It was a feel-good story of an offseason that was otherwise mired in criticism of the Braves’ front office for not spending enough. Braves fans could all seemingly rally around bringing back Brian McCann, a beloved member of the Baby Braves from years past. McCann was a Georgia boy and embodied the Braves’ spirit as a perennial All-Star from 2005 to 2013. Five seasons, two teams, and a World Series ring later, it was time for McCann to come back to Atlanta where it all began.
“It feels right,” McCann said as he was re-introduced as a Brave after signing a sweetheart one-year, $2 million deal. McCann turned down other more lucrative offers to return to Atlanta and use his leadership and experience to help a young, talented pitching staff.
McCann would join fellow Georgia native Tyler Flowers, who had shared catching duties with Kurt Suzuki for the Braves the past two seasons. Flowers performed admirably enough over three seasons for the Braves, mostly with his elite framing ability, to earn a one-year, $4 million contract extension partway through the 2018 season.
The Braves liked the combination of Flowers and McCann not as much for their value at the plate, but rather behind it. Both catchers were coming off below-average offensive seasons that saw neither hit above .230. Most expected that substituting Suzuki for McCann would mean sacrificing offense for leadership in 2019.
Even after signing McCann and Flowers, the Braves still pursued an upgrade at the catcher position. The Braves were reportedly one of the last teams in on trading for J.T. Realmuto before he ultimately landed with the Phillies.
However, a month into the 2019 season, the Braves haven’t had to sacrifice anything at the catcher position. The Braves have received eighth highest fWAR from the catcher position this season with 0.9 WAR. That figure is higher if you account for McCann and Flowers individually — Flowers holds a 0.9 fWAR and McCann a 0.2 fWAR. (Alex Jackson’s -0.3 fWAR filling in for McCann while he was on IL accounts for the difference.) Flowers’ and McCann’s 1.1 combined fWAR would rank them fifth in baseball for the catcher position.
Their value isn’t just coming from their defense, either. Even including Jackson’s poor offensive numbers, Braves catchers rank sixth in MLB with a 110 wRC+, fourth in on-base percentage at .367, and fifth in wOBA at .348. Flowers boasts the third highest wRC+ (157) of any catcher with at least 50 plate appearances and ranks third among catchers in fWAR, behind only J.T. Realmuto and Yasmani Grandal.
For his part, McCann has also provided good, professional at-bats for the Braves. He has slashed .270/.364/.405 and holds a 99 wRC+. All of those numbers represent a significant increase from this 2018 line.
While McCann’s offensive production has been solid so far, he more than has lived up to his billing as a leader in the clubhouse. So much so that even Brian Snitker is leaning on him for managerial decisions. Last week in Cincinnati, when Mike Soroka’s pitch count elevated in the sixth inning and runners were on base, Snitker visited the mound not as much to talk to his young pitcher as to talk to his veteran catcher.
“I could have been talked out of leaving him in, but I wanted to talk to Mac and see what he thought,” Snitker said.
“I said, ‘We’ve got it,’” McCann recalled. “‘He’s got enough in the tank, and he’s been in control from pitch one.’ I really liked the matchup that was coming up.” Snitker heeded McCann’s advice and left Soroka in the game. Soroka would retire one more batter before being pulled with no further damage done, and the Braves would go on to win the game.
When McCann is behind the plate, it is like having a manager in the game. Catching pitchers like John Smoltz, Tom Glavine, Craig Kimbrel, CC Sabathia, Aroldis Chapman, and Justin Verlander has given McCann the authority and respect of managers to the point of making in-game decisions that most position players aren’t asked to make. This is precisely the type of leadership that the Braves hoped for when they signed McCann.
McCann’s leadership doesn’t end after he steps off the field, either. According to Chip Caray during the Braves’ broadcast, when Jesse Biddle was struggling and feeling lost on the mound, he confided in McCann and sought his counsel. McCann reportedly advised Biddle to focus on his preparation, as it builds confidence which in turn produces results. While it is now on Biddle to take McCann’s advice and try to turn it into results, it is clear that McCann’s teammates trust him when they need guidance.
Perhaps the greatest value that McCann and Flowers provide is their handling of a starting rotation that has been young and plagued by injury to this point in the season. The Braves have already had nine different pitchers make starts this season, which is the most in MLB. With so much turnover, it would have been easy to see the wheels fall off for the Braves’ rotation. However, the stabilizing force that the Braves’ veteran catchers have had in managing this rotation has undoubtedly helped avoid disaster at times.
McCann and Flowers are performing better than most would have imagined when they signed their contracts. So far, the Braves have received 1.1 WAR for a mere $6 million combined, and it is only April. If McCann and Flowers can continue to perform anywhere near the level they have been, whether it be at the plate, behind the plate, or in the clubhouse, the Braves have struck gold.