The case against (and for) James McCann

Pessimism, Skepticism and Metscism..

With the news of of free agent catcher James McCann signing a new 4yr/$40M breaking, a small sigh of relief has been let out by Mets fans across the world as they scribble “catcher” off of their Cohen-Christmas wish-list. I for one am not, one of those fans. I believe James McCann is a solid major league catcher but is not the player fans are envisioning currently based on his two most recent seasons, or a player worth a four year commitment. Some may say I am just being pessimistic, but I do not believe I am. I just believe after being a lifelong Mets fans that being skeptical of some offseason moves is often the safest way to avoid emotional responses such as anger(Jason Bay) and frustration(also Jason Bay), which at this point should be synonymous with “Mets Fans”.

The Player

James McCann is a 30 year old MLB veteran of two AL Central teams, the Tigers and the White Sox, but his story starts long before MLB. Originally from Santa Barbara, he would go on to play youth baseball with another player that should be well known to Mets fans, and like McCann was present at the 2019 All-Star Game, Jeff McNeil. Drafted in the later rounds of the 2008 MLB Draft by the White Sox he would forego the pros in favor of attending the University of Arkansas, where he would play alongside fellow future major league starting pitchers, Drew Smyly and Dallas Keuchel, the latter of which he would go on to catch during the 2020 season. After being selected 76th overall by the Detroit Tigers following his junior season he signed with the team and was assigned to the minors. His path through the minors was unremarkable from 2011-2014 as he rose through the minors playing consistently 100-120G while posting solid batting averages in both AA Erie (.277) and AAA Toledo (.295) all the while never posting an OPS higher than .770. He would debut for the Tigers in 2014 as a September call-up and then in 2015 won the backup catchers role after a torrid Spring Training in which he batted .348 (.500 against LHP w/ 1.167 OPS but more on that later).

The Past (2014-2018)

While set to be the backup to Alex Avila, who over the previous four seasons had played a combined 483 games, McCann quickly found himself as the “primary” catcher due to both injuries and ineffectiveness from Avila. His first two seasons McCann’s two calling cards were his arm (43CS%) and mashing LHP (.878 OPS / 135wRC+). These two attributes were something that DET thought would be a cornerstone to further development but there were two fatal flaws that were holding McCann back from being the “primary” catcher DET hoped he would turn into. One of which was his inability to hit against RHP. Over those same first two seasons James McCann .567 OPS and 51wRC+ were DEAD LAST among all hitters with as many PA as James McCann.

Along with these obvious same handed issues while he was busy still cruising against LHP in 2016 (125wRC+) he posted something that would return later in his career, a K% greater than 30%! After struggling offensively in 2016 he made some changes at the plate which saw his overall production increase slightly as he hit a career high 13HR and 49RBI as well as his wRC+ jumping 27pts from 67 to 94. But once again his drastic platoon splits held him back as seen below

To say that for his first three seasons James McCann had a platoon issue I believe would be a drastic understatement as over his first 3 full seasons out of 114 MLB hitters with a minimum 750PA against RHP James McCann 58wRC+ ranked once again, DEAD LAST

But then amazingly over that same timespan posted the 14th highest wRC+ against LHP beating out renowned lefty killers such as Marcell Ozuna, Xander Bogaerts and teammate Nick Castellanos.

This platoon issue would disappear in his 2018 season but not in the way DET or James wanted it to. As in 2018 he would have his worst season to date that would have him post a -0.7WAR along with a 57wRC+. In 2018 McCann did not have to worry about struggling more against RHP as those struggles seemed to bleed into his usually steady production against LHP and led him to perform WORSE against LHP even more so than his struggles against RHP.

If that slashline could talk I think it would say this…

But the platoon problem was only one of the fatal flaws that James McCann showed as a Tiger. His final fatal flaw that was exposed during his times as a Tiger was that despite an above average CS% he had a -9DRS from 2015-2018 which placed him right behind Travis d’Arnaud (-7) and Robinson Chirinos (-11). Most of this negative production behind the plate came from his big issues framing pitches. Framing, for those that do not know, is the act of trying to make pitches that are not strikes or do not look like strikes to be called strikes.

From 2015-2018 James McCann would finish with -29 RES (Runs Extra Strikes), finishing in the bottom 3 in 2015(-14) and 2017 (-11). These two flaws completely stalled out the career of James McCann leading to….

The Present (2019-2020)

After what seemed to be the career of James McCann imploding upon itself, he was non-tendered by the 64 win Tigers and made a free agent. Luckily for James he was picked up by the Chicago White Sox who themselves were coming off a puny 62 win season. James McCann found himself inheriting the primary catcher role after the White Sox traded former primary catcher Omar Narvaez to Seattle for closer Alex Colome. He faced little competition from incumbent backup Wellington Castillo as he started 61 of the teams 86 first half games. His first half of 2019 was unlike any other moment in his career as he sprinted out of the gate as he posted 3 straight months of a .500+ SLG never posting an OPS lower than .863. This sensational start saw him voted to the All-Star Game where he met up with former little league opponent Jeff McNeil!

The hype came crashing down in July and while we often ignore warning signs during hot streaks (See Amed Rosario’s 2019 2nd Half) the signs were all there for McCann.

1st Half: .316/.371/.502 7.2BB% 25.9K% 133wRC+

But also in the 1st half…

  • 46.4 GB%
  • Sub 30 FB%
  • .408 BABiP

Three things that scream regression of some degree, a simpler way is to look at his “xStats” courtesy of Baseball Savant

1st Half (xBA/xOBP/xSLG): .276/331/.487

Still a solid slashline but still well beneath his ACTUAL production at the start of the ’19 season.

The 2nd Half of 2019 was tough to say the least for McCann. All starting in July where over 20G and 85 PA McCann would go on to strike out 35 times (41.2%) and posting a .520 OPS and an absolutely pathetic 34wRC+. He recovered slightly in August/September but not enough to really dig himself out of the hole July put him in. An interesting image appears when you look at his 2nd half in its entirety though

McCann’s 2nd Half: .226/.281/.413 5.3BB% 32.0K% 83wRC+

McCann’s ’15-’18: .240/.288/.366 5.5BB% 24.5K% 75wRC+

Which calls into question, was 2019 truly a breakout fueled by yet again another stance change? Or was it simply a BABiP fueled hot streak before reverting back to his prior form?

As if gauging his 2019 was not difficult enough, the White Sox went on to sign premier catching free agent Yasmani Grandal in the winter of 2019 seemingly moving on from their All-Star catcher. Why would they do this you ask? Well maybe they picked up on the fatal flaws mentioned earlier that were once again apparent in 2019.

  • Framing in 2019
    • -15 RES (64 out of 64 qualified catchers)
    • 45% Strike Rate (56 out of 64)
    • +4 DRS (11th out of 20 min. 750 innings)
  • VS RHP in 2019
    • .265/.311/.445 .759OPS (52nd out of 105 RHH w/ 300 min PA)
    • 100 wRC+ (T-37th of 105)
    • 5.0BB% (50 of 105)
    • 29.8K% (96 of 105)

Both struggles that had seen McCann non-tendered and cast aside in DET were still apparent in his breakout and All-Star season in 2019 but overshadowed by an overall improvement in performance. This pushed McCann to a backup role in the shortened ’20 season where he played in 31G (27 behind the plate) and posted his best offensive season yet with a slashline of

McCann’s 2020: .289/.360/.536 7.2BB% 27.0K%

Now was this McCann building off some 2019 improvements or was this just the result of a 31G sample size? If you dig into his actual production in 2020 it was not unlike any of his prior seasons except that the sample sizes completely skewed the overall numbers! He crushed LHP, struggled vs RHP and struck out 25%+. The main difference is when you look at his outrageous success against LHP

  • VS LHP in 2020 (RHH vs LHP min. 35PA)
    • .429 BA (4th of 178)
    • .528 OBP (3rd of 178)
    • 1.242 OPS (6th of 178)
    • 236 wRC+ (5th of 178)
    • .455 BABiP (6th of 178)
  • McCann VS LHP ’15-’19
    • .270 BA
    • .333 OBP
    • .817 OPS
    • 119 wRC+
    • .322 BABiP

So while McCann has always done very good against LHP I see it VERY improbable that he could have continued production like that over a full season especially considering his past history against LHP which while above average is not really even close to his production against LHP in 2020. This is important to notice because such overproduction DRASTICALLY skews his final slashline and automatically makes repeating it highly, HIGHLY unlikely. Especially seeing as his production vs RHP was more of the same.

  • VS RHP in 2020 (RHH vs RHP min 75PA)
    • .232 BA (120th out of 155)
    • .280 (T-132nd of 155)
    • .744 OPS (88th of 155)
    • 99 wRC+ (110th of 155)
    • 33.3K% (T-139th of 155) *tied with Amed Rosario*

Now that we have broken down both ’19 and ’20, the alleged “breakouts” from James McCann lets end this section by comparing his ’19/’20 stats with his xStats over that same time period.

2019-2020: .276/.334/.474
x2019-2020: .259/.318/.452

*GULP*

Positive Outlook?

What does all this mean you might be asking yourself? Why do I care that his numbers VS LHP were different in ’20 or about his numbers from ’15-’18? When we break all of this down we can do a better job of PROJECTING what McCann might do next, which if you are a Mets fan is the most important part now that he is part of the team for the next four seasons. There are some things to be positive about with McCann even with the two fatal flaws we have seen repeatedly and identified as well as poking several holes into his ’19-’20 breakout. One reason McCann might be overperforming his xStats is the fact he’s hitting the ball harder than ever before, and as we all know, good things happen when you hit the ball hard.

Something of note to also mention here is the concept of “Launch Angle Tightness” a topic that has been studied and analyzed by minds far smarter than mine. Alex Chamberlain wrote a piece about it for Fangraphs after theorizing that the standard deviation of launch angle(the tightness/spread/range of batted ball events) could directly correlate to higher BABiP’s and possibly higher BAs. You should stop reading this article RIGHT NOW and go look at the research he did as it is absolutely fascinating and explains why some can consistently post higher BABiPs than the average. In easy to understand terms the lower the standard deviation the better and from ’18-’19 James McCann was one of the top 15 “improvers” by dropping his sd(LA) by -2.5 along side teammates Tim Anderson (-2.6) and Yoan Moncada (-2.7). Maybe this consistency explains why in 2019 he posted a BABiP .061 points higher than his career BABiP to that point.

(Left Column: BBE-Batted Ball Events / Center Column: sd(LA) – Standard Deviation (Launch Angle) / Right Column: EV- Exit Velocity)

Whatever it may be offensively McCann HAS improved. He’s always done well vs LHP and that has not changed. What has changed is James McCann has went from one of the worst hitters in baseball against RHP to exactly league average as seen below.

(Sorted by wRC+ vs RHP min 400PA ’19-’20)

McCann has also improved defensively, his Caught Stealing Percentage (CS%) has always been consistently above the league average despite average to below average arm strength and pop-time(the time from catch to release on CSA) but as talked about before framing has always been his biggest weakness. After posting a MLB worst -15 RES in ’19, McCann worked with renowned “catching guru” Jerry Narron. It is this work put in during the offseason that showed some chances of improvement down the road as in ’20 McCann posted a +2 RES, which not only ranked him in the top 10, but gave him his FIRST EVER positive RES. Jerry Narron has been quoted that he believes McCann can continue to improve behind the plate as long as he continues to work on it which brings us to another positive for McCann, his work ethic. Ever since his days in college where he was named team captain McCann has earned very high marks for his makeup and baseball IQ. In a locker room such as the Mets with the majority under 30, a player like McCann could be the perfect fit in the locker room.

Price

While most will look at James McCann’s 4yr/40M as a relative bargain but when compared with other active catcher contracts is it an overpay? While not an overpay in the traditional sense the fact the Mets committed 4 years to a catcher like McCann who is trending up but has plenty of question marks is questionable at best. Going into 2020 there were only 13 catchers with a guaranteed contract of 2+ years.

(Per Spotrac.com)

Of those thirteen catchers, six were extensions that never hit free agency including all but ONE of the contracts longer than two years, with the lone exception being? Yasmani Grandal who supplanted James McCann as starting catcher of the White Sox. When compared to FA catcher contracts of the last four to five years which has been littered by 2 year deals to catchers such as the guys pictured above as well as players like Alex Avila and Wellington Castillo. McCann’s 4/40 deal is different as in the AAV is not all that high, higher than Jason Castro’s 3/24 he signed with the Twins in ’17 but is almost perfectly in line with Francisco Cervelli’s 3/31 he signed when leaving NYY for PITT but at the time was almost 2 years younger than McCann. When I say I believe the Mets overpaid, I do not mean in a monetary sense but in a length sense especially when considering that James McCann will turn 31 in June and will be being paid $12M/yr during his age 33/34 seasons. I believe it is interesting that reports the Angels, who were considered to be the runners up in the McCann sweepstakes, would not budge off of a three year deal which seemed to be closer to the market value of a catcher of McCann’s age and production level.

Positively Pessimistic

James McCann is a mixed bag, he’s been very bad at times and very good at others. He has a great attitude and work ethic, but attitudes and work ethics do not swing bats or turn balls into strikes. He’s likely a platoon catcher rather than a catcher who plays 130G+ a year, but is going to be paid and played like the latter. I worry that the NL East and its stable of established and proven right handed starters like Max Scherzer, Zack Wheeler, Stephen Strasburg and Aaron Nola will really be a difficult test for McCann as well and up and coming starters like Sixto Sanchez, Mike Soroka, Ian Anderson and more. While there is a chance that McCann’s framing could revert back and be even worse than Ramos’ framing ever was there’s a chance that McCann can build on his new framing abilities and be in the top ten every year. There is a chance that McCann’s new-new stance has added a benefit and made tightened up his production going forward. There is also a chance that this new change which has lead to better contact but less of it ages poorly and we see McCann be towards the top of the league in K% (yes even higher than Nimmo and Alonso Mets fans!). But with Steve Cohen at the top and Sandy at the wheel the Mets have clearly singled out the talent they want and are willing to go and get it, which means for Mets fans there is also a chance.

All stats courtesy of Fangraphs, Baseball Reference, Baseball Savant unless otherwise noted. All contract information courtesy of Spotrac

Photo from SNY

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