Saturday June 4th, 2011

NEW YORK -- On a mid-May Monday, Braves catcher Brian McCann fielded a phone call from his brother, Brad. This event on its own is not remarkable -- Brad is only 14 months older and the two are very close -- but in this instance Brad, a former All-American at Clemson and four-year minor league player, shared some hitting advice for Brian.

"I had been seeing the baseball well all year," Brian McCann said, "but I wasn't hitting for any power."

Brad, now a hitting instructor at the Windward Baseball Academy run by their father in Alpharetta, Ga., watches all of his brother's games on television and imparted a few insights. The next day was a scheduled off day for Brian, but he nevertheless entered the game as a pinch hitter with two outs in the ninth inning, the Braves trailing the Astros by a run, and smashed the fourth pitch he saw for a game-tying opposite-field home run. Two innings later McCann crushed a game-winning two-run homer down the right field line for the win.

Since then McCann is 19-for-54 (.352 average) with eight doubles and four home runs, which along with seven walks is good for a .419 on-base percentage and .722 slugging percentage. In his 138 at bats before that call from his brother, McCann had only seven total extra-base hits (five doubles, two homers) and a slugging percentage (.362) that was almost exactly half of what it has been since.

Firmly entrenched as the Braves' No. 4 hitter -- except for Chipper Jones' days off, when he bats third -- McCann is back on pace for another terrific season with overall season numbers of a .302/.370/.464 batting line with six homers and 30 RBIs.

Playing catcher has become a hot-button issue in the past week, thanks to the season-ending ankle fracture suffered by Giants catcher Buster Posey and the ensuing discussion about whether home-plate collisions should be allowed and whether premier hitters should be moved to a new position.

"Being a catcher, it's like a fraternity because it is such a demanding position, mentally and physically," McCann said. "I take a lot of pride in showing up and trying to play as many games as I can."

Twins catcher Joe Mauer, the 2009 American League MVP, has played only nine games this year while battling leg weakness, a sore right shoulder and a virus, as well as getting a late start on spring training due to offseason knee surgery. Another standout hitting catcher, the Tigers' Victor Martinez, played a lot of first base when he was in Cleveland and this year in Detroit has started two-thirds of his games at designated hitter. The Nationals preemptively moved last year's No. 1 draft pick, Bryce Harper, to the outfield to hasten his progress to the majors and to preserve his health.

McCann, as an NL player, doesn't have the luxury of batting as the DH except in interleague games and doesn't have any intention of changing positions anyway.

"As far as moving positions -- I'm not fast, I just fit the mold as a catcher," McCann said.

Seemingly the only fit might be at first base but the Braves have rookie Freddie Freeman, whom they project to be a star, at the position now. And McCann may not be a Gold Glove catcher, but he's plenty good enough defensively to work with a Braves pitching staff that ranks first in the majors with a 3.01 ERA.

McCann remains one of the game's most underappreciated players -- and one of its most durable. "Durable" may seem a strange choice of adjectives for a guy who has never exceeded 145 games played or 132 games started in a season, but think macro rather than micro when evaluating catchers' durability. While six other catchers have had equal or greater single-season totals of games played in the last six years, no catcher has started more games (680) than McCann and only the White Sox' A.J. Pierzynski has logged more innings behind the plate than McCann -- by a difference of two innings, 5,931 to 5,929.

The Braves may only get 130 to 145 games from McCann in a season, but they've been able to count on those 130 to 145 games every season. Only 29 catchers in major league history have ever had more than McCann's five seasons with at least 130 games behind the plate. Only eight have ever reached 10 or more seasons.

The offensive production is there for McCann too. Since the start of 2006 he leads all major league catchers in home runs (113), extra-base hits (302), doubles (187), RBIs (473) and slugging percentage (.493). In that time span he also leads all National League catchers in batting average (.291).

What Atlanta has done to preserve the 27-year-old McCann is to keep him on a fairly regimented playing plan. He rarely starts more than five games in a row or in a day game after a night game. A few years ago he began adhering to a better nutrition plan and lost 15 pounds before the 2009 season, in hopes the weight loss would take some pressure off his legs.

It helps the Braves, of course, to have the luxury of a backup catcher like David Ross, who has some pop at the plate and of whom manager Fredi Gonzalez said is McCann's defensive equal. Because Ross is a right-handed hitter, the Braves can schedule to play for more favorable matchups, allowing the lefty-swinging McCann to get his regular rest against tough southpaws.

"We have the best backup in baseball, hands down," McCann said. "He could be starting for a ton of teams."

That's how the Braves can afford to give McCann as much time off as they do. On Friday Gonzalez informed McCann that he was giving him a two-day respite at the beginning of the week. Monday is a scheduled off day for the club, but Gonzalez said McCann won't start Tuesday either.

Of course, McCann has taken his lumps behind the plate. He suffered a concussion after a collision with the Phillies' Shane Victorino in July 2008. In May 2006 he sprained his ankle in another home-plate collision, that time with Arizona's Eric Byrnes, and missed three weeks.

Such is the price catchers regularly pay. While there's some logic to picking one's spots carefully (as in, not blocking the plate in a blowout), barring a rule change, there will be pressure on a catcher to put himself in harm's way for the sake of the team.

"You can't tell an athlete or a competitor, 'Hey, don't block the plate' or 'I don't want you doing this because you might hurt yourself,'" Gonzalez said. "I want him to give us an opportunity to win the game, and if that's by blocking the plate, it's by blocking the plate. I couldn't bring myself to say that to Brian -- 'Don't block the plate.'"

Though a five-time All-Star and last year's MVP of the game, McCann has never started a Midsummer Classic, something he may finally get the chance to do this year. He's currently second in votes behind only the injured Posey. That he's made five straight games as a reserve indicates the great respect he garners from players and coaches around the league, even if fans seem to always prefer someone else.

But that's fine by McCann, who still stresses that's an honor just be in the same clubhouse as the game's best players. He may not have the same superstar status as those peers, but he remains baseball's surest bet behind the plate.

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