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Projecting 2019: Josh Donaldson and Brian McCann

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What might the Braves’ two newest additions contribute next season?

Cleveland Indians v Kansas City Royals Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

The Braves took the offseason cold stove and threw it in a microwave built into the side of a volcano on Monday afternoon, signing two veterans to major league deals and substantially shaking up the prospective 2019 roster. This post is a quick look at some early projections for these two players.

Josh Donaldson

Donaldson is a landmark signing for the Atlanta Braves organization for two reasons that immediately come to mind. First, I believe he receives the largest single-season payout with his $23 million salary that the Braves have ever given. Second, I think he’s probably the second-best (as in most productive, per year) free agent the Braves have ever signed (see Greg Maddux). Then there are all the other things about the signing — $23 million is a substantial portion of the team’s 2019 payroll, he fills a position the Braves already had shored up while holes remain on the roster, and so on. But this is a post about projections, and projections are really a discussion of what a player has done and what he will do, so let’s go there.

Josh Donaldson has had a crazy good career, albeit one very much in the late bloomer vein. In his first full season, he put up a ridiculous 7.2 fWAR. In his fourth full season, he put up a ridiculous 7.6 fWAR. That wasn’t even his highest total (2015, 8.7 fWAR). These days, we think about declines really kicking in around age 30, and Donaldson was no exception here: after four consecutive years of 660+ PAs and 5.7 fWAR or more, he missed some time in his age-31 season, managing just 5.1 fWAR. He was still as productive as ever with the bat (151 wRC+), but aging isn’t always just about skills decline, as the loss of the ability to stay on the field is part and parcel of getting older for a professional athlete. That small trend became even more exaggerated in 2018, as you’re almost certainly aware. Donaldson managed to grab just 219 PAs, and posted his worst hitting mark (117 wRC+) since his rookie season in 2012. While he was still above-average on a rate basis (3.6 fWAR/600), the 1.3 fWAR total can’t really be construed as anything other than a disappointment.

One thing that’s pretty interesting about Donaldson is that his defense really turned on a dime edge once he turned 30. In his late 20s, he was putting up elite DRS marks of 11 to 20 at the hot corner, while his UZR was a really-good-but-not-as-exaggerated 7-to-9 runs above average. Since turning 30, however, he’s managed DRS marks of 2, 3, and 1 (that’s 2, 4, 4 stretched out to 1,350 innings) and UZR marks of 3, 0, and 1 (or 3, 0, and 6 stretched out to 1,350 innings). Again, defensive value sliding is somewhat expected with aging, so all of this is normal. It doesn’t spell doom, but it does spell, “Hey, the human body’s ability to perform athletic tasks does tend to decline over time in a pretty normal and expected fashion!”

Still, projection systems bank on the past broadly considered, and this is why Steamer expects him to put up a 4.8 fWAR/600 rate next year. That’s better than his 2018 rate but notably worse than his 2017 rate, and reflects something akin to a gentle age-related decline for the one-time MVP. As yet, the Fangraphs player pages do not incorporate ZiPS projections for 2019, so we’ll leave that as a to-be-determined data point for the time being.

IWAG, as usual, is more or less in line with Steamer, as a little optimistic. My only real purpose in bringing it up here is because I can showcase the distributions, which hopefully provide a bit more insight into the range of possible outcomes.

Hitting-wise, IWAG estimates a pretty substantial probability (as well as the mode outcome) that Donaldson hits like his usual self, with a wRC+ around 150. However, he’s not very likely to exceed that, and there’s the chance that a wRC+ between 105 and 125, akin to his 2018 mark (not inconsistent with his .333 xwOBA last year) is going to be the result. There’s also the left tail of something akin to an age-related cliff pulling his offensive output down into a pretty sad 85ish to 100ish range, which isn’t necessarily an outcome to bank on or expect, but remains a possibility. We’ll hope that doesn’t happen.

Putting this together with his defense and ability to stay on the field yields some pretty interesting WAR distribution curves. On a rate basis, IWAG still expects Donaldson to have a potential mode outcome as a near-MVP candidate, but this is very much tempered by age-related decline sliding him down into solidly-above-average-but-not-to-die-for 3.5 fWAR/600 territory. The real question, though, is not necessarily how well he plays on a rate basis, but how much he produces overall, and the expectation there is kind of interesting, in that after accounting for variability in playing time and production, IWAG sees more or less an equivalent chance of him posting anywhere between 4 and 9 WAR. (The 9 WAR figure is ridiculous, but it’s driven by a feedback loop in IWAG that assumes that if he’s pulling a Mike Trout, he’s both getting a bunch more PAs himself and is impossible to take out of the lineup.) However, this too is tempered by a tail that sees him potentially amassing 2 WAR or less due to some combination of injury and ineffectiveness.

The expected values of the distributions are as follows:

  • wRC+: 137 (compare to Steamer’s 131)
  • Def: 1.5/600, which is essentially a -2 performance at third base (compare to Steamer’s 4.9/600, which is a +2-3 performance)
  • WAR/600: 5.1 (compare to Steamer’s 4.8)
  • WAR: 3.5 over 418 PAs (compare to Steamer’s 4.6 over 570 PAs, or the current playing time allocation on Fangraphs’ Depth Charts that lists 4.5 over 560 PAs)

Overall, Donaldson seems reasonably like to be solidly above-average next year, which likely a bigger shot at a huge season than for an age-related collapse. The safer bet is probably “former All-Star experiencing some age-related decline” than “another MVP campaign,” but I also feel fairly confident that both of those are more likely than “2019 is the year he falls off a cliff.”

Brian McCann

Did you know that in history, only 33 catchers have more career fWAR than Brian McCann? Since his debut, only four catchers, and only 31 position players overall, have provided more production to their teams (and this is before pitch framing is taken into account). Unfortunately for the Braves, who signed McCann for just $2 million, the present is not the past. At one point, McCann had a monster six-year run in a Braves uniform, putting up around 4-5 fWAR in five of those years. Much like the new aging curve paradigm, he began to decline starting around age 28, falling into the 2-3 win range for four seasons after that, before struggling mightily to crest a 2 WAR plateau over his last three seasons.

2018, his age 34 season, was a particular challenge for McCann. It was the worst hitting year of his career (82 wRC+), as well as his most-injury sapped campaign. Despite largely being kept away from facing left-handed pitching, he only managed an 82 wRC+ against right-handers, and his poor results weren’t the result of bad luck, as his xwOBA sharply cratered (it was a really good .346 in 2017, and fell to a dreadful .290 in 2018).

The thing is, playing catcher is actually inherently valuable. Even though McCann didn’t really impress in any regard in 2018, he still managed 0.5 fWAR in 216 PAs, which is very solid backup territory on a rate basis. Steamer projects him for 1.2 fWAR in 300 PAs next year, which, again, is reflective of an average backstop in terms of hitting, baserunning, and “traditional” catcher defense. Steamer also projects a modest bounceback offensively to a 91 wRC+.

IWAG differs from Steamer mostly on the defensive end. Steamer figures McCann to be a +13 Def catcher, which is essentially league-average. However, McCann hasn’t quite managed that in two of his last three years, and age remains a stalking horse. IWAG is pretty pessimistic about his defensive abilities, projecting him as something around a minus-6 catcher defensively.

Offensively, IWAG figures that the mode outcome for McCann is something akin to the 105ish wRC+ he posted pretty consistently in his early 30s. While he’s not quite in his early 30s anymore, he did manage to have really high contact quality as recently as 2017. But, his poor 2018 can’t be ignored, so there’s also the (smaller) likelihood that he ends up in the sub-90 wRC+ range again. For the eternal optimists, there’s a marginal right-side tail of a wRC+ around 120, which would be wonderful.

On an overall value basis, McCann presents as a backup-type catcher at this point, with IWAG projecting a mode outcome of sub-2 fWAR/600 and 1.5ish WAR total. The overall spread of the distribution is pretty wide because McCann has had so many different “flavors” even in his 30s — across the past few seasons, he’s exhibited good hitting and bad hitting, as well as bad defense to average defense, each across chunky samples. As a result, the distribution is fairly wide, though there’s a greater likelihood of the aging-evident backup catcher version of his skillset coming through than the resurgent fountain of youth-type season (see A.J. Pierzynski’s 2015).

The expected values of the distributions are as follows:

  • wRC+: 94 (compare to Steamer’s 91)
  • Def: 6/600, which is a -6ish performance over a full season (compare to Steamer’s 13/600, which is akin to average or +1)
  • WAR/600: 1.8 (compare to Steamer’s 2.4)
  • WAR: 1.0 over 338 PAs (compare to Steamer’s 1.2 over 300 PAs, or the current playing time allocation on Fangraphs’ Depth Charts that lists 1.2 over 320 PAs)

Overall, McCann is what he is: an aging backstop who probably has as much chance of being above-average as he does being notably below average. With that said, since he’s a catcher, there’s one more thing to consider...

Brian McCann has had a very weird relationship with framing. Between 2008 and 2012, he posted some mind-alteringly insane, nearly incomprehensible framing metrics, tallying between an extra two to four wins on framing alone, per Baseball Prospectus’ framing runs stat. Then, over the next four years, this fell to still-very-good-but-not-insane territory, hovering at one additional win in three of those years with average framing in the other. In 2017, he fell back to average in the framing department; last year was his first season as a below-average framer since his first full season back in 2006. Statcorner’s framing metrics are in agreement: McCann was a top three framer from 2007 through 2012, generally well above average through 2016, and then below average in each of the last two years.

It’s not clear whether McCann can reclaim some of his former framing glory, or whether that skill is also lost to history at this point. If he can, he’ll deliver value in spades; if he can’t, and especially if his framing ability declines further, the Braves will be paying a pretty high opportunity cost for each PA and inning behind the plate that they give him.