When the Yankees signed Brian McCann to a five-year, $85-million contract before last season, most people focused on the lefthanded power and leadership the team would be adding with the former Braves catcher.
During contract talks, McCann and his agent showed the Yankees something else they knew the organization already valued: McCann's ability to frame pitches and "steal" strikes from umpires for his pitchers. You won't find that skill in the traditional stats, but if you dig deep enough in advanced metrics, it's there, and the skill has become an area of emphasis among major league teams.
"I think there's an increased emphasis on it because they can measure it," Yankees manager and former catcher Joe Girardi said last week. "We were always concerned about it as catchers before they were measuring it, but they didn't put a value on it. They knew it was important, but now it plays a value in a contract, which it never did before.
"So we've always paid attention, we've always worked on it. I worked on it in college, and as we know, that was a while ago. I think it's really important. We do pay attention. We're always looking for improvement and trying to get as many pitches as we can from our catchers."
McCann used to be one of the best in baseball at framing pitches, but he has dropped off during his career and has cratered this season to the point that his pitch-framing actually is seen by one metric as a slight negative.
From 1988 (when the data started to become available) to 2014, McCann ranked as the fourth-best regular catcher in terms of framing pitches by a study on the Baseball Prospectus website. Among active catchers, only third-ranked form- er Yankee Russell Martin was rated higher.
But McCann's pitch-framing statistics have declined starting in 2013, his last year with Atlanta. According to BP's Framing Runs, a metric beginning in 2008 that has assigned a run value to framing skills, McCann added 38.8 runs in 2008 and still was at 24.8 in 2012.
But in 2013, McCann dropped to 10.4. In 2014, his first season with the Yankees, he was at 10.2. In 2015, in games through Thursday, McCann has fallen below zero to -1.0 in Framing Runs.
Put another way, McCann "stole" 242 strikes for Atlanta in 2008. Last season, he pilfered 68 for the Yankees. This year, he actually has cost Yankees pitchers seven strikes through Thursday's games.
McCann said he considers pitch-framing "very important" but added, "I don't spend any time looking at [the stats] . . . When I first came into the league, it wasn't ever talked about. Now it's a huge deal. It's just another thing that teams can use to evaluate you that may go unnoticed."
McCann said the key to pitch-framing has less to do with how your glove is positioned than where your body is and how you let the umpire see the ball as it crosses the plate.
"I think presentation's key for an umpire to be able to see over you," McCann said. "You've got to get low and work from the bottom of the zone to the top of the zone."
Through Thursday, McCann was ranked 44th in baseball in a different framing metric. Statcorner.com's oStr% calculates the percentage of pitches caught outside the strike zone that were called a strike. McCann's oStr% was 6.7. His backup, John Ryan Murphy, was 50th at 6.4.
Among catchers who had received at least 1,000 pitches this season, the Cubs' David Ross was No. 1 with an oStr% of 11.3. Former Yankee Francisco Cervelli, McCann's backup last season, was second at 11.0.
Injured Mets catcher Travis d'Arnaud, who has received high marks for his pitch-framing ability, was sixth at 9.1. Rookie Kevin Plawecki was 12th at 8.8.
"It's definitely emphasized," Plawecki said. "We get a pitch-framing report after every game. How many strikes you steal and stuff like that on our computer system. Makes it kind of like a game within the game, if you will.
"It's very important to steal pitches and steal strikes. It helps out our pitching staff. If you steal three, four strikes a game, that could get you a couple more outs. It's just how you position yourself, how you catch it, how you're showing it to the umpire. Framing has been emphasized ever since high school. It's a big part of the position. It's important to work on it."
The good defensive news for McCann is that he had thrown out a career-high 43 percent of potential base-stealers this season going into Friday. His previous career best? The 37 percent he threw out last season in his first year in pinstripes.
So while McCann may be stealing less, so are the people trying to run on him.