LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Having gained the label during his playing days with the Braves, Javy Lopez understands why Brian McCann does not appreciate being referred to as an "offensive catcher."
"It is tough because you work hard behind the plate," Lopez said. "You work hard to be a better catcher. Yet you get all of the compliments for your hitting, rather than your catching. The fact that McCann is such a great hitter prevents people from looking at how good his defense is."
There is no denying the fact that McCann's ascension into baseball's elite category has been predicated on the tremendous offensive skills he has displayed. With six All-Star selections and five Silver Slugger Awards through his first six full Major League seasons, he has obviously earned respect throughout the baseball world.
But as McCann prepares for his seventh season as Atlanta's starting catcher, some of his Braves teammates wonder if all of his contributions have been justly recognized. They believe it is time for people to begin recognizing what he does both at the plate and behind it.
"The guy who throws everybody out, hits for power, hits for average, calls a great game, blocks every ball ... those guys aren't around," Braves backup catcher David Ross said. "Who would you rather have on your team than Brian McCann? Yadier Molina is a great catcher. Buster Posey is a great catcher. Joe Mauer is a great catcher. For me, you've got three guys out of 29 other teams that you would put in the same conversation as Mac. We've got him here. That's pretty special."
There are catchers who have better arms or more mobility behind the plate than McCann. But it's rare to find a catcher like McCann who has established himself as an elite offensive performer and strived to become a more complete threat by taking great pride in his defensive skills.
"I just try to get better every year at every single thing I do behind the plate and swinging the bat," McCann said. "The thing about baseball is you can never get content with where you are. You can always get better, and that's what you should strive for. That's what I try to do every year."
McCann leads all catchers in games played (823) and games started behind the plate (751) dating back to his first full Major League season in 2006. The statistics produced during this span validate why he is often referred to as the game's top hitting catcher.
McCann leads the Majors with 129 homers and 186 doubles hit while in the lineup as a catcher dating back to 2006. Mike Napoli ranks second in the homer category with 94, and A.J. Pierzynski ranks second in the doubles category with 156.
McCann ranks third with the .493 slugging percentage he has produced while in the lineup as a catcher dating back to 2006. He ranks behind Napoli (.521) and Jorge Posada (.513). Both Napoli (1,433) and Posada (1,632) had significantly fewer at-bats than McCann (2,814) while in the game as a catcher during this span.
McCann also leads the Majors with 317 extra-base hits and 1,386 total bases while in the game as a catcher since 2006. Pierzynski ranks second in both categories with 230 and 1,194.
"There's not a whole lot of guys who can do what he does," Ross said. "That's why he's made six All-Star teams and [won] five Silver Sluggers. It's easy to get spoiled when you see that guy play every day. But when you see his numbers every year and he's hitting 20-plus [homers] every year at a position that is very demanding, guys can't do that. He's special."
McCann's critics point to the fact that he has thrown out just 21 percent of the opponents who have attempted to steal against him in his career, and that he was successful against just 17.5 percent of the 126 opponents who attempted to steal against him in 2011.
But some of McCann's struggles in throwing out baserunners can be blamed on pitchers like Tommy Hanson, who spent the past six weeks attempting to speed his delivery.
As for passed balls, McCann has never been charged with more than seven in a season. But many in the Braves' clubhouse believe the totality of his defensive contributions are best understood by the fact that the team's pitching staff has ranked among the National League's top five in four of the past five seasons.
"I think he's done a tremendous job with the pitching staff," Braves pitching coach Roger McDowell said. "Mac sees a lot of things both from a hitter's and catcher's standpoint. As he has learned from a hitter's standpoint, he's seeing things that can help pitchers. Maybe it's a slowdown in a delivery or a guy tipping pitches. He's right in front of it. When he's able to see that, it processes and he's able to talk to the pitcher about it. That's a big bonus because when you're on the bench, you don't see that kind of stuff."
McCann's desire to lead the pitching staff and his ability to detect potential flaws has proven beneficial to a number of the Braves pitchers.
Mike Minor knows that the great improvement he realized last year began after McCann approached him during a start against the Mets in June and informed him that he was tipping his changeup by slowing down his arm speed.
Eric O'Flaherty believes he might have already been out of baseball had he not gained the chance to work with McCann after being released by the Mariners before the 2009 season. Last year, O'Flaherty became the first pitcher in Major League history to record a sub 1.00 ERA while making at least 70 appearances in a season.
"He saved my career, definitely," O'Flaherty said. "I say that not because he's my friend or anything, but because it is legit. From the moment I started pitching for the Braves, he told me I should move to the other side of the rubber for a different angle. He just gives me real feedback. He doesn't sugarcoat anything. He's honest and he's passionate about it."
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.