I was doing some late-night social media scrolling the night before last when this tweet came onto my screen.
Possibly unpopular @Braves opinion.. Javy Lopez was a better catcher than Brian McCann. Offensively and defensively.
— Sean Lasley (@sean_lasley) March 29, 2020
At first, I thought, “Nah.” Then I thought, “Well, maybe?” Then I thought…why not look deeper into this subject? That, my good friends, is what I plan to do today as we try to decide who is better – Javy Lopez or Brian McCann.
Let’s get this out of the way first. Neither of these guys is without their deep faults. Did Javy Lopez use steroids? Probably. After all, he did say that he’d “be stupid enough not to use” steroids in 2010. Did Brian McCann cheat as a member of the Houston Astros? There is plenty of evidence to suggest he did, though I guess it’s kind of nice that he asked other members of the team to stop. I mean, they didn’t and he said nothing, but okay.
So, character-wise, it’s not good for either of these guys.
But pushing that to the side, which catcher was a better Brave at the end of the day? Well, if you’re looking for an easy answer and a quick article, you aren’t going to find it here. Not because I love to talk, though I definitely do. But because there is no easy “look at this” stat. You can point to one, but I’ll get into why it’s lacking in a second. With that said, let’s dive in.
Both Javy Lopez and Brian McCann could hit. In fact, they are incredibly comparable offensively for a pair of weighted stats. Javy Lopez had a .358 wOBA and 114 wRC+ while McCann had a .351 wOBA and 115 wRC+. Lopez hit a few more homers (214-188) while McCann had a higher on-base percentage (.348-.337). In terms of baseball-reference’s offensive WAR, McCann had 25.6 oWAR in 10 years with the Braves while Lopez had 24.4 oWAR in 12 years. Don’t get too stuck on the two-year difference. Lopez rarely played in 1992-1993.
Fangraphs likes Lopez a bit more, giving him an Offensive Runs Above Average of 67.8 over McCann’s 40.3. But a good portion of that is McCann’s terrible base-running. Not sure I truly want to ding McCann for a skill neither really had. But if you want to give Lopez credit for being a bit faster than slow, have at it. Personally, I think it’s just not important enough to really care about.
The crutch of the argument for those that believe McCann runs away with this is found in defense. Let’s take a look at WAR according to Fangraphs for the top four catchers in franchise history.
Okay, end of story, McCann is not only better than Lopez, but he’s also easily the best catcher in franchise history. Raise the “Mission Accomplished” banner and let’s let the post-game Walk-Off Walk crew talk about it. Take it away, Chris Hardwick.
Buuuuuutttttt…it’s really not that simple.
We need to dive deeper. As I already showed, in terms of offense, the two are remarkably comparable. You might even think Lopez has the edge. But McCann blows him out of the water in defense according to the numbers from Fangraphs. In fact, with a Def component number of 240.5, McCann is not just the number one in franchise history, but closest competitor, Crandall, isn’t even within shouting distance. Lopez is fifth with a 55.9 Def number, by the way. Quick math, but that’s nearly 200 behind.
But here is where we need to take a step back and think for a moment. And the #4 catcher on the Def franchise catcher list can help put us in the right direction. Tyler Flowers has the fourth-best Def grade in franchise history. Ignoring everything about whether he’s a good defensive catcher or not, Flowers has played in 349 games with the team. There’s no logical way that he would rank that high on this list. That’s higher than Hank Gowdy, Phil Masi, and Mickey O’Neil. You might not know all of those names, but they are significant figures when you consider a list for the best catchers in Braves history.
But it’s because of how Def is graded for modern catchers that gives Flowers the edge. DRS, or defensive runs saved, is a number we are pretty familiar with and McCann leads in franchise history. But look who is second and just ahead of Flowers: David Ross. In less than 1500 innings behind the plate, Ross has the second-best DRS in franchise history among catchers.
And then there is FRM, of framing runs. McCann is sitting pretty at 143.9 FRM. Flowers is next at 60.1 and then Ross with 41.4. Nobody else has 5 FRM or better. Is that because the Braves have only had three good framers in 150 or so years?
Of course not. It’s because these stats do not go back very long. Let’s circle back to Lopez. In the era of advanced defensive stats, Lopez logged just 1807.1 innings behind the plate as a Brave. Remember that Ross caught around 1500 innings and Lopez not only had a much longer career in Atlanta, he was a starter. Overall, Lopez caught 9047.2 innings with the team, but for DRS purposes, he is only credited for about a fifth of that. This era includes no credit for framing, by the way. Those stats had yet to be invented, nor have they been retroactively awarded.
Just to be clear – I am not suggesting that Lopez was a gifted catcher. There was a reason Greg Maddux did not feel comfortable throwing to him. But as someone who watched McCann’s entire career behind the plate, I find it preposterous to suggest that McCann is the third-best defensive catcher in history behind Yadier Molina and Russell Martin because that’s what the numbers say. Why should I trust fWAR for this comparison when a significant part of the way the number is computed helps catchers who played during the data-driven age of baseball versus those that missed out on it?
For what it’s worth, the far more reserved Baseball-Reference also includes defensive in their WAR number. If you recall, McCann had a slight edge in oWAR – 25.6 vs. 24.4. If we look at dWAR, McCann still carries an edge like he did in Def, though not nearly as insane with a 6.0 vs. 5.3 difference. Combined, McCann beats Lopez 24.5 vs. 23.4 in WAR according to Baseball-Reference, a much easier to believe disparity than what Fangraphs was telling us.
So, Who Is Better?
I think you can make an argument for either catcher, but I will go with McCann in the end. Not only because I do believe he was a better defender – even though the difference Fangraphs gives us is laughable – but I also believe McCann did more to help his team win. He was a better framer in an era where umpires don’t give Tom Glavine an inch off the plate as a universal practice. That needs to matter some, though certainly not as much as FRM wants us to believe.
McCann also did more at the plate. Maybe not so much in what the basic numbers tell us, but McCann racked up 10.33 WPA, or Win Probability Added, during his Braves career. Lopez finished at 7.56. For what it’s worth, Baseball-Reference has a slightly different formula and gives McCann an even 10.0 WPA as a Brave while Lopez is at 5.4.
Of course, you can argue that Lopez did much more in the postseason, which is completely fair. Even if you ignore what he did as a Yankee and Astro, McCann went just 12-for-59 in the postseason with Atlanta. Lopez carried a .817 OPS in sixty postseason games.
But, to me, when I look at all the numbers, I give the edge to McCann. But the difference is much smaller than people believe if you simply look at fWAR and make a judgment call. You need to dive deeper into the numbers. Once you do, you can make a decision. But if you think it’s a clear-cut, easy choice…you aren’t looking hard enough.