The Ultimate Rorschach Test

It's almost shockingly difficult to tell what kind of player James McCann will be next season.

The Mets, according to one torturously infrequent report after another, are the front-runners for James McCann. Based on the patchwork of information coming out of the virtual Winter Meetings, the Mets seem likely to sign the catcher to a four-year contract. The Angels reportedly remain in the mix, and the Phillies may get involved as well, but for now, it seems that the Mets can have McCann if they want him. They probably do want him, so it won’t be a surprise if McCann becomes a Met sometime in the near future.

So what kind of player will James McCann be in Queens? The answer depends entirely on your level of optimism. McCann is the ultimate Rorschach test. Depending on who’s looking, he’s either a breakout star catcher who’s finally found his groove or a one-year fluke who’s about to sign a deal for more than he’s worth.

In 2020, McCann batted .289/.360/.536, for an .896 OPS. That’s a fantastic season for anyone, let alone a catcher, but it’s not entirely convincing. McCann did it over only 31 games and 111 plate appearances, with a .339 BABIP. In 2019, in 118 games over a full season, he batted .273/.328/.460, and in 2018, also in 118 games, he batted .220/.267/.314. If McCann earns a multi-year, multi-million dollar deal, it’ll be based entirely on his last two seasons. Whatever team signs McCann will have to hope that his 2019 and 2020 numbers represent the new normal rather than a two-year outlier.

And that’s not out of the question. According to Statcast, McCann’s batted-ball profile has been consistently improving since 2018. His hard-hit rate in 2018 was 37.1%, which was around his career average at the time. In 2019, it improved to 44.2%. In 2020, it improved again, all the way to 47.8%. His walk rate was similar: it went from 5.7% in 2018 to 6.3% in 2019 to a career-high 7.2% in 2020. 

So, the million-dollar question (literally): can McCann keep it up? He’s almost certainly not a .289/.360/.536 hitter, but can he sustain an OPS around .800, as he did in 2019? It won’t be easy, as even that season, he had a .359 BABIP. But he’s now spent two consecutive seasons — albeit one shortened one — hitting the ball noticeably harder than he had before. Maybe he’s made a genuine improvement, or maybe it’s a fluke — or maybe, as seems most likely, it’s somewhere in between.

McCann hasn’t just improved on offense either. His framing, a hugely important skill at which Wilson Ramos was particularly bad, has been on an upswing just as he hits free agency. 

In 2019, according to Statcast, McCann’s framing ranked dead last in the league. However, as The Athletic reported, there are nuances to the numbers. Statcast’s framing algorithm, James Fegan wrote, “grade(d) him out as among the best in the league at framing strikes at the top of the zone.” However, “the 6-foot-3 McCann was losing larger quantities of runs on pitches at the knees.”

But in 2020, something changed. McCann’s strike rate improved to 51.4%, eighth in baseball. In 2019, his strike rates in the three areas across the bottom of the strike zone (bottom left, bottom middle, bottom right) had been 20.3%, 44.1%, and 13.9%. In 2020, they climbed to 38.1%, 61.8%, and 31.3%. His framing at the top of the zone suffered, but not enough to offset his gains at the bottom. 

Vast framing improvement: career development, or one-year fluke? It depends, again, on your level of optimism. Before the 2020 season, McCann worked out with former catcher and bench coach Jerry Narron, who has instructed catchers like Jeff Mathis, Jonathan Lucroy, and David Ross. He was there to work on one thing: framing.

“Up to this point in my career I’ve never really had anyone who was able to explain to me why the scoring worked the way that it did as far as the framing metrics go and how to improve,” McCann told Fegan. “I’ll definitely be monitoring it closer than I ever have.” When he returned to the field after his workouts with Narron, his framing seemed to have improved dramatically.

So, his numbers behind the plate raise the same question as his offense: as he started hitting the ball harder, did he also take concrete steps to improve his framing? Or in 2021, will his exit velocity and his framing cool down again?

I don’t have an answer. There’s evidence on both sides, and the answer, as it often does, probably falls somewhere in the middle. The Mets clearly believe in McCann, if they’re pursuing him to be their starting catcher; maybe they know something we don’t. One thing is clear, and that is that when it comes to James McCann, nothing is clear at all.