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.
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.