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Grading the Mets’ James McCann signing

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McCann is an important addition who clarifies the Mets’ plan for this offseason.

MLB: Chicago Cubs at Chicago White Sox Mike Dinovo-USA TODAY Sports

After a week of the deal being on the proverbial five yard line, the Mets finally signed James McCann on Saturday. The former White Sox catcher received a four-year deal in the $40 million range, well above industry estimates at the start of the offseason. Indeed, it’s strange to see a player who was non-tendered after 2018 sign one of the richest deals in history at his position only two years later. Then again, most guys don’t go from below replacement level to top-5 talents at their position in their age-29 to 31 seasons either, making this one of the more interesting free agent additions to evaluate in recent Mets history.

McCann has improved on both sides of the ball since moving from Detroit to Chicago, but his defensive improvements are a bit easier to understand. Called strikes above average, or CSAA, is Baseball Prospectus’s metric for measuring a catcher’s framing ability, the most important part of their defensive toolkit. Because of the number of opportunities there are to measure a catcher’s framing - every pitch, essentially - this metric stabilizes extremely quickly, with a two month sample being nearly as representative as an entire season. For more on this, check out this article about how the metric is derived, in particular the second figure regarding sample size.

McCann was a horrific defender for much of his career in large part due to his very bad framing, which consistently ranked near the bottom of the league. He made a big improvement in 2020, however, ranking 21st in baseball with a 0.007 CSAA. This came in an abbreviated season of course, but McCann still caught more than 1600 pitches, more than enough data for us to be reasonably confident that his defensive improvement was real. Statcast measured a similar improvement, and video breakdown of McCann suggests he made a conscious effort to change his technique; perhaps getting a chance to pick Yamsani Grandal’s brain gave McCann some insights on how he could improve his own game.

On the offensive side of the ball, things are much murkier. McCann has been a decent hitter in the past, posting a 96 DRC+ in both 2017 and 2019, though there was a significant dip in 2018 and his 2019 resurgence was largely driven by a .359 BABIP. His 2020 was far and away a career year, with highs in every major batting rate stat and seven home runs in only 111 PA. Somewhat concerningly, most of this improvement appears to be a result of a career high 26.9% HR/FB rate, an unsustainable mark in a metric that is extremely susceptible to small sample size fluctuations.

While that last observations suggests McCann is a prime regression candidate, Statcast offers a semi-plausible explanation. Prior to 2019, McCann always had a launch angle of 15-16 degrees and an exit velocity in the 87-88 MPH range. In 2019, he got his average EV over 90 and upped his hard hit rate into the mid-40s, but saw his launch angle dip to 10 degrees - not quite worm burning, but not ideal for power either. In 2020, he consolidated those gains, maintaining his improved EV while returning to his career norms in terms of launch angle.

Similar to CSAA, both EV and launch angle stabilize faster than most other metrics, requiring somewhere between 20 and 25% of a season’s worth of data to be reliable. That’s a little bit less than what we got from McCann, but he’s close enough to be optimistic about these improvements being real. On the other hand, xwOBA wasn’t a fan of McCann’s work, pegging him for a .329 mark much more similar to his production from 2019. In other words, there’s a lot of conflicting information, but it seems like his 2020 was more noise than a legitimate breakout.

Perhaps that’s not the conclusion that you’d like to hear, but McCann can be plenty valuable even if his true offensive talent is more in line with 2019. A catcher who posts a 95 DRC+ is still among the best bats at the position, and combining that with above average catcher defense would give you a solid 2-3 win player by WARP. That’s a big upgrade over what Wilson Ramos has brought to the table the last two years and a bigger upgrade over what the options currently on the roster could’ve generated. A steady defensive presence who can bat seventh and provide some right handed pop is a welcome addition to a team bereft of catching depth.

As if the player evaluation wasn’t complicated enough, the market dynamics around McCann’s signing add another dimension to consider. JT Realmuto is no doubt a superior option, and the Mets didn’t exactly get McCann cheaply. In an article last week, Eno Sarris projected a four year, $85 million deal for the former Phillie, an estimate well below the six figure marks from other sources. Signing McCann over Realmuto for less than a third of the latter’s price is one thing, but if Sarris’s number winds up more accurate this feels less like a savvy move to free up money for other needs and more like simply being a bit cheap.

In either case, what the Mets do next is now even more important. Bypassing Realmuto for McCann solidifies the idea that Springer is their big name free agent of choice. Plenty of rumors have suggested such a signing is an inevitability, but if something goes wrong and Springer signs elsewhere the opportunity to land a true star in this free agency period is all but gone. This is an idea that will be more important when we wrap up the offseason grade as a whole, but it bears mentioning here because of how important McCann is to the overarching plan.

For now, the Mets have added a solid-if-unspectacular player at a position of desperate need for a slightly high but not unreasonable price. Your grade may differ based on what you think of McCann’s true offensive talent, but given the arguments above this signing receives a B.