When the Mets signed James McCann to a four-year, $40 million deal in December, it seemed like a big risk to take, given that he had spent four seasons and over 1,600 plate appearances with the Tigers as a replacement level, part-time catcher who couldn’t hit and only two seasons and 587 plate appearances on the White Sox, where he looked like a #1 catcher would could hit.
But a look at the game tape revealed substantial changes he made in Chicago that would lead you to believe his improvements were actually real and could stick. He had dramatically changed his stance and swing at the plate, opening his stance up and adding a big load to his swing that resulted in him hitting for far more power and with more authority on contact. He had also changed his setup defensively to make himself better at stealing the low strike, which was reflected in the Statcast framing metrics that happened to grade him out as a positive framer in 2020 for the first time in his career.
Twenty-six games in the 2021 season, McCann unfortunately looks much more like the player he was in Detroit than Chicago. He’s hitting just .222/.291/.264 through 79 PA so far this year and doesn’t look great defensively. In such a small sample size with lots of season to go, it would be easy to wave this away as noise and a guy possibly being off-balance at the plate early in the year. And while that may be the case, a look into his batted ball profile raises some serious red flags.
At the plate, despite keeping his new open stance and big load in his swing, he has seen his average exit velocity drop to 87.1 miles per hour after being over 90 miles per hour the last two years. That 87.1 MPH exit velocity would match the EV he had in 2017, and he lived in that 87-88 MPH range his entire time in Detroit. His xWOBA is just .248 and his xBA is just .208. Those would both be the lowest marks of his entire career. He also has zero barrels so far this season, meaning he’s yet to even square one up.
On defense, McCann’s arm has proven valuable and has even won a game for the Mets, but his framing numbers from last year just have not held up to this point. Watching the games, you can see that McCann’s setup and approach is still the same from last year, with his knee on the ground with nobody on base and working from the bottom up, but any progress he saw at sealing the low strike last year has quickly dissipated this year:
His work in Zone 18 is where the big gains were last year, which is what caused the optimism that he had turned himself into an above-average framer. But his strike rate there has regressed significantly to a much more modest 49.6%, and his framing at the top of the zone, while never previously good, has been downright awful to this point. The eye test also bears that out to anyone paying attention. Add all that up and it’s a big reason why his strike rate has dropped nearly six points from last season, rendering him once again as a negative framer.
Of course, nearly all Mets hitters are under-performing their career averages, and the framing numbers are still a small enough sample for there to be noise. It’s been a weird start to the year, he’s working with a new pitching staff, and there’s a long season to go. The 30-year-old can still make some adjustments and return to being the player the Mets paid him to be, but his batted ball profile looking a lot more like it did in Detroit than Chicago is a big cause for concern right now, worsened by his not maintaining his 2020 improvements at framing. If he continues playing at this level, McCann could wind up being a disaster signing for the Mets, who committed four years to him with the hope that he wouldn’t regress so quickly.