Ex-Braves McCann, Gattis thriving as Astros catching tandem

HOUSTON – The emergence of slugger Evan Gattis was one reason the Braves felt comfortable letting seven-time All-Star catcher Brian McCann leave as a free agent after the 2013 season.

Now the two of them are splitting the catching duties for the Astros, who had a six-game lead in the American League West before facing the Braves on Wednesday in the second game of a two-game series at Minute Maid Park.

“Who’d have thunk it?” Gattis said of his one-and-again teammate and catching partner. “I mean, small world.”

McCann has started 23 games at catcher and Gattis made his 11th start behind the plate Wednesday for the Astros, who began the day with a 22-11 record that matched the best 33-game start in franchise history and tied them with the Orioles for most wins in the majors.

The Astros already had a six-game lead in the West and McCann and Gattis each had played a big part: McCann had a .281 average with five homers, 18 RBIs and an .842 OPS in 25 games including 24 starts (his other start came as designated hitter), and Gattis entered Wednesday with a .304 average, three homers, 16 RBIs and an .879 OPS in 21 games and 19 starts (including nine starts as DH).

The 33-year-old McCann, and Gattis, 30, are two of the oldest players on one of baseball’s most dynamic and well-balanced teams.

“We’ve got young, athletic guys, some really talented players,” McCann said. “It’s amazing watching these guys on a nightly basis.”

It’s a group that includes the likes of 22-year-old shortstop Carlos Correa, 23-year-old third baseman Alex Bregman, 24-year-old center fielder George Springer and 27-year-old superstar second baseman Jose Altuve.

“It’s a great mix,” McCann said. “We’ve got a great team.”

The Braves traded Texas native Gattis to the Astros in January 2015 for three prospects: right-handers Mike Foltynewicz and Andrew Thurman and third baseman Rio Ruiz.

McCann signed a five-year, $85 million contract — the largest ever for a catcher — in November 2013 with the Yankees. He spent three productive seasons in New York, averaging 23 home runs and winning a sixth Silver Slugger award in 2015, before he was traded to the Astros in November for two minor league pitchers. The Yankees are also paying $5.5 million of his $17 million salary both this season and in 2018.

There’s a $15 million option on McCann’s contract for 2019 that vests if he totals 1,000 plate appearances during 2017-18 and catches 90 games in 2018.

“I’m just glad it happened,” Gattis said of the trade that brought McCann to Houston. “I don’t think there would be a better duo, man. Pretty fun handling a (pitching) staff this year.”

The Astros used Gattis as a left fielder and DH in his first season with Houston in 2015, then moved him back to catch 55 games in 2016 in addition to DH’ing in 71 games. He’s catching about one-third of their games again this season and learning plenty again from one of the players he respects most in the game.

“I remember asking (former Braves pitcher coach Roger) McDowell, who’s the best one you’ve seen at reading swings and stuff like that,” Gattis said. “And he said, ‘McCann.’ I always put a lot of weight into what Roger said, so ever since then it’s been, like, pay attention to what Mac’s doing when he’s catching. …

“When I came the first year I didn’t know what my role would be and I don’t know that they knew exactly how they wanted to use me. We had (catchers) Hank (Conger) and Jason (Castro); they decided to DH me that year most of the time, and a little bit of left field. I was happy to be back there (catching last year and it’s been going good.”

The only minor problem, and it’s actually more amusing than a problem: Identity confusion. McCann has a full beard now and bears a striking resemblance to the bear himself, Gattis, whose nickname is “El Oso Blanco” (The White Bear). So much so that each of them is asked for autographs by fans who think it’s the other player.

“Whenever I go out to catch I have people yell, ‘Gattis!’” McCann said, smiling.