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James McCann was a gamble that did not pay off

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McCann came to New York and immediately reverted back to being the player he was in Detroit.

Chicago Cubs v New York Mets Photo by Adam Hunger/Getty Images

It was easy to see what the Mets saw in James McCann when they signed him to a four-year, $40 million contract in early December. McCann, a career backup in Detroit who struggled to play over replacement level for four seasons there, went to the South Side of Chicago and changed everything about the way he played. He overhauled his swing, he altered the way he set up to frame, and across two seasons and 587 PAs for the White Sox, McCann not only turned himself into an above-average hitter, but a much better defender as well.

The Mets took a gamble on McCann and signed him to a big contract with the expectation that he could replicate what he did in Chicago and provide some thump towards the bottom of the order for the Mets in the first real full-time role of his career.

That did not happen.

McCann’s first season with the Mets was an unmitigated disaster. In total, he put together 412 plate appearances of a mere 80 wRC+, and never really got going with the bat. His .282 wOBA was the second-worst mark of his career. Despite continuing to use his new stance and load he picked up in Chicago, he lost all of the positive benefits he was receiving from it; McCann’s average exit velocity of 87.1 MPH this year was a significant drop from his 91.5 EV last year, and the worst since his Detroit days. He also pounded the ball into the ground like he never had before with an astronomical 51.5% ground ball rate, the highest rate of his career by a significant margin.

All of that resulted in the one of his worst power outputs ever, as McCann’s .117 ISO was also the second-worst full season mark of his career. Frankly, the last time McCann had this kind of offensive output was 2018, and he was DFA’d after that season.

The worst part of McCann’s offense is that there are no tidbits you can look at for signs of hope going into next year. His xWOBA of .291 matches his actual wOBA, which means McCann really didn’t get unlucky at all. His Statcast batted ball profile is filled with deep, dark blues meaning his contact quality was near the bottom of the league in nearly every measurable way:

Baseball Savant

In fact, you can make the argument that McCann is lucky he didn’t have a worse season. His xSLG% was .338, while his actual slugging percentage was already-paltry .349, which means that based on McCann’s quality of contact, he should’ve hit for even less power than he did.

McCann’s offensive collapse doesn’t even appear to be the result of a worse approach, as his plate discipline numbers were roughly in line with what he was doing in Chicago. McCann’s contact profile just completely cratered back to his Detroit levels and there doesn’t appear to be much reason for it beyond this just being much closer to his true talent level.

It wasn’t like the Mets had the ability to just bury McCann in the 8th hole, either. Because of injuries, McCann batted 6th or higher in 175 of his PAs this year, and even hit as high as 3rd on several occasions. According to Fangraphs, McCann saw the fourth-most high leverage at bats of all Mets hitters, and he had just an 83 wRC+ in those spots. He also saw the sixth-most at bats with RISP, and hit for a .219 average and a similar 80 wRC+ in those spots. There were many culprits of the Mets’ offensive struggles this year, but McCann’s role can’t be overlooked.

Even his defensive gains from last year did not hold, as McCann regressed to being just an average framer behind the plate. His strike rate of 47.9 ranked in the 43rd percentile in the league according to Statcast. Baseball Prospectus had him at -0.2 framing runs after being +2.7 in 2020. His total FRAA by BP was -0.8, meaning he was basically slightly below-average defender in total.

It’s tough to see what the Mets can do with McCann, but another season of him as the starting catcher doesn’t seem like an ideal scenario. Given that he has a much larger sample size of being this type of player, there is little reason to believe this was an anomaly or any sort of adjustment season for him. This looks like a catcher who is a significantly below-average hitter and a merely average defender signed for another three years and $30 million, and a complete miss in player evaluation by the Mets.

His contract is going to be difficult to justify for a backup role, and even more difficult to move, but McCann in his career has really never been a first-division starter, and some years not even second-division starter. The Mets have to figure something out behind the plate, and it will be fascinating to see how they go about fixing that position—if they even choose to—this offseason.