On September 18th, 1992, a 21 year old Puerto Rican by the name of Javy Lopez made his debut for the Atlanta Braves. While young at the time, it was evident there was plenty of talent in the young backstop. However, few could have predicted that he would play a significant role for more than a decade in one of the greatest stretches of success in the history of Atlanta sports.
Nearly 12 years and nine months later, after Lopez departed the Braves at the end of the 2003 season, another 21 year old catcher by the name of Brian McCann made his debut for the Braves on June 10th, 2005. Much like Lopez, it was evident that McCann had the makings of being a staple of success for the Braves for years to come. Just like Lopez, that assumption, both on an individual and team level, proved to be true.
It has now been more than 27 years since Lopez’s debut, and with the possibly unexpected but not too surprising retirement announcement by Brian McCann on Wednesday night, it feels as if it is an end of an era. For 19 of the past 27 years, Lopez or McCann have been the main cog behind the plate for the Braves, helping to command some of the best staffs in baseball history. It should be obvious that both Lopez and McCann are two of the best catchers in the history of the franchise, as they are two of only three catchers who produced more than 20 bWAR in their careers as a Brave (Del Crandall is the other, with the criteria being 90% of career games played in a Braves uniform coming from behind the plate.)
While the success of the careers may not have been too surprising, the similarities between them may open a few eyes. Of the 47.9 total bWAR the duo contributed during their time in Atlanta, 24.5 bWAR came from McCann and 23.4 bWAR came from Lopez. The fact that McCann played 1190 games for the Braves and Lopez played 1156 games shows just how similar their levels of production were during almost the exact same amount of games in Atlanta.
Each backstop may have been better than the other in certain areas, but their overall offensive profiles were quite comparable. During their time with the Braves, Lopez batted .287/.337/.502 and McCann batted .275/.348/.469. Lopez had a .839 OPS, .358 wOBA and 115 wRC+, while McCann produced a .817 OPS, .351 wOBA and 114 wRC+. The reason why Lopez was the more productive offensive player was due to his power. He hit 214 home runs with a .215 ISO compared to McCann’s 188 home runs and .194 ISO. Despite a lower power output, McCann offered a similar offensive profile due to his ability to get on base. Despite producing less hits and home runs in his time in Atlanta than Lopez, McCann was much more patient at the plate, generating 445 walks as a Brave compared to Lopez’s 273.
In their time in Atlanta, both Lopez and McCann have compared quite favorably to their peers across the Majors. Lopez earned three All-Star nods and one Silver Slugger award in, while McCann made seven All-Star appearances and won five Silver Slugger awards. While While Lopez’s career may not be as decorated as McCann’s, he produced the best single season of the two in 2003, when he was worth 6.8 bWAR and finished fifth in the MVP voting. Though McCann produced the only other single season bWAR above 5.0 among the duo, he never finished higher than 24th in the MVP voting.
Though McCann had more All-Star appearances, that could be due more to the lack of consistency from his peers around baseball than being more consistent than Lopez. McCann had six seasons that were valued at 2.0 bWAR or higher, while Lopez had five. In the history of the Braves organization, there have been only 18 seasons where a catcher (90% of games played at position in that season) hit 15 home runs. Twelve of those 18 seasons were produced by Lopez or McCann. Under the same criteria, there have been only seven instances where a Braves catcher produced 80 or more RBIs, each of which were done by Lopez or McCann. In fact, there have been only 28 seasons in which a Braves’ catcher played 90% or more of his games behind the plate and registered 450 or more plate appearances. In five of those 28 seasons, the catcher produced an OPS of .850 or more, each of which was done by Lopez or McCann.
Besides their similar offensive profiles, the other main point of connection between McCann and Lopez was the overall success of the Braves’ teams during their careers. Across 13 seasons, both Lopez and McCann provided clutch hits and big moments in the playoffs, as seen above. Though Lopez was significantly more productive than McCann in terms of both individual and team success in the postseason, the fact that the Braves featured significant offensive value from the catcher position was consistently a big boost to their overall success as a team.
Since Lopez’s debut in 1992, the overall production of McCann and himself has made the Braves among the majors best in terms of overall value from the catcher position. From 1992-2019, according to Fangraphs, the Braves have produced the third highest fWAR, second highest OPS, second highest wOBA (tied with Dodgers), and third highest wRC+ as a team from the catcher position compared to the rest of the majors. The only team that has been better over that time is the Yankees. That fact seems to suggest that McCann and Lopez have played a major role in allowing the Braves to remain a consistent contender over the majority of their careers.
As can be seen, the main thing that set both Lopez and McCann apart from their peers around the league during their respective careers and those that have become before and after them in franchise history was true middle of the order offensive production. In a game where overall production from the catcher position continues to carry more and more value (see the top of most drafts in recent years), the Braves have been quite fortunate to have both Lopez and McCann dawning the tools of ignorance during one of the most successful runs in franchise and baseball history.
Though neither was known for elite defense nor will either likely make a strong push for the Hall of Fame, their success should not be discounted. Lopez was behind the plate on most nights for one of the best pitching staffs in baseball history, while McCann displayed a rare consistency in an era where catchers became a position by committee instead of mostly one player. With McCann’s retirement, it truly feels like the end of an impressive era of production from Atlanta backstops rarely seen before in baseball history, and one that may be even more rare to witness again.