Before the 2013 season, the Braves has some concerns with their backstop position. Quality backup David Ross had become too expensive to retain and the Braves went for Gerald Laird. While a good player in his own right, Laird was not expected to replace Rossy’s considerable production while the latter played in Atlanta.
More pressing was the contract situation of Brian McCann. Since the summer of 2005 when McCann was called up to replace Johnny Estrada behind the plate, McCann had manned the position with All-Star level production while being the NL equivalent to Joe Mauer as the best catcher in the league. However, McCann was going to be a free agent after 2013 and had off-season shoulder surgery after a career-worst .230/.300/.399 slash in 2012. Just 29 years-old, the Braves weren’t sure if McCann was entering his final season with the Braves, or so the narrative went. Many, like myself, were already confident that McCann was headed elsewhere for the 2014 season.
In addition to the issues with McCann and the defection of Ross, the Braves had a pair of catchers in the minors they were keeping an eye on. The Braves had acted to protect Christian Bethancourt from the Rule 5 draft by placing him on the 40-man roster even with the considerable questions about Bethancourt’s bat. He had OPS’d .566 with the Mississippi Braves in an injury-shortened 2012. Yet, his defense continued to be remarkable and the Braves were confident someone would grab Bethancourt even if that team would play him off the bench for a year before sending him to the minors if he needed more seasoning.
The other player was as nontraditional as they come. Bethancourt entered 2013 as a 21 year-old prospect. Evan Gattis was a 26 year-old question mark. The Braves had no idea what they really had with Gattis. The previous year’s spring training put Gattis in the minds of the Braves. Ross had called him “a beast, a man-child.” He had sent fastballs from Craig Kimbrel into the stratosphere. But the Braves have seen this script before. In the 2001 spring training, a utility player out of New Zealand named Travis Wilson hit over .400 while Bobby Cox talked about the “special sound” that came off his bat. Like Gattis, Wilson had been in A-ball the previous season. However, he was sent back to the minors because of a number crunch. In his eight years of professional ball, Wilson never came close to a major league callup outside of the 2001 spring training.
Gattis had followed up the 2012 spring training by hitting .305 with a .995 OPS in an injury-shortened season where he spent 47 games in Mississippi. After the season, he slugged .591 in Venezuela, tying for the league lead with 16 HR in 195 at-bats. Notably, Gattis had 50 less at-bats than either of the other league leaders in homers. Of course, he also earned a new nickname. “El Oso Blanco.”
Despite his 2012 accolades, Gattis was not expected to start 2013 with the Braves. While he had played 30 games in left field the previous season and also played seven games at first in 2010, he was still a catcher on a team that already had McCann and Laird. However, McCann would miss the start of the season, opening the door for Gattis who stepped the hell through it. He pummeled the National League last April, following up a productive spring, and even when McCann returned, Gattis stayed. He got shots at first base and left, though his defensive issues were glaring. His bat kept producing, though. He slugged .480 with 21 homers, becoming a dangerous late-inning weapon against opposing relievers as Gattis hit four homers in just 13 PA while pinch hitting. By the end of the season, with B.J. Upton‘s ineptitude, the Braves began to start Gattis nightly in left field and defensively, it was ugly. He still OPS’d .780 in the year’s final month, giving the Braves a possible glimpse of what it would be like to have Gattis in the lineup every night.
After the playoff disappointment in Los Angeles, the Braves were convinced that McCann’s time with the Braves was finished and he got the message, signing with the Yankees last winter. While the Braves would hedge their bets by getting Ryan Doumit, they were banking on Gattis for 2014.
So far, the results favor Atlanta and it’s not all that close. While McCann has struggled in every offensive category, Gattis has proved a lot of doubters wrong. While he doesn’t have enough plate appearances to rank in many of fangraphs statistics entering Wednesday’s action, lowering the minimum to 180 PA (11 qualified catchers becomes 16), Gattis ranks, among catchers, second in fWAR, first in homers (by five), holds over a hundred point lead in ISO, and is second in wOBA and wRC+. While we can sit here and talk about his hacktastic approach, lack of walks, and utter “man-child” hitting profile, the results are enough to accept Gattis for who he is.
McCann did what was right for him. He headed to New York for millions. Of 16 catchers with at least 180 PA, he ranked third from the bottom in fWAR.
It’s a long season and the comparison is unfair for a few reasons, most notably because the Braves didn’t make a choice between Gattis and McCann since the latter was ruled out. Nevertheless, when McCann signed with the Bronx Bombers, a lot of people felt like the Braves would end up regretting letting yet another homegrown star go. So far…so good.