Evaluating The Awesomeness of Brian McCann Thus Far

Scott Cunningham

Brian McCann has managed to be incredible since his return, despite actually being fairly unlucky.

Coming into the season, a lot of fans questioned which Brian McCann we'd see once he came back. Would we see the Brian McCann of old, or the old Brian McCann? With the emergence of Evan Gattis, the fever pitch of that question died down substantially, and many in fact advocated trading McCann. Gattis' power surge allowed a lot of the hand wringing over McCann to take a back seat for almost everybody.

However, since McCann has returned, he's been nothing short of remarkable. Let's first just see the raw data:

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(stats courtesy of fangraphs)

The first thing that jumps out is the power surge. Now that Fat Juan is gone, McCann actually has the highest HR/FB rate on the entire team (yes, higher than Evan Gattis, McCann's HR/FB rate is 30%, with Gattis' being 23.5%, both incredible). His ISO is tied for second on the team with Justin Upton (ISO is slugging percentage minus batting average, ie it essentially pulls contact out of slugging percentage to give an idea of how much power a player hits with when he does make contact). The next thing we see is that he's 5th in the team in walk rate, behind Schafer (yeah, I know), Upton, Uggla and Heyward. Mac combines this with the third lowest K% on the team, behind Simmons and Laird. Either one of these by themselves don't mean as much, but if you notice, McCann is the only player I mentioned twice there. McCann is managing to walk a lot, without the usual accompanying strikeouts you see with walks, which is always amazing to see.

We often talk about three true outcomes (strikeouts, walks and home runs), and how they're usually more inherently valuable than just putting the ball in play, when taken collectively. When a hitter puts a ball in play, he's often at the mercy of the defense to either make the play or not. What we see with Mac is that when he doesn't put the ball in the field of play, through the combination of walks, striekouts and home runs, he's one of the most valuable players in all of baseball. Here are Mac's stats when filtered for homers, walks and strikeouts only (league average to the right):

McCann on Home runs, walks and strikeouts

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He's been incredible when he's "taken the plate appearance out of the defense's hands" to say the least. This is what happens when you have one of the highest home run rates, lowest K rates and highest walk rates. This has been the primary driver for McCann's value, which has seen McCann be the most valuable Brave on a per game basis, as he's been worth .9 wins already, despite playing less than half the games that Upton and Gattis have, who are both at 1.8 fWAR.

The most incredible part of this is that McCann has seen this incredible run despite arguably being pretty unlucky with his balls in play. Let's look at what McCann has done when the opposing team's defense has come into play:

McCann on singles, doubles, triples and in play outs

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As we see here, when McCann brings the defense into the equation by putting the ball in play, he's been one of the worst in MLB. McCann for his career has had a .291 BABIP, and this season sits at .232 (the difference between his BABIP and the BA from the graph above is that the graph above ignored reached on errors). However, I'm not one to immediately jump to "bad BABIP luck" every time a player has trouble when the ball is in play. Many times there are actual reasons, other than luck, that a player will see a drop in his BABIP. Last year's McCann or Heyward two years ago are both prime examples who saw their BABIP drop, but for good reason, not bad luck.

The first common culprit of a dropping BABIP is infield fly ball rate. Obviously in field fly balls are turned into outs at a near 100% rate, so a player that pops the ball up on the infield a lot will see his BABIP drop. This is what killed Heyward's BABIP in 2011 and also part of what killed McCann's BABIP last season. However, we see that thus far this year McCann has had, by far, the best IFFB% of his career, as he sits at 5% for this season, where his previous season best was 8.4% and his career average is 9.4%. So in field pop ups certainly aren't killing McCann's BABIP.

The next thing that can potentially kill a BABIP is a declining line drive percentage. Line drives typically find turf instead of leather more often than other types of contact, so a player with a declining line drive percentage will often see his BABIP drop as well. This is another aspect that has driven McCann's BABIP down the last two years. But again, we see McCann has posted the highest line drive percentage of his career thus far this season at 24.2%.

The final thing that might cause a drop in BABIP is ground balls and lack of speed. Here is where we see some 'non-luck' explanation for Mac's down BABIP, as he does have a slightly elevated ground ball percentage (he's at 43.5% this season v. 37.9% for his career). Obviously Mac isn't a particularly fast dude, and him putting the ball on the ground isn't going to be a particularly good strategy for getting hits. However, this rise in ground ball percentage isn't incredibly large.

So what is the explanation for McCann's low BABIP? It seems to mostly be a combination of defensive shifts, bad luck with line drives, and some of his potential off the wall doubles turning into homeruns. That is to say some combination of a real drop in expected BABIP and a decent amount of bad luck.

The best news is that all the numbers indicate McCann is seeing the ball incredibly well. He's not striking out much, walking a lot, and making extremely solid contact when he does put the bat on the ball. Despite the fact that he's basically been the best hitter on the team since he came back from the DL, there is even a bit of room for him to go higher, if some of those line drives start finding grass. Or at the very least it might soften the blow if his home run rate drops from its current absurd level.

The sample we've seen from McCann admittedly hasn't been very large, and a lot of things can happen to players after hot starts (see Justin Upton over the last several weeks), but if we were wondering if we were going to get the hurt McCann from last year, or the healthy Brian McCann we've seen over his entire career, the signs certainly point towards the latter, much more than the former.

Since this is my first post, I also want to send out a hearty hello to all the talking chop readers, and a welcome over to all the capitol avenue club readers making the journey over. I'll say a bit more about myself than Ben's brief intro in this morning's post:

My name is Franklin Rabon (SBNation should have the rather ominous looking initials changed over to my full name soon enough). I live in the Georgia Tech area of Atlanta and have been a lifelong Braves fan (and a season ticket holder the past few seasons). I've never read moneyball (nor seen the movie). I have a degree in Mathematics and Economics, Summa Cum Laude from the Honors College at The University of South Carolina, and a JD from the University of Virginia School of Law. I teach logic courses for a couple of local universities, test prep courses (LSAT, GMAT, GRE and SAT for The Princeton Review) and am a full time photographer. I enjoy bourbon (and parenthesis).

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