Multiple reports have the Mets signing free agent catcher James McCann to a 4/$40+ contract. McCann becomes the third or fourth big free agent acquisition, depending on how you want to slice either “big” or “free agent.” McCann joins Trevor May, Sam McWilliams and Marcus Stroman.
The big news is that the Mets opted for McCann over the more-heralded catcher available in free agency, that being J.T. Realmuto. The speculation was that Realmuto was looking for a deal to surpass both Joe Mauer (8/$184) and Buster Posey (9/$167) and the Mets clearly had no interest – nor should they – to sign a catcher to a deal of that length.
But what are they getting in McCann?
The idea that McCann would be an attractive free agent signing would have been laughable just a few years ago. At the conclusion of the 2018 season, McCann had a career 76 OPS+ and no one thought much of him as a defensive backstop, either. The main thing he had going for him was that he hit LHP pretty well. Or at least he did from 2015-2017. In those three seasons, twice he had an OPS over .900 against lefties and the other year it was a strong .848 against southpaws. But he had just a .514 OPS against portsiders in 2018.
But everything came together for him offensively in 2019. McCann posted a career-high .789 OPS in 476 PA, also a personal-best mark in the majors. But defensively was another story. According to Baseball Prospectus, McCann was ranked 107th out of 113 catchers in its Fielding Runs Above Average metric, with a (-10.2) mark. For a comparison, Wilson Ramos was rated (-6.7) FRAA. Most of McCann’s lousiness was due to being awful at framing pitches, where BP had him rated as (-8) runs.
FanGraphs’ framing numbers said the same thing, as it had McCann at (-9) in 2019. Statcast was even harsher, ranking him dead last with a (-15) Runs Extra Strikes.
McCann worked in the offseason with Jerry Narron, a former big league catcher and renowned “catcher whisperer.” Narron was so respected that Martin Maldonado sent him his 2017 Gold Glove Award to acknowledge the work that Narron did with him to improve his defense.
James Fegan of The Athletic wrote a piece on McCann working with Narron and had the following quote about framing:
“There’s no question you can adjust to it,” Narron said. “The biggest thing about the framing of a pitch is you’ve got to beat the ball to the spot. If you don’t, the ball is going to carry the glove away from the zone, and you want to be carrying the ball into the zone with your glove. You can only do that if you beat the ball to the spot. You can’t be there at the same time or be late, or it’s going to take you out of the zone. And the other thing is on the low pitch is you’ve got to get underneath that ball. You can’t get on top of it, or you’re going to take it out of the zone.”
In the same piece, Fegan has this quote from McCann:
“Up to this point in my career I’ve never really had anyone who was able to explain to me why the scoring worked the way that it did as far as the framing metrics go and how to improve,” McCann said. “I’ll definitely be monitoring it closer than I ever have. It’s something that I’ll stay up to date with. I’ll be in contact with Jerry throughout the year and just continuing to pick his brain and whatever wisdom he can pass on to me.”
So, how did it turn out? FanGraphs had McCann at +2.3 in framing in the shortened 2020 season and Statcast had him tied for sixth with a +2 mark.
And McCann even improved his offense in 2020, posting an .896 OPS in 111 PA. The big improvement with McCann offensively the past two years was his performance against RHP, particularly in slugging. In 361 PA the past two seasons against righties, McCann has a .262/.310/.449. From 2014-18 versus RHP, McCann had a .357 SLG in 1,013 ABs. It all equaled a 1.5 fWAR in 2020, the seventh-best mark among catchers with at least 100 PA. Perhaps most impressively, it put McCann just 0.2 behind Realmuto, despite having 84 fewer PA.
But McCann benefited from a time share with Yasmani Grandal, who had 271.1 innings at catcher, compared to 245.2 for McCann. What happens when McCann has to log four times that many innings in a season? Can his bat and glove hold up with the extra work load?
The Mets are betting he can.