For most of the 1970s, there were two MLB players named Dave Roberts. Fortunately, one was a pitcher – who finished his career with the Mets – and one was a position player. Roberts the position player was a former top overall pick in 1972 and he went straight from college to the majors. He spent six years with the Padres and two more with the Rangers. He was nothing special, as he amassed an 85 OPS+ and was more known for his ability to play multiple positions, including catcher.

In 1980, his final season with the Rangers, the minimum MLB salary was $30,000. Yet, somehow, Roberts pulled down a 5/$1.3 million deal with the Astros, which worked out to $260,000 per year. Not a bad job by his agent, getting over eight times the minimum for a guy who wasn’t a starter. It would be like signing Luis Guillorme to a 5/$23 million deal today.

It didn’t work out too well for the Astros, as Roberts played just 27 games for them in 1981. Somehow, the Astros were able to trade Roberts to the Phillies, where he played 28 games in 1982 before retiring. Still, the Astros felt the effects of the signing, as by inking Roberts they forfeited their first-round pick. Allegedly, the Astros wanted to draft Tony Gwynn in 1981. But signing Roberts and Don Sutton cost them their first two picks and Gwynn was gone before they finally made a selection.

That’s interesting and fine and dandy – but what does it have to do with the Mets?

Well, the Mets just signed James McCann, who Keith Law just referred to as a backup catcher, to a multi-year deal at significantly more years and dollars than most people expected. And on top of that, McCann has a lifetime OPS+ of 86 – or nearly identical to what Roberts posted before his big payday. Here’s what Law said about McCann:

The problem with this contract is its unbridled optimism: McCann has never been productive for a full season as a major-league catcher, and there’s no evidence to say he can hit right-handed pitching well enough to be a regular.

Snip

He does control the running game and has a good reputation for his work with pitchers, but any belief he’s going to be an average defender is based on that tiny sample in 2020 and ignores the 4,500 innings that came before it.

The Mets are paying McCann low starter money, and on a one-year deal it would seem extravagant but not enough to be a problem, especially now that the team is owned by a functional adult who is willing to spend commensurately with the team’s location and revenue base. The four-year deal, which runs through McCann’s age 34 season, seems way more likely to end up an albatross on the roster, one that new GM Jared Porter will be looking to dump before it’s over because the Mets need more production from the position and don’t want to pay a backup eight figures.

The Mets are in the middle of a roll where everything is seemingly going their way. The Wilpons left and in came a rich owner willing to spend. Brodie Van Wagenen is shown the door and Sandy Alderson returns to bring competence to the front office. Marcus Stroman signs to bolster the rotation and Robinson Cano fails his second drug test and is suspended for the year.

With all of the good news rolling in, have we reached the point where we’re not willing to acknowledge the obvious? Are we afraid to say that the truth about the emperor’s new clothes? Are the Mets repeating the Astros’ mistake from 40 years ago and overpaying a backup catcher?

Clearly, the Mets needed a catcher and felt a bird in the hand was worth two on the street. J.T. Realmuto was the clear top option available. But the Mets obviously believed there was a big drop off after McCann and they didn’t want to be left scrambling for a third-tier catcher if McCann signed elsewhere before Realmuto decided if money made Queens more desirable for him.

Players improve and Mets fans have seen examples of guys who later in their career made changes that pushed them forward. There was Justin Turner, who embraced the fly ball revolution. And there was Daniel Murphy, who after being content to flick the ball the other way for a single, decided to pull the ball for power. It’s possible that McCann will follow in their foot steps.

We know that McCann’s offensive improvement has come against RHP and it’s come thanks to his SLG. Prior to 2019, McCann had a .357 SLG against righties and the past two years that number has gone up 92 points. The worry is what happens to his SLG with McCann’s move from a hitter-friendly park in Chicago to Citi Field.

Turns out that 28 of his 55 extra-base hits came in his home park, so it’s not like McCann was just taking advantage of Guaranteed Rate Field. On top of that, it turns out there’s not a big difference between McCann’s old home park and his new one. Mike Podhorzer had this on the two parks:

I am pretty shocked to find that Citi has boosted home runs by eight percent from 2017-2019, which is even higher than GRF’s boosting powers. I think the knee-jerk reaction would be that McCann might lose some power moving to a less power friendly home park, but apparently not! Citi has actually been better, which is great news for a guy whose home run power output has skyrocketed since 2019. I’m not here to tell you whether McCann’s HR/FB rate and ISO spikes the past two seasons are real (another time, another day for that), but the park factors here suggest that the move alone should result in a slightly higher HR/FB rate projection than he should have had if remaining a member of the White Sox.

In his last year with the Tigers in 2018, McCann had a 6.6 HR/FB rate and he had never had a rate higher than the 14.3 mark he posted in 2017. Upon moving to Chicago, McCann posted an 18.6 HR/FB rate in 2019 and a 26.9 mark in 2020. There’s been no big change in the number of fly balls hit by McCann – he was a little below his career mark in 2019 and a little above in 2020. Instead, it’s just been the number of his flies leaving the yard. McCann’s 29.6 HR/FB rate last season would have been the 10th-best mark in the majors if he had enough PA to qualify for the leaderboards.

There’s been improvement in McCann’s numbers but it’s not easy to say that it was real, rather than a fluke. If the improvement is real, then the Mets got a steal. If it’s more of a fluke, then they just paid a lot for a backup catcher. So far, the reaction to the McCann signing has been mostly positive. There are people who are disappointed that they didn’t get Realmuto but few, if any, seem worried about this being a colossal bust.

Law is correct in his terminology – unbridled optimism. It’s a new feeling for Mets fans and it seems like we like it an awful lot. The Mets have been on a run of good fortune and good moves. Will the McCann signing be a continuation of that? Hey, we’ll know we’re living in a different reality if instead of seeing guys go crazy for another team like Turner and Murphy, we get to see them do that in Queens.

21 comments on “Mets fans’ recent ‘unbridled optimism’ gets biggest test yet

  • Steve S.

    Well stated, Brian. McCann made changes (as did Turner and Murphy) and the 4 years/$40 million seems like a good risk. He also made changes that improved his defense and he’s got a good arm, as well.

    Especially if the “money saved” on a catcher goes to sign Springer, Bauer, and Odorizzi.

    And I’m OK with McCann backing up and mentoring Alvarez at the back end of his contract.

    Put me down as a “guarded optimist” so far…..

  • Rich

    I went and watched his last 2 years of HRs. Trust me, the park doesn’t matter to him. He hits them a long way.

    I like the Turner comparison, also Bauer, both who improved thru focused analysis and hard work. Note that all 3 also had low miles on them prior to finding themselves.

    This guy is a good leader and can handle his pitchers. Thats his real role here any offense is a bonus if hes solid defensively.

  • David Groveman

    I feel like the Mets never go out and get the biggest guy on the market, regardless of ownership. Don’t get me wrong, I think the Mets needed to save money on catcher because they had more than just one hole but they will earn my full ire if this deal is their last move.

    The Mets need, at least, one more quality starting pitcher (Trevor Bauer and Jake Odorizzi are prime candidates), one centerfielder (George Springer makes the most sense) and they kinda need a middle of the order right-handed bat.

    With McCann:
    1. Brandon Nimmo, LF
    2. J.D. Davis, 3B
    3. Michael Conforto, RF
    4. Pete Alonso, DH
    5. Dominic Smith, 1B
    6. Jeff McNeil, 2B
    7. James McCann, C
    8. Center Fielder?
    9. Amed Rosario/Andres Gimenez, SS

    If the Mets had gotten J.T. Realmuto, they could have had him hitting fourth and signed a defensive centerfielder to round out their field. With McCann, they really need to have a centerfielder with offensive (ideally right handed) might.

    Seeing them tied to Liam Hendricks is certainly interesting but seeing articles suggesting that the Mets will “dominate” the second tier market only fills me with doubt.

  • Chris F

    interesting read Brian. Yes, everything seems so shiny right now that we can almost already envision a celebration at pitchers mound at CitiField. Even the Mayor here is excited about virtually everything thats happened since Cohen took the team, including McCann, and the hiring of Porter as GM. Of course reality will set in, and perhaps thats already the case with McCann.

    Its interesting to face the season not particularly threatened by counting pennies for every hire, and how those pennies are going to impact what can be offered to someone else. Maybe my unbridled optimism stems from the release of financial burden. I also saw a few things about McCann that i liked. He seems to be a general behind the plate, studies opposing teams religiously, dedicated to his craft, and leader all around. None of that is OPS+ though. In the presser yesterday with Porter and Alderson, the McCann deal came up and Sandy made it clear that the signing of McCann was both perceived quality and timing. The Mets were not going to be caught without bolstering catcher, and were not going to wait to play the game with Boras in February for more dollars and years than is reasonable, or even reasonably beyond reasonable. In any case, McCann will be better than watching any other option the Mets were looking at, even if it not Realmuto, This certainly plays to how Alderson works and shows that Cohen’s account is not just a limitless pool, or if it is, it wont be treated as such.

    I also encourage everyone to watch the presser with Porter and Sandy yesterday. It made me beam with unbridled optimism. I asked a friend of mine when he felt this excited about the team in total, and lets say it was decades ago. Me too. What did we learn?

    Alderson is in control of the team

    Porter knows the game well, has 4 rings, and understands this is about winning a WS. he respected and highly valued as an executive with near limitless potential

    The FO will clearly run as a collaboration in decision making, taking input from where ever it comes and worked into a plan.

    He mentioned the words meritocracy, collaboration, quality roster depth

    like teams strong up the middle

    He is optimistic, motivated, and eager to win in NY.

    As for the Mayor – Im still in full unbridled enthusiasm mode.

  • Metsense

    The Mets needed a catcher to replace. Ramos was trending downward offensively and defensively becoming a liability. McCann is an upgrade defensively and offensively trending upward at the same price. The price was fair because the limited supply of above average two way catchers. My expection of McCann to duplicate Ramos’ 2019 season of 351/416/768 with better defensive which is a realistic expectation.
    If given a choice of McCann 86 OPS+ /Springer 131 OPS+ or Realmuto 111 OPS+/Bradley 94 OPS+, I would take McCann/Springer for the offense instead of the superior defense of Realmuto/Bradley.

  • Dan Capwell

    Travis d’Arnaud:

    2016-247/307/323
    2017-244/253/443
    2018-Injured
    2019-263/323/452 (with Tampa Bay)
    2020-321/386/533

    There’s precedent. And it hurts, a lot.

    • Brian Joura

      To me, this isn’t really a good comparison. TDA was generally regarded as the best catching prospect in baseball and McCann was never viewed that way. What held TDA back was injuries. TDA’s season-high in PA is 421 and he had a 105 OPS+. McCann had 425 PA and had an 88 OPS+ and another year he had 427 PA and a 57 OPS+

  • TJ

    I like the term used above “guarded optimism”.

    The points made above by Chris regarding McCann’s whole game are spot on. If he is a pitcher’s catcher and stays healthy, he’ll earn his money. This team should not require a big bat from the catcher, just a serviceable bat. I think he has progressed enough to be that at least. He should not be expected to put up Realmuto’s offense, or his own offense of the short 2020 season.

    Get a RH bat with pop, stock up on pitching, and let McCann and Nido work with all the pitchers. An up the middle of McCann-Gimenez-McNeil-Springer with deep pitching will give this team a chance every day.

  • John Fox

    Speaking about the 2 Dave Roberts, in the early 1960s, there were 2 pitchers named Bob Miller.. and both were on the Mets at the same time for awhile.

  • Name

    “The four-year deal, which runs through McCann’s age 34 season, seems way more likely to end up an albatross on the roster, one that new GM Jared Porter will be looking to dump before it’s over because the Mets need more production from the position and don’t want to pay a backup eight figures.”

    I hadn’t chimed in on this and Law summed up my thoughts perfectly.

    Value-wise, 4 years for McCann was horrible. There are only 2 FA catchers who got more than 2 years since 2015. One was Grandal and the other was Jason Castro. That’s it. And Castro was also a head scratcher who ended up barely playing in his 2nd year and a backup in the 3rd year of his deal.
    So clearly 4 years is too much.

    Wilson Ramos coming off an AS 2018 season + a better 3-4 years prior only netted 2 years from the Mets. TDA with a resurgent 1/2 season in TB only netted 2 years as well. 2017 Wellington Castillo with a strong platoon season in Baltimore also only netted 2 years.
    McCann really should have been only offered 2 years as well. If you squinted really really really hard perhaps you could justify 3 years at a lower dollar amount.

    Of course, that is viewing the contract thru a “normal” lens. If we instead put on the Steven Cohen “big budget” glasses and we don’t care that we will have to release him and eat the sunk cost for the last 2 years because we have an unlimited budget, then i guess it doesn’t matter that we gave him 2 extra years.

    Sandy is starting off his tenure just like his last one ended with an 0fer streak
    Gsellman, McWilliams, and now McCann.

    • Brian Joura

      I think we have to view this as a 2-year deal. Can McCann give them a combined 5 fWAR over the next two seasons? I wouldn’t want to wager on it but I wouldn’t rule it out, either. Hopefully, he can have a time share with Alvarez in the last two years of the deal.

      Or, maybe the question is if McCann can give you 4 fWAR the first two years and 1 the second two.

      • Name

        That’s pretty optimistic of you assuming he’ll have a positive fWAR each of the next 4 years.

        And when negatives are in play, does adding WAR really work?
        IE. If he posts a 6WAR in year 1 and -2 WAR in years 2,3,4 – was the contract worth it?

        • Brian Joura

          I realize you’re talking theoretically. But only 7 players of the 3,138 people to qualify for the batting title in this century have had a (-2) fWAR, That’s .002 or 2/10 of 1%. And if it somehow happened in one year, they wouldn’t let him play enough to have it happen again.

          Is it so unrealistic to imagine a four-year output of 2.0, 1.5, 1.0 and 0.5?

          If McCann gives them a 6 fWAR season – the contract will be worth it. If he fell off a cliff and became Chris Davis level bad and they continue to play him — well, that’s on them.

    • TJ

      I don’t disagree with anything that Law wrote, but Alderson said in his return presser that he looked forward to focusing on the acquisition more than the cost. This is a textbook example. There is certain risk in this player given the limited track record of success, but he also comes with a solid veteran reputation That will lead the pitching staff. That is job 1 and doesn’t show up in OPS+. Additionally this is a weird catcher market with one elite player, one competent vet, and a huge drop off. With rumblings that Realmuto didn’t want NY, and with no desire to trade off prospects, a Met overpay first McCann was highly probably. With this owner, an extra $8-$10 million risk over 4 years is palatable for sure.

      • Name

        “Additionally this is a weird catcher market with one elite player, one competent vet, and a huge drop off.”

        Not really. This is pretty common every year.
        2019 : Elite- Grandal, Competent – TDA, huge drop off
        2018 : Elite – Grandal, Competent – Ramos, Suzuki, huge drop off
        2017: Elite – no one, Competent – Castillo, Lucroy
        2016: Elite- no one, Competent – Ramos, Wieters

        Also i’ve never heard anyone call McCann a solid veteran presence. That moniker is too often overused and is often used to make a cheap gemstone look better than it is actually is. Yadier Molina is the only one i would call a true veteran presence.

        Personally, i would have rather went punted and went cheap on a Ramos resign, Zunino, or Kurt Suzuki for $2-3 mil than give 4 years to McCann.

        • TJ

          Name,
          Good points on prior catcher markets, at least some of the time there are some similarities, although Realmuto’s potential cost makes this year more dramatic…time will tell.

          I read that Joe McEwing, another Chicago coach, and at least one pitcher gave glowing reviews of McCann. Yes, these can be useless, but I don’t recall any similar comments with regards to either Ramos or for that matter D’arnaud next year.

          Also, your points on Suzuki and even Zunino are well taken. For me, I’d have gone in that direction more so than waiting for Realmuto’s price to drop, but based on their final decision, it seems that they thought the backside risk in McCann was worth the intangibles and the potential continuity benefits of having a guy here for 3-4 years.

  • Mike W

    The timing factor that Alderson talked about is plausible. Realmuto, at his potential price tag would be an even greater risk. In 2019, Realmuto had 23 HR and 83 RBI. Those are Jorge Posada numbers, If we didn’t go get McCann, we would be stuck bidding on Realmuto. If we didn’t get Realmuto, we would be shopping in the Wilpons rummage sale for a catcher.

    This is a three to five year play to win a World Series as Cohen proclaims. Have to give it some time to play out. I don’t see a Springer or Bauer both being signed, Have to look out a year and see that Stroman, Syndergaard and Conforto will be looking for a payday.

    In his career, Bauer has had a good season and a half. In 2018 he was 12-6 and had a 2.21 ERA. Every other year except for 2018 and 2020, he had an ERA north of 4.00. I think Odorizzi and Walker may be better bets for the money. I would like to see the Mets sign two pitchers like this. I also have a hunch that Bauer is going to get overpaid and end up on the Angels.

    It will be interesting to see how things play out.

  • TexasGusCC

    Sometimes in business we need to pay more for something than we want to, but our need for it is high. A bit chauvinistic, but many times I’ve heard the phrase that a man will pay $2 for a $1 item he needs, while a woman will pay $1 for a $2 item she doesn’t need, but the deal is too good. I’m actually a bit of both – as I can’t decline a good deal – but I’ve swallowed my pride and ponied up when I had to.

    The Mets had to. If they let Boras play them, they’re going to get screwed royally. If they decline on McCann then you may have a less than acceptable catcher as your starter. What are we missing here? We can’t have it both ways. Law would be the first to make fun of them if they paid Boras’ price of gazillion dollars for who knows how many years, or if they came home from “the gourmet section” with Mike Zunino, who just got non-tendered. McCann was a compromise of need and sanity.

    • Mr_Math

      “many times I’ve heard the phrase that a man will pay $2 for a $1 item he needs, while a woman will pay $1 for a $2 item she doesn’t need, but the deal is too good.”

      I showed this remark to my wife, and she told me I’m no longer allowed to visit this blog…

      OK, Gustavo, it’s just a joke, because I heard/started a rumor that humor is the best quality I contribute to this here blog.

      Uh, or Augustus instead of Gustavo?

  • Edwin e Pena

    McCann will be a huge improvement behind the plate on both defense and with the staff. How will he hit ? Well, the bar was set very low last year with Met catchers. I expect him to hit as well as Ramos did in 2019, perhaps with more power.
    These pluses alone make the team far better. Realmuto didn’t Reallywanna be a Met, so, good riddance. Hope he goes to the Angels or Jays, to the AL, never to be seen from again. Chow JTR.

    • TexasGusCC

      ^
      +1

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