How James McCann Complements the Mets’ Rotation

Written by: Justin Choi (@justinochoi)

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In what feels like ages ago, James McCann signed with the Mets this offseason on a 4-year, $40 million dollar contract.

There was a ton of discourse regarding the signing, and in case you forget, here are some of the main points: First, what offensive value can McCann provide? He’s put up an above-average wRC+ in his last two seasons, but he’s also been markedly below-average in his first five seasons with Detroit. Which version is the real McCann? Second, are the defensive improvements real? In the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, McCann graded out as an excellent pitch-framer. There was coverage, including this article in The Athletic, about how he trained himself to become a better receiver, suggesting that his improved numbers are no fluke. But we don’t know what sample size it takes for framing metrics to become reliable. 

So far, that’s been the book on McCann. Maybe he’s developed a decent bat, maybe he hasn’t. Maybe he’s one of the league’s better receivers, maybe he isn’t. At 4 years and $40 million, there’s not a huge risk –– it’s an okay-ish deal. However, I am going to rewrite, or at least revise, what you know about McCann. Whether the Mets’ front office noticed the same things I did or not, they nevertheless illustrate why he’s a great fit for the team. 

Let’s first pay a visit to Baseball Savant. There, using its Catcher Framing Leaderboard, we can see which specific areas of the strike zone McCann was able to master in 2020. His success is represented by his strike rates on those specific areas. Poor pitch-framers don’t elicit called strikes as often as great ones do –– it’s a simple, yet effective idea. And to avoid future confusion, here are the names of the areas I’ll be referring to: 

In 2019, McCann was the league’s worst pitch-framer amongst qualified catchers, accumulating -15 runs from his poor reception alone. The following year, he leaped up to 9th best amongst 62 qualified catchers, with +2 runs. What we’re really interested in, though, is specifically where McCann showed improvements. For example, he refined his ability to collect called strikes on both sides of the zone (Zone 14, 16). That’ll help the Mets… but not by much. McCann already had a decent grasp of those zones even in 2019, and besides, a combination of Robinson Chirinos, Wilson Ramos, and Tomás Nido for the past two years has also managed to be above-average there. A marginal improvement certainly isn’t worth the $40 million the Mets have committed to McCann. 

Here’s where it gets better: On pitches in the bottom part of the zone (Zone 18), McCann’s 44% CS rate in 2019 shot up to 61.8% in 2020. Over the course of a full season, that would equate to dozens of added strikes. And to say Chirinos and Ramos were bad at framing the low pitch might be an understatement. Last season, they ranked last and second-last respectively in CS% on pitches in Zone 18. Chirinos had a 40.1 CS%. Ramos? An astonishingly bad 29.6%. To put that a different way: more than two-thirds of borderline pitches, when caught by Ramos, were transformed into balls. 

It’s hard to say with certainty, but their incompetence probably affected how the Mets approached pitching. As evidence: In 2019, the team threw the fewest amount of pitches in Zone 18, with 1852. There’s quite a dramatic difference between the Mets and the second-lowest team, the Red Sox. The gap between the 1st-place Rockies and 2nd-place Diamondbacks is 16 pitches; the gap between the 29th-place Red Sox and the 30th-place Mets is 126 pitches. It doesn’t seem like this is due to mere variance. Continuing this trend, the Mets also ranked 26th in 2020, with 751 pitches. 

That doesn’t mean the Mets avoided the bottom of the zone –– in fact, a few of their starters relied on it. Jacob deGrom’s changeup is mainly located there. Noah Syndergaard also has a similar-ish changeup. In addition to a changeup, Marcus Stroman also has a sinker and a slider that he tends to locate downwards. Carlos Carrasco, the unexpected spoil from the Francisco Lindor blockbuster, also has a changeup that ends up in similar places as the aforementioned three. And by comparing their pitch heat-maps, we can see how McCann should end up playing a pivotal role: 

It wouldn’t surprise me if the Mets’ front office had Carrasco in mind after acquiring James McCann. Carrasco throws one of the league’s better changeups (.287 xwOBA, 19.2 SwStr% in 2020), and the prospect of such a pitch earning extra strikes is exciting. 

Imagine if this pitch was called a strike: 

Or this:

Or even this!

Of course, the Mets don’t have to throw more changeup, sliders, sinkers, or whatever pitch downwards just because of McCann. But they might still benefit, due to a change in dynamic between their pitchers and the batters they face –– in a good way. Previously, batters might have been complacent, knowing that a changeup would go their way, as long as they didn’t swing and either Ramos or Chirinos was behind the dish. Remove that sense of comfort, however, and no longer can they hunt exclusively for pitches in the middle or up in the zone. I don’t know if this effect is real; the Little Leagues were the height of my career. But it makes sense that this sort of disruption would benefit a pitcher beyond the added strikes. 

If they do choose to increase the number of pitches in the bottom areas, however, the effect would be synergistic. By simply having more opportunities to receive pitches, McCann’s defensive value, and thus the perceived worth of his contract, is elevated. By relying on his newfound talent, Mets pitchers can take further advantage of their solid arsenals. Everything in baseball is connected, and a wave started by McCann reaches individuals like deGrom and Stroman, who in turn deliver it to opposing batters. 

In case it bothered you, don’t worry too much about Tomás Nido, who’s proved to be an average framer throughout his career. Together with McCann, they form a duo that triumphs Chirinos and Ramos, at least defense-wise. Yes, signing J.T Realmuto would have been the better (and safer) choice, but McCann’s skillset is at the very least tailored to the Mets. Their rotation arguably needed it the most. It’s projected to be a powerhouse in 2021, especially after Syndergaard returns mid-season, and the team as a whole has its eyes set on the playoffs. Come October, when each plate appearance, each pitch carries more weight than any regular season game, that extra strike might make all the difference. 

Follow P365 Lead MLB Analyst Justin Choi on Twitter! @justinochoi

Follow us on Twitter! @Prospects365

All data courtesy of Baseball Savant and FanGraphs

Featured image courtesy of the respective photographer and South Side Hit Pen

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