Heading into the winter, everyone was well aware that the Mets needed a catcher. The team cut ties with Wilson Ramos, who held down the fort behind the plate over the past two seasons, and Robinson Chirinos, whom they acquired prior to the trade deadline. Tomás Nido, who was coming off a fine season that was cut short by a COVID-19 diagnosis, was not really an enticing option to be a full-time starter.
J.T. Realmuto, arguably the best catcher in the game, was out there on the free agent market, and the organization had just been sold to Steve Cohen and his $14.6 billion net worth, so it wasn’t surprising that many experts linked the Mets to the two-time All Star, two-time Silver Slugger recipient, and 2019 Gold Glover winner. But early on, it was clear the Mets were not interested in him, and there was hardly any traction on that front. Instead, in one of the first major moves of the Cohen era, the Mets inked veteran backstop James McCann to a four-year deal worth $40.6 million.
On the surface, the move came as a bit of a shock. In the absence of insider knowledge of any talks between the two sides and on specifics regarding the player’s personal preferences—a report indicated that the catcher was “not keen” on New York—it seemed like Realmuto fit the Mets like a perfectly broken-in catcher’s mitt. He offered the team a middle-of-the-order bat, a solid defensive presence, and stability at a position that had been unstable for many years. Given the opportunity to go with more of a sure thing, the Mets instead gambled on a four-year deal for McCann, who had only recently started to blossom as a catcher in his past two seasons with the White Sox. The move raised a couple of questions, namely whether the signing will end up paying off for the club, and whether the Mets have finally found a long-term answer behind the plate.
McCann, who will turn 31 this June, was a late bloomer in his career. After a brief call-up in 2014, he began his career in unremarkable fashion in 2015, slashing .264/.297/.387 with five home runs in 114 games with the Tigers. Over the course of five seasons in Detroit, he finished with a .240/.288/.366 slash line, a 75 wRC+, and a -0.2 fWAR in 442 games. He was later non-tendered and found his way to Chicago on a one-year deal. 2019 was a break-out year, as McCann was named to his first career All Star game and hit .273/.328/.460 with a career-high 18 home runs, a 109 wRC+, and a 2.2 fWAR. In a shortened 2020, he had arguably his most impactful season, setting career bests in batting average (.289), on-base percentage (.360), slugging percentage (.536), ISO (.247), and wRC+ (143), albeit in just 31 games.
More impressive than his offensive gains were his defensive gains, which caught the eyes of many around the game. His defense was so dreadful in 2019 that Chicago brought in Yasmani Grandal, a move which drastically reduced McCann’s playing time. From that point forward, McCann started to work independently with former big league catcher and former manager Jerry Narron to improve his defense, and the work paid immediate dividends for the 30-year-old. Seemingly overnight, he went from one of the worst defensive catchers in the game to one of the better ones.
When exploring Baseball Prospectus’ catcher defense metric, Catcher Defensive Adjustment (CDA), McCann ranked dead last in 2017 (-18.6), 99th out of 122 in 2018 (-2.9), and 111th out of 123 in 2019 (-7.6). Similarly, he ranked dead last in Framing Runs Above Average (FRAA) in 2017 (-20.9), 106th in 2018 (-5.0), and 117th in 2019 (-10.2). In Called Strikes Above Average (CSAA), he was 98th in 2017 (-.013), 67th in 2018 (-.002), and 96th in 2019 (-.008). After working with Narron, his CDA improved dramatically to 1.5, which ranked him at 21st out of 99 catchers in 2020, while his CSAA ranked 20th at .007 (FRAA stats were not readily available for last season).
When switching over to Statcast’s framing statistic, Runs From Extra Strikes, McCann was 59th out 62 (-11) in 2017, 30th out of 60 (-1) in 2018, and dead last in 2019 (-15). In 2020, that number again improved to ninth among all catchers (2) in that category. In addition to those metrics, he has been solid at throwing out runners in his career, catching would-be base stealers at a 36% clip since his debut. The Mets, over the years, have been plagued by stolen bases from opposing teams, which is partly due to their pitchers’ struggles with holding on runners but has been compounded by their catchers’ inability to throw out base stealers. McCann’s presence behind the plate should greatly help cut down on runs as a result, and if he can keep up his defensive improvements, that will be a big boost to the club on top of his offensive contributions. David Capobianco already did a fantastic job of visualizing the improvements McCann has made on both sides of the ball.
Even for fans who were excited about the prospect of Realmuto in orange and blue, McCann won many of them over at his introductory press conference, which was impressive, as far as video pressers held over Zoom go. He spoke glowingly about the new ownership and spoke to how the club was high on his list from the start, calling out the enthusiasm of several players, specifically Marcus Stroman. He also discussed his plans to reach out to each pitcher and form a relationship with them over the offseason, and showed that he would become a leader who could have a positive impact that goes well beyond just numbers on the back of his baseball card. While it’s hard to judge words from an opening presser, he exuded confidence in his abilities and in the club’s potential, and excitement at the challenge ahead of him.
The Mets hope McCann can fill a glaring hole that’s been an issue for the better part of a decade, and it has mostly been a revolving door of unexceptional options. Since moving to Citi Field, the Mets have been struggling to find a long-term solution behind the plate, and they have only had four seasons in which a catcher registered over 100 games in a single season. They thought they had their man in Travis d’Arnaud, but, while he was solid in 2014 and 2015, injuries prevented him from reaching his full potential and becoming a steady presence for the team. Ramos was fine offensively in 2019, but his defense quickly became a problem, and his 2020 season was mostly abysmal.
So will McCann finally solve that ever-present hole the Mets cannot seem to fill at catcher? Time will tell, but the club has entrusted him with the role for the next four years, so he will have plenty of time to show that his recent improvements are not a fluke. If he can continue to build upon his recent growth, the team may have finally found the answer behind the plate, and the Mets will be significantly better for it.