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James McCann looks to rebound after disappointing first season with the Mets

Until Francisco Alvarez is ready, the Mets will have to settle with McCann behind the plate.

MLB: New York Mets at Pittsburgh Pirates Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

If one wants to re-litigate the Mets career of James McCann up to this point, the best way to do that would be to read three articles that our own David Capobianco wrote over the course of ten months after the former Tigers and White Sox catcher signed with the team in December 2020.

The first one, written shortly after the initial signing, captures the cautious optimism that a lot of us—and especially the Mets’ front office—felt. We hoped that the improvements he’d made in the 2019 and 2020 seasons might be fully sustainable, and that the Mets might finally have found themselves a suitable catcher after struggling mightily to fill the position for so many years.

The second one, written a month into the 2021 season when McCann was off to a slow start, captures the creeping realization that most of us were experiencing that the offense and defensive prowess we were hoping to see from him were nowhere to be found.

The third one, written at the conclusion of the season, summed up what we all knew for certain by that point: McCann’s debut season with the Mets was nothing less than a profound disappointment, and left us with little to feel optimistic about heading into the remaining three years of his deal with the team.

Five months later, and the Mets get ready to head into the 2022 season with the same catching tandem of McCann and Tomás Nido that they had last year, despite the fact that both players are probably best served as backups. In fairness, it’s hard to get too mad at the Mets for not working to make an upgrade at the position, given how many other glaring holes the team had to fill in order to transform themselves into a potentially competitive team. Nevertheless, as things currently stand, McCann certainly seems positioned to be the biggest hole in an otherwise solid Mets lineup this season.

At this point, the Mets are hoping for one of two things to occur: they either need McCann to at least partially rebound into being the player he was with the White Sox—when he put up a 114 wRC+ over 587 plate appearances in 149 games while also providing solid defense—and provide some modicum of value to the team. Or, failing that, they need Francisco Alvarez to continue his torrid development and take over the starting catcher’s job for the big league team, thereby turning McCann into an expensive backup. Alas, while the latter option may very well happen at some point, a betting man would probably wager that it will occur in 2023 rather than this year.

So we’re probably hoping on the first option, then. Still, as David discussed in his season review for McCann last fall, it’s hard to find reasons for optimism in the underlying numbers of his performance last season. Despite maintaining the changes in his swing that saw him find success in Chicago, he simply made significantly weaker contact with the ball in 2021, which resulted in his paltry numbers. Earlier this spring, McCann offered his own insights into what went wrong last year:

The problem for McCann last year is he got away from what made him successful in Chicago, he said: serving the ball to rightfield.

Nearly one-third of his batted balls in 2019-20 went there. That dropped to one-quarter — a significant decrease — last year. He also hit way more ground balls and fewer line drives, trends that make hits less likely.

When he finished April with a .214/.290/.268 slash line, McCann started overcompensating. The same happened to a bunch of other Mets, he said. They were one of the lowest-scoring teams on the season.

“Everyone got off to a slow start,” he said. “Then we were behind the eight-ball, chasing and trying to make up for the first few weeks, first month. Next thing you know, it’s September.”

It’s good that McCann has some level of confidence in his ability to make the necessary adjustments. And it’s certainly easy to see a scenario where the Mets’ improved overall offense will help him—at the very least, batting at the bottom of the lineup will ensure that he won’t experience the same amount of high-leverage at-bats that he saw hitting in the injury-deprived lineup last year.

Still, it’s hard to have a ton of optimism in his ability to improve significantly based on these factors alone. Occam’s razor suggests that the hitter McCann was last season is simply closer in-line to the player we can expect to see in 2022. Hopefully that proves to be an inaccurate assessment and he will begin to at least partly justify the contract the Mets gave him. But Mets fans shouldn’t be surprised if they spent a large part of this season pining for the day when Francisco Alvarez will finally be able to take the reins behind the plate.