The Mets activated catcher James McCann yesterday after the backstop completed his recovery from surgery to address the broken hamate bone he suffered in May. He’s the first of a trio of core Mets starters (the others being Max Scherzer and Jacob deGrom) to return from injuries that sidelined them early this season, though realistically the impact of his return on the overall performance of the team would appear to be the most negligible of the three.

We’ve talked about how McCann turned back into a pumpkin with a bat since signing his deal with the Mets before the 2021 season, and his performance at the plate before being sidelined (slashing .196/.266/.286) didn’t instill confidence that he was on his way to righting the ship. The argument both this season and last, of course, is that the Mets need his skill behind the plate more than they need his bat. That’s certainly more true this season than it was during last year’s offensive disaster, but does McCann truly provide more value behind the dish than someone like Tomas Nido or Patrick Mazeika (who was optioned back to Syracuse to make room for McCann)?

Determining the true defensive value of a baseball player is an exceedingly difficult task in general, and that goes doubly so for a position like catcher. Additionally, defensive metrics tend to require substantial sample sizes to be considered normalized for a given player. Even so, there are several individual metrics that can give us a good idea of how an individual backstop has performed on the defensive side of the ball. Let’s take a crack at it!

We’re going to compare the career numbers for McCann, Nido, and Mazeika with the enormous caveat that McCann has much more experience and thus a much larger data set. The statistics we’re going to use are as follows (and pulled from FanGraphs):

  • Strike Zone Runs Saved (rSZ) – How well a catcher controls the strike zone, essentially framing
  • Catcher ERA Runs Saved (rCERA) – Effectively how well a catcher calls a game
  • Stolen Bases Runs Saved (rSB) – Stolen base prevention by throwing out base runners or preventing steal attempts in the first place
  • Good Fielding Plays Runs Saved (rGFP) – Essentially how well a catcher prevents passed balls
  • Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) – This is an overarching defensive stat that encompasses many individual components, including those listed above

As we take a look at the totals below, keep in mind that each of these values can be positive or negative, and the career totals are the sum of those positive and negative values. The main reason this is important to keep in mind is that looking at the totals doesn’t give insight into the ups and downs for someone like McCann over the years. For example, he’s had some truly terrible years in Detroit and some great ones in Chicago while being pretty poor across the board for the Mets in 2021 (-5 DRS) yet solid in his limited time so far this season (4 DRS). In contrast, Nido had a great defensive year last year (10 DRS) while seemingly regressing this year (0 DRS).

Player Innings rSZ rCERA rSB rGFP DRS
McCann 5774 -5 -3 14 -2 -2
Nido 1363 12 -3 2 2 11
Mazeika 284.2 0 0 0 1 1

What’s interesting about the above table is that we can see that McCann and Nido each have their strengths and weaknesses, while Mazeika has been fairly average across the board in limited opportunities. McCann has a huge edge in preventing stolen bases, while Nido has been more effective at blocking the plate and much better at pitch framing. Both have been below average in calling their respective games, though, which is always an interesting metric because of how nebulous it seems.

McCann has improved both his framing (1 rSZ) and game calling (1 rCERA) this year, while Nido has taken a step back in game calling and preventing stolen bases. We should keep in mind how volatile these kinds of stats can be from year to year and the small sample size of the data in 2022.

While both have been poor offensively while wearing a Mets uniform, the biggest difference between the two is that McCann has shown that he can be productive at the plate during his big league career. They’ve both also had poor seasons so far in 2022, though Nido more so than McCann. However, even with McCann not living up to his contract or expectations, he’s simply been below average while Nido has been essentially a dumpster fire with a bat.

So should McCann truly be penciled in as the presumptive starting catcher? It seems like a silly question, sure (the answer is yes), but the fact that he’s been so disappointing that we can at least entertain it speaks to the team’s need to upgrade either behind the plate or at DH to add the competent bat they thought they were getting when they signed him. It may be possible that McCann turns it around, though it’d be foolish to bank on it, and if the team truly hopes to win it all they’ll have a tougher go of it with two holes in the lineup. It’ll likely be easier to upgrade at DH before the trade deadline, and the team of course has an elite catching prospect in Francisco Álvarez knocking on the door. With McCann’s struggles and Alvarez’s performance at Binghamton, it’s certainly unlikely that McCann will be the presumptive starter behind the dish through the life of his contract unless he rediscovers the magic he found in Chicago.

6 comments on “James McCann is back, but should he be the starting catcher?

  • AgingBull

    FWIW, here are these same stats for Contreras (career.)
    Innings: 4743
    rSZ: -23
    rCera: 6
    rSB: 19
    rGFP: 5
    DRS: 8

    I suppose this line is open to interpretation, but he would seem to be a big downgrade in framing, but a good signal caller, with a strong arm and solid overall fielding. His total DRS fits right in the middle of the pack, but 2022 hasn’t been such a great fielding year for him (-4 DRS). His bat adds a ton to the lineup though and I think he’d be a great rental if he’s available. Cubs need a 1B (I think) and perhaps Smith along with a mid-tier prospect could land him. I think Contreras would only be a rental so he would not block Alvarez.

    • Rob Rogan

      It’s an interesting data point that his framing has been so bad, but yeah you’d be going for his bat if you acquire him. McCann is a generally solid defensive catcher, but for the team to carry a poor bat behind the plate you’d hope for an above average defender across the board.

  • BrianJ

    McCann > Nido > Mazeika

    I’d prefer a trade for Willson Contreras if the price isn’t too steep. He’s in his walk year so you’d think the price wouldn’t be too high. But Contreras is having such a good year with the bat – and catching overall in MLB not very good – that he won’t come cheap.

    But for right now, I’m glad the team got better with McCann replacing Mazeika on the roster.

  • Metsense

    McCann should be the starter without question and Nido the back-up. There are 43 NL catchers with more than tens AB. McCann is #18 with a 0.4 fWAR, Mazeika is #29 with a -0.1 fWAR and Nido Is #35 with a -0.2 fWAR. Nido have zero options whereas Mazeika has two options.
    When the rosters expand in September, call up Alvarez. Then they could have the option to replace Nido on the playoff roster.

  • NYM6986

    With the way we are hitting, we can absorb a sub par batting average and production from our catchers, although that is historically a big bat in MLB lineups. Remember when shortstops were all great glove poor bat players? Of course that changed years ago. Not sure why they can’t straighten out McCann’s bat and get him at least somewhat closer to where he was when we signed him. I’m good with McCann and Nido behind the dish. Don’t want to give up prospects for a Contreras rental as he will be too expensive to resign given McCann contract. Seems our strength at DH is only when Pete plays that role. JD Davis is a huge disappointment and should probably be shipped out with Dom Smith at the trade deadline. Alvarez is pounding the ball but from what I’ve read, has a lot of progress to be made behind the plate. Nice call up in September but I’d rather see him continue to develop. Isn’t it nice having a good team to discuss where we can bitch about a few players here and there but not have to wonder why we do t hit with RISP. LGM

    • Rob Rogan

      It is nice, agreed! I considered the fact that this piece would be nit-picky considering the team’s position and performance, but it was timely with his return from the IL. I think an acquisition at the DH position would both push concerns with offense at catcher aside and quell the burgeoning calls for a premature Alvarez call-up. It’s also nice to have a few prospects with high upside at positions of need too (namely 3B and catcher).

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