The Mets have their new starting catcher, officially signing James McCann on Tuesday to a four year deal worth a little over $40 million. Two years ago, this would have seemed unthinkable after McCann was non-tendered by the Detroit Tigers. But for the two seasons since McCann has overhauled his play on both sides of the ball to become one of the top catchers in the game and one of the most coveted free agents this offseason.
McCann grew up in Santa Barbara, California, alongside his new Mets teammate Jeff McNeil, with whom he played on a youth baseball team. The White Sox drafted McCann out of high school in the 31st round of the 2008 MLB Draft, but he opted instead to go to college at the University of Arkansas. He performed well there, marked by a stand-out junior season where he hit .306/.388/.469, after which he was drafted by the Detroit Tigers in the second round in 2011, going 76th overall.
McCann spent most of the next three seasons working his way through the Tigers’ minor league season, struggling a bit when he was in Single-A and briefly when he was in Double-A, but otherwise he was a perfectly fine catcher, he wasn’t blowing anyone away but he wasn’t a pitfall, either. His best minor league season was 2014, which he spent a majority of on the Tigers’ Triple-A affiliate the Toledo Mud Hens, and he hit an impressive .295/.343/.427.
In September of 2014, McCann finally made it to the big leagues, and while he didn’t blow anyone’s doors off, his play at the end of that season combined with his play in Spring Training the following year, he became the backup catcher to then Tigers’ starter Alex Avila. His first full season, he wasn’t great, but he was much better than Avila, so he took over the starting catcher position from him. His first full season in the majors McCann hit .264/.297/.387, with an 84 wRC+ and was worth -0.6 fWAR.
Over the next three seasons, McCann continued to bat at a mediocre level, though nothing absolutely atrocious. He was also pretty good defensively, being named a Gold Glove finalist catcher in 2016. His final season in Detroit was in 2018, hitting .220/.267/.314, with a 57 wRC+ and being worth -0.7 fWAR, easily his worst season since debuting, and after the season the Tigers non-tendered him.
The Chicago White Sox saw something in McCann, and signed him to a one year, $2.5 million contract. After changing his stance and his mentality at the plate, he went on to have his best season yet. He hit .273/.328/.460 with a 109 wRC+ and was worth 2.3 fWAR. It was the first (and so far only) time he was elected to an All-Star Game.
The following offseason the White Sox signed Yasmani Grandal, and McCann was thrust back to being a backup. But he continued to make improvements to his game, this time defensively. In 2019 McCann was ranked 64th out of 64 in runs saved due to extra strikes (according to Baseball Savant) with -15. Last season he was tied for 6th with +2, just below prized free agent J.T. Realmuto.
He continued with his offensive improvements last season, as well. He hit .289/.360/.536 with a 144 wRC+ and was worth 1.5 fWAR. Despite playing as backup to Grandal, he still was able to play in about half of last season’s games, and bolstered his resume just in time to hit free agency as the second most valuable catcher after J.T. Realmuto.
Which McCann are the Mets getting? No one can be certain, as he could easily be the catcher from the last two years in Chicago, or he could just as easily regress to who he was in Detroit. But if the changes are permanent, and the improvement is real, McCann may be a real catch.