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A visualization of James McCann’s improvements as a player

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A look at how the new Mets catcher has tangibly improved his game on both sides of the ball over the last two seasons.

Chicago Cubs v Chicago White Sox Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images

When looking at James McCann’s numbers over the past few seasons, his improvements in 2019 and 2020 jump out at you as rather odd. McCann had been, in five seasons with the Tigers, a borderline replacement-level catcher, who would eventually be non-tendered by the Tigers after 2018. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, McCann turned himself into a good hitter in 2019 with the White Sox, and an elite all-around catcher in 2020.

Now, many would look at this and say that this profile is littered with red flags. And on the surface, it may very well be. McCann was a player who had amassed over 1600 plate appearances from 2014-2018 and had a career 75 wRC+ to that point and wasn’t adding much defensively, grading out one of the worst framers in the game most years by Baseball Prospectus’s CSAA stat. He then rode an uncharacteristically high .356 BABIP to a 109 wRC+ in 2019 while still not adding much defensively, ranking 114th out of 123 catchers by CSAA. Then, in a shortened 60-game season, he put up a 144 wRC+ over just 111 PAs while suddenly becoming a good defensive catcher and improving tremendously as a framer, ranking 21st in the league by CSAA.

A broader, more outdated analytical approach would tell you that McCann rode a high BABIP, small sample size, and a hitter-friendly park to being a productive catcher, and is due for serious regression. And while McCann may not be a 144 wRC+ true talent hitter with elite framing ability now like he was in 2020, there’s legitimate reason to believe in his changes on both sides of the ball. McCann has made actual, tangible overhauls to several aspects of his game with the White Sox the last two years.

Offense

Let’s start with his approach at the plate. Basically, McCann has been doing everything differently since 2019. You can see the immediate difference just by observing the change in his stance from Detroit to Chicago.

First, with the Tigers:

Now, with the White Sox in 2020:

The differences completely jump out, as McCann looks like a completely different hitter in the box. His previously slightly-open stance is now wide open, he’s less upright and more bent at the knees, and his hand position has dropped dramatically, with the bat out away from him instead of over his head.

Now let’s look at the swings all the way through.

In Detroit:

And in Chicago:

You can see the main difference is in his load. Whereas McCann had a small, quick step that came down much quicker with the Tigers, he now has a big take back and a higher leg kick that comes down much later. McCann also keeps the bat and his front elbow lower now throughout the take back.

I’m no hitting coach or even any sort of talent evaluator, but these changes are dramatic enough to be clear to everyone. Obviously, players make swing changes all the time, but the positive results McCann has seen as a result are very real.

From 2015 to 2018, McCann’s average exit velocities ranged anywhere between 87.1 to 88.4 MPH, which put him anywhere from 146th to 185th among qualified hitters in baseball. In 2019, his average EV jumped to 90.2, which was 79th in MLB, and it ticked up a little more to 90.5 in 2020. Furthermore, his hard hit rate ranged between 36.8% to 37.7% in his time in Detroit, whereas the last two years on the White Sox it was 44.2% and 47.8%. With his new swing, McCann is clearly hitting the ball harder than he ever has before, and that is exactly the intended result changing a hitter’s load and leg kick.

In fact, we’ve seen many hitters make similar changes and have similar results in recent years. Justin Turner similarly went from a toe tap on the Mets to a high leg kick on the Dodgers, and it famously changed the course of his career. McCann made a similar adjustment, and appears to be reaping the benefits of it.

Defense

Despite his offensive gains in 2019, McCann still had a reputation as a terrible framer before 2020. Now, with 2020 being such a small sample size of games, it would make sense to take his vast improvements last year with a grain of salt. But like his swing, McCann’s improvement in this department is also so stark that it is obvious even to the naked, untrained eye. The Athletic had a piece about McCann in August that went in depth about his framing, outlining what he changed. From the article:

After growing up with the school of thought of being “quiet” behind the plate with all of his movements, and staying in a squat to allow more lateral movement and blocking, McCann and Narron went over how the 30-year-old, 6-foot-3 catcher had been losing calls below the zone throughout his career because he wasn’t set up low enough. Unless you’re watching the catch on every pitch the way McCann does whenever he’s watching baseball nowadays, it’s subtle, but he’s made a jarring switch to more actively pulling the ball up through the zone on every pitch, and setting up to do so one one knee far more frequently.

And by watching McCann in 2020, you can see him enact that everything described in that passage. This tweet explains it very well, but it only profiles two pitches. I wanted to look at more.

So I picked out a completely random game from 2018 to watch McCann work. This is a game between the Tigers and Cleveland from 2018 in which McCann was catching for the Tigers. One thing that jumped out at me instantly was McCann’s set up for every pitch:

From what I saw, he was never much lower than this no matter where he called for the pitch, and his knees never once touched the ground.

To see the contrast in 2020, I went to the video of Lucas Giolito’s no-hitter to watch McCann’s framing in action, and his improvements are not subtle. You can watch the video yourself to see it, but look at how McCann sets up now:

No matter where he was calling for a pitch, he always had a knee on the ground all game long. This is way lower than he was previously.

Now going back to 2018, watch him try to frame these low pitches with his old setup.

You can see how he’s working from over the top of those pitches, reaching down to stab at them. Now, observe the difference with his new, lower setup, coming from the ground up to snag the pitches.

I audibly gasped the first time I saw that called strike. The umpire there is CB Bucknor, so obvious caveats apply, but that’s likely never a pitch he would have gotten in the past. It’s not just this one pitch, though. There were many low pitches I saw that he didn’t get the call on, but the difference in setup and presentation is what to key in on.

If you look closely, you can see how he’s on a more even plane with those low pitches, allowing him to make a much better presentation to the umpire.

Even though he didn’t get strike call on all of those pitches I found, that doesn’t mean his changes were for naught. As Lukas Vlahos has pointed out, Baseball Savant’s framing numbers show a dramatic improvement for McCann on the low strikes last year, which is completely consistent with what you see by watching the clips, and exactly what these changes were designed to fix.

His Statcast page on Baseball Savant has the visual breakdown:

The most dramatic improvement for him is Zone 18, which once again tracks with what we’re seeing on video. You can also see clear improvement in Zones 16 and 19, and that all of that led to his career-best strike rate of 51.4%.

It’s one thing to look at the numbers on the stat sheet and be skeptical when lines like McCann’s appear to be anomalies, and it’s still possible he doesn’t perform up to his contract with the Mets. But when you go back and actually look at the pronounced adjustments he’s made to become basically a completely new player, McCann becomes a lot easier to buy into as the Mets’ number one catcher for the next few years.