Friday, January 16, 2015

Yankees’ offense centers on Brian McCann

The New York Yankees ran out a pathetic offense for a better part of the 2014 season. It cost the hitting coach his job and the club a spot in the postseason. If 2015 is going to be any different, Brian McCann is going to need to shoulder more of the offensive weight than his teammates.

Is he up for the task?

Before you start naming other players who might influence the offense more than McCann, I’ll give you reasons why I feel they can be tempered, and not considered more important than McCann.

Jacoby Ellsbury and Brett Gardner are a package in my view – and a pretty good one at that. One or both of them will get on base and at a good enough clip individually, if not together. But, when one is not performing well, the other likely will be. Having one hitter at the top of the lineup that can get on base and make something of walks and singles is great, having two is a luxury and lessens the pressure on both hitters.

If you think of Carlos Beltran as the number three hitter, you’ve got someone who if healthy can regain some of the lost production from last season. I don’t believe that Beltran’s issues were completely about his elbow injury, but I do believe they affected his play and he will bounce back if he is fully healed. I just don’t think he’s as important as McCann, and I’ll explain why shortly.

McCann will likely hit fourth, so that leaves Mark Teixeira as the number five batter. Like Beltran, Teixeira should see a bounce from his 2014 numbers, IF he can stay on the field long enough to be productive. What makes Teixeira a little less important than McCann is that the Yankees have a bonafide backup for Teixeira in Garrett Jones something that was not a comfort of the club’s in 2014.

Chase Headley and Alex Rodriguez will hit sixth and seventh, but I’m unsure (and so too are the Yankees I’d bet) about which player slots where. No matter really, as neither one of them is expected to carry the team offensively. Headley is there mostly for his glove, and if A-Rod is in the lineup at all, it means he is hitting the ball better than anyone could expect after not seeing a live pitch since the end of the 2013 season. Production here is important, but again pales to that of what McCann needs to provide.

Rounding out the perceived lineup is Stephen Drew and Didi Gregorius. Now, each of these hitters has some upside – Drew's disaster 2014 season should prove to be an aberration with a full spring training, and Gregorius by virtue of the untapped potential many see in his bat. Again, the Yankees will be glad if they hit, but for the most part they are expected to be prime defenders for the Yankees.

Let’s turn our attention back to McCann. First, I believe, like many others, that McCann will benefit simply from not having to study an entire pitching staff from scratch this spring. There are new faces on the roster, but last year he dealt with a totally new staff. This will allow McCann some breathing room in terms of the amount of time he has to devote to learning the tendencies of the pitchers.

Next, I dismissed Beltran as the key and here is a reason why. If McCann is not hitting teams will pitch around Beltran. If McCann is hitting, Beltran will see better pitches and the Yankees would hope it could jump-start a comeback season. Beltran's potential success is in lock step with McCann's. This is particularly important for the Yankees. If both Beltran and McCann are doing well then it means the Yankees are scoring runs.

I understand that in a similar fashion, if McCann is producing at the plate opponents might avoid him, and pitch to Teixeira. But the simple answer to this is that the Yankees would hope that one or two of the first three hitters are on base, making it less likely that teams will want to work around McCann. I believe chances are good that they will be the case.

While McCann was bit by the infield shift quite often last season, I do feel that he is someone who can be encouraged to try to make some adjustments to beat it. He did try at times last season. I don’t mean by bunting or completely changing his approach at the plate, but he still has enough raw power to try and drive the ball to left field if opponents are giving it to him.

I believe this differs from Teixeira’s inability to beat the shift. Teixeira has turned himself into a complete pull hitter and I do not believe he wants to change that. If Teixeira is uncomfortable doing so, then I simply suggest he stick to his plan and try to pull as many balls out of the park, particularly when at the plate as a left-handed hitter. You can’t teach an old dog (and a stubborn one at that) new tricks.

So what is it exactly that McCann needs to provide at the plate?

The Yankees will be in great shape if McCann can produce a .260/.325/.475 line this season with 27-30 home runs and about 90 RBIs in roughly 550 plate appearances. In what was considered a terribly down year in 2014, McCann produced a .232/.286/.406 line with 23 homers and 75 RBIs in 538 plate appearances. Looking at this you might think I’m crazy to suggest he can manage to add over 100 points to his OPS.

Allow me to explain. McCann had a spell of 43 games (160 plate appearances) from Aug. 1 through Sept. 28 in which his OPS was .771 and his slugging percentage was .491. He hit 12 homers during the span and drove in 30 runs. So, he certainly has it in him.

But how?

What McCann needs to do is figure out a way to combat the shift and potentially draw some more walks. McCann’s walk rate was a measly 6 percent in 2014, severely affecting his on base percentage. His career walk rate in his previous nine seasons with the Atlanta Braves was 9.5 percent. Being more selective at the plate will only help the other aspects of his hitting.

As I mentioned earlier, McCann will be more at ease with the pitching staff this season, and I do see that helping his ability to concentrate more on his hitting approach, especially during the spring. Further, with new hitting coaches in place, it is entirely possible that one of them has some suggestions for McCann and if he puts them into practice, he could thrive in the Bronx as many predicted he would last season.

While it's true that each player in the Yankees’ lineup carries some importance to the success of the offense this season, Brian McCann is the ultimate key to it flourishing.

Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference.

Photo courtesy of Keith Allison via Flickr.

Christopher Carelli is a freelance sports writer and sports media strategist. His baseball commentary has also been published on Yahoo Sports, the FanSided network, Sportsideo and linked multiple times on MLB Trade Rumors’ Baseball Blogs Weigh In. He is a member of the Internet Baseball Writers Association of America, the Baseball Bloggers Alliance and the BYB Hub.