Without looking at either team too hard, you might think the Astros needed major league pitching and the Yankees needed major league pitching. So of course the Yankees traded catcher Brian McCann (and $5.5m a year) to the Astros for prospect right-handers Albert Abreu and Jorge Guzman. We’ll learn more about the prospects (other than their high velocity fastballs) later, but the major league teams probably both needed this trade, and it might have actually been about pitching for the Astros anyway.
For the Yankees, the emergence of Gary Sanchez at the plate late last year probably necessitated this move by itself. Sanchez gives his team the best value behind the plate, and he was better defensively than some thought he’d be. He deserves to play every day at least, first base should be Greg Bird‘s, and this is a team that used to like to rotate designated hitters instead of having the same one in there every day. McCann’s talents would be wasted at DH, too.
Sending McCann away saves the team $17 million this year and next year. It does cost them their only lefty power bat other than the returning Bird, but with $11.5 million freed up and a catcher already in place, the team may be able to find a better lefty bat without any defensive ability. Adam Lind, for example, is a lefty bat projected to hit better than McCann. He’ll cost a fraction.
Acquiring McCann may seem strange for a team already rocking at least league-average production from the catcher position in the form of Evan Gattis. But the Astros have been more comfortable with an every-day designated hitter in the past, and Gattis should probably be that DH.
Gattis was 27th or 29th best at framing last year by Baseball Prospectus’ framing runs last year (Sanchez was right there with him, but the Yankees have traded away top framers again and again, so they may not value that skill as much as others. I digress.) His best season in that regard was in 2013, when he was around league average for a starting catcher, and at 30, he’s probably not headed back in that direction.
Even as McCann’s framing has fallen off, he remains a much better receiver behind the plate than the incumbent. He was eighth in framing runs (16th in called strike above average), and Gattis’ best year was worse than McCann’s second-worst year in that department. Harry Pavlidis also found that McCann was top ten in catcher calling runs saved from 2012-2014.
Given that we just saw Dallas Keuchel fall off at least partially due to getting fewer calls low in the zone, we’ve already seen how better receiving could impact this team in particular. With 2016’s third-best framing catcher, Jason Castro, out of town, these pitchers were all facing a drastic drop in called strikes.
With the framing and calling added in to his offense — projected to be league average compared to Castro’s 19% worse than league average — McCann is probably worth a win, win and a half at least next year. Move Gattis’ similar production to DH, and you’ve probably gained your team a win on the offensive side.
But this trade may have been as much about improving the pitching staff as it is about the offensive side of the ball. For the Astros — and their pitching staff — the hope is that McCann can still frame and call a good game as his offense falls off. It looks like that calling plus offense, on a two-year deal, was enough for them to move on to a new starting catcher.