high-80s breaker, which ranks among the game's best out pitches.

  • Jackson threw his slider 29.3% of the time in 2012, the ninth-highest clip among MLB starters. Ryan Dempster (39.5%), Madison Bumgarner (35.6%), Bud Norris (36.3%), Ervin Santana (36.3%), Francisco Liriano (32.5%), Jason Marquis (32.1%), CC Sabathia (31.8%) and Bruce Chen (29.9%) were the only starters to rely on the slide-piece more often.
  • With a miss rate approaching 50%, Jackson got swings and misses with his slider more frequently than any other starter in the game:

Highest slider whiff rate among MLB starters, 2012 (minimum 300 thrown)

Pitcher Miss Pct.
Edwin Jackson 48.5%
Zack Greinke 44.7%
Yu Darvish 44.2%
James McDonald 43.9%
Francisco Liriano 43.3%
CC Sabathia 43.0%
Colby Lewis 42.5%
Clayton Kershaw 42.3%
Derek Holland 41.8%
Max Scherzer 41.7%
MLB Avg. for SP 30.9%


  • Jackson uses his slider as a chase pitch, placing just 37.3% of them within the strike zone. The average for starters, by contrast, is about 47%. Hitters can't seem to lay off those off-the-plate-sliders. Check out Jackson's swing rate by pitch location with his slider, and then the league average for right-handed starting pitchers:

        Jackson's slider swing rate             Avg. slider swing rate for SP


Jackson boasted the highest slider chase rate (44.1%) among NL starters last year. In the AL, only Colby Lewis (50.7% slider chase rate), Brian Matusz (48.3%), Yu Darvish (44.6%) and Liriano (44.6%) made batters hack at more would-be balls.

  • Fanning 111 hitters with his out pitch, Jackson led NL starters in slider strikeouts and trailed just Sabathia (138 slider Ks) among all starters.
  • While the slider is usually more effective against same-handed hitters, Jackson actually got better results with the pitch against lefties. He held left-handers to a .299 slugging percentage against his slider, compared to .361 against righties. For comparison's sake, righty starters surrendered a collective .386 slugging percentage with sliders against lefty batters last season, and a .350 slugging percentage against righties.
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