Once a year, Mac used to write up a Keltner List for a retired Brave, as a way of debating whether he deserved to be inducted into the Hall of Fame. It’s been several years since we’ve had one, but the recently retired Brian McCann deserves to have his candidacy seriously considered.
Here’s Mac’s standard preamble to Keltner lists: The Keltner List was developed by Bill James as a device to evaluate a player’s Hall of Fame candidacy. In The Politics of Glory James says that it is probably his favorite tool to do that. (You can read about the background in that book, or do a Google search, for further information.)
So let’s run it for Heap, whose last year in the big leagues was 2019, which means we have several years to debate the merits.
Was he ever regarded as the best player in baseball? Did anybody, while he was active, ever suggest that he was the best player in baseball? No.
Was he the best player on his team? No one would have said that he was — everyone would have said it was Chipper Jones. But if you go with the pitch framing component of WAR that Fangraphs uses — which you absolutely have to if you want to treat McCann’s candidacy remotely seriously — then the answer, surprisingly, becomes yes. During McCann’s peak years from 2006 to 2012 (which was also Chipper’s last season), McCann amassed 38.4 fWAR, compared to just 27.1 for the aging Larry Wayne. This will keep coming up.
Was he the best player in baseball at his position? Was he the best player in the league at his position? Possibly yes, for a couple of years, until Buster Posey (who was out) came into his own. Per Fangraphs WAR, from 2006 to 2008 or so, there’s an argument that McCann was the best catcher in baseball, though Joe Mauer (unsurprisingly) and Russell Martin (surprisingly, and also because of framing) are both slightly ahead of him.
Did he have an impact on a number of pennant races? Not especially, and his actual postseason record is actually pretty horrid: in 39 games, across eight postseasons including a championship run with Houston in 2017, McCann hit just .172/.252/.297 with four homers and 16 RBI in 143 plate appearances. The easy guess is he was just utterly worn out after the regular season, which is certainly how he looked in the 2019 playoffs.
Was he a good enough player that he could continue to play regularly after passing his prime? No, unfortunately, as catchers are not known for aging gracefully. His prime ended shortly after signing his five-year, $85 million deal with the Yankees. He remained a full-time catcher for the first three years of the deal and declined from a three- to four-win player to a less than two-win player. They traded him to the Astros for two years, where he played as a backup. Then he returned to Atlanta and hit pretty well for a while in 2019, before tailing off at the end of the year.
Is he the very best player in baseball history who is not in the Hall of Fame? The answer to this question is Barry Bonds, of course. Brian isn’t close.
Are most players who have comparable career statistics in the Hall of Fame? No. Pitch framing analysis is pretty new, and extremely controversial, as it basically consists in figuring out how good a player was at fooling the umps into unfairly favoring their own team. Plus, Brian also has extremely similar statistics to his contemporaries Mauer, Martin, Posey, and Yadier Molina, as well as Ted Simmons, who for decades now has stood as a human embodiment of a catcher whose stats weren’t quite good enough for the Hall.
Is there any evidence to suggest that the player was significantly better or worse than is suggested by his statistics? If you’re using his rWAR, absolutely — Brian’s a 7-time All-Star and 6-time Silver Slugger whose career was far better than his 31.8 WAR would suggest. His fWAR adds in 20 full wins with the glove, to a total fWAR of 54.5. His pitcher teammates generally seem to have regarded him as a good game caller, but we don’t have a great measurement for that, even qualitatively.
Is he the best player at his position who is eligible for the Hall of Fame but not in? Actually, if you go by his fWAR, it’s close — though Russell Martin still has the slight edge.
How many MVP-type seasons did he have? Did he ever win an MVP award? If not, how many times was he close? Really, his only MVP-type season was his incredible 2008, when he hit .301/.373/.523 — thanks to somewhat improved baserunning, his overall offensive performance was slightly better than his amazing .333/.388/.572 line in 2006 — and also contributed four wins with the glove. It was good for 8.6 WAR. None of his other seasons come close.
How many All-Star-type seasons did he have? How many All-Star games did he play in? Did most of the other players who played in this many go into the Hall of Fame? Brian made seven All-Star appearances, six in a row and all seven in an eight-year span. That’s good, though it isn’t especially distinguished: Del Crandall started eight All-Star Games, for example. Ted Simmons appeared in eight All-Star Games. Yadier Molina has gone to nine. Brian’s ASG count isn’t disqualifying — Russell Martin’s four appearances are extraordinarily few for a player hoping to make the Hall — but it isn’t especially noteworthy.
If this man were the best player on his team, would it be likely that the team could win the pennant? No, though that’s a high bar for a catcher. Joe Mauer carried his teams, along with Justin Morneau, and Mike Piazza was the class of several of his squads. But even baseball’s best catchers typically need to be surrounded with other talent at positions that require fewer off-days.
What impact did the player have on baseball history? Did he introduce any new equipment? Did he change the game in any way? No. The thing McCann is mainly known for is for barking at players who showed up his team (hence his nickname “Fun Police”). He was not influential.
Did the player uphold the standards of sportsmanship and character that the Hall of Fame, in its written guidelines, instructs us to consider? Yes, notwithstanding the fun police stuff. He’s always been regarded as a good teammate.
I’m guessing that most casual Braves fans don’t see Brian McCann as a serious Hall of Fame candidate. But realistically, his candidacy is basically right in between Andruw Jones (who I believe should be in) and Dale Murphy (who Mac supported, but I don’t).
If you’re a serious big-Hall guy, you probably want both Martin and McCann in; if you’re a serious small-Hall guy, you want neither of them in. Though Martin was possibly a smidge better than McCann and certainly had a more graceful aging curve, I don’t think there’s a serious argument to put him in and leave Brian out, and the same goes for Yadier Molina, despite what Cardinals fans think.
Realistically, Brian is almost certainly going to remain on the outside looking in, unless several of his pitchers wind up on the Veterans Committee in 2060.