Given the nature of baseball, almost every team will have at least one player who performs well below expectations. For the 2012 Braves, that player was Brian McCann. For the first time in his 7 full seasons, McCann did not make the All Star Team; what's more, he posted career-worst marks in all 3 triple-slash stats, finishing at just .230 / .300 / .399.
While McCann's hitting stats were well off his career averages of .279 / .351 / .475, they actually weren't all that bad by catcher standards. MLB catchers as a whole averaged .248 / .318 / .400, so McCann was just a few bloop hits away from average.
By FanGraphs' version of Wins Above Replacement (fWAR), McCann (2.0 fWAR) ranked in the middle of the pack, right alongside guys like Russell Martin (2.2 fWAR), Mike Napoli (2.0 fWAR), and Wilin Rosario (1.8 fWAR). That's not the elite company McCann is used to, but it's certainly not embarrassing.
Most Braves fans seemed to acknowledge that the injuries were the main cause of McCann's down year. For much of the year, he experienced tendinitis in his knee, and he was severely limited in the last two months by problems with his right shoulder. The injuries had a noticeable effect on McCann's swing, particularly once the shoulder started acting up. Before missing his first game due to the shoulder on August 8th, McCann was hitting a decent .241 / .316 / .447; after that, he hit just .202 / .256 / .269.
This story should sound familiar, as McCann's 2012 was virtually the same as the underperforming seasons put up by Martin Prado and Jason Heyward in 2011. Prado and Heyward were likewise troubled by nagging injuries, and both bounced back in a big way this year once those injuries had a chance to heal in the off-season. Here's a comparison of the three seasons:
As you can see, all three players experienced a Batting Average on Balls In Play (BABIP) around 50 points worse than their career marks. That alone accounts for about 90% of the difference between their slump-year stats and their career numbers.
You often hear that an abnormally low BABIP is the result of bad hitting luck, but it can also be the result of injury, and I think that's what we're seeing here. Injuries mess with your swing, and attempts to compensate can sometimes just make things worse. This often manifests itself in more balls off the end of the bat, less powerful swings, and so on. It's easy to see how such problems might lead to a lower BABIP.
Assuming McCann is healthy in 2013, he should be able to get his swing back on track. If so, we'll see his BABIP rise right back into the normal range, taking his other numbers along with it.
McCann's low BABIP this year cost him around 20 hits; even assuming all of those were singles, his numbers would rise to around .276 / .341 / .444 with a normal BABIP. Sprinkle in a few extra walks and doubles and you've pretty much got a typical Brian McCann season. And a typical McCann season is damn good.
Defensively, McCann's injuries seemed to have less impact. He seemed to have a bit less mobility, but mobility is not terribly important in a catcher, and the other aspects of his game behind the plate were more or less unchanged.
While McCann posted his usual underwhelming caught-stealing numbers (24 caught out of 100 attempts for, you guessed it, 24%), that wasn't a huge liability. The league average was 26%, so McCann's arm cost the team only a couple outs (and of course, part of the blame goes to the pitchers). He also made just 2 errors, a dramatic improvement from his total of 14 two years ago.
It's worth noting that much of a catcher's impact is not measured by these statistics. While it's more difficult to determine a player's value in terms of the way he calls a game, his ability to block wild pitches, the way he frames borderline pitches, and so forth, I would say that McCann ranks as average or above-average in all those areas.
A quick look at passed ball and wild pitch stats show that McCann was pretty good at preventing balls from getting past him. He had 6 passed balls and 34 wild pitches in 2012; the league average for the same number of defensive innings was 8.4 passed balls and 35.4 wild pitches. While it's hard to separate out the pitcher's contribution to these plays, those numbers look fairly good for McCann.
All in all, defense isn't exactly McCann's strong suit, but he's not a liability behind the plate, either. Of course, catchers don't last forever, and McCann's skills will deteriorate at some point. But for the time being, he's doing fine, balky knee and all.
McCann's #1 task in the coming months is simply to get healthy. He's going to have an MRI on his shoulder soon, which will hopefully tell us that he won't need surgery.
With a little luck, rest will do most of the job. I'm confident that McCann and the Braves' coaching staff can do the rest. UPDATE: McCann is having shoulder surgery today; the early word on his timetable is that he'll be recovered by mid-February, which should give him enough time to be ready for the start of the season. This likely won't affect the Braves' decision on McCann's option.
The Braves will almost certainly pick up McCann's option for the 2013 season. Beyond that, the future is unclear. The big question is whether the Braves will try to extend him this offseason, or wait to see how he does in 2013. If McCann returns to form next year, the Braves will obviously want to keep him around. But a long-term deal would likely be cheaper now, coming off a poor season, than it would be after such a bounce-back.
I think the wait-and-see approach is most likely, and most prudent as well. McCann has already caught over 1000 MLB games, and the possibility of continued injuries will only rise over time. I'd love to keep him around, of course, but only if he stays mostly healthy next year. If McCann's previous contract is any indication, he'll likely take a hometown discount to stay in Atlanta. Knowing that, I'd say the chances of McCann staying beyond 2013 are still very good.