When it comes to catchers in baseball; defense is a premium, offense is gravy. It’s taken baseball about 1,000 years to figure it out but finally, teams get it. For as long as the sport was founded, teams valued the position the other way around but the smart teams understand what truly makes a catcher valuable.
During the postseason, the New York Yankees benched Gary Sanchez in six of the eight playoff games. WHY? Sanchez isn’t a premier defender. Kyle Higashioka is a better option behind the plate. It’s the reality of the position. I’m just not sure why teams haven’t figured this out sooner.
During an offseason with JT Realmuto on the open market, it’s James McCann who is the hot name in the rumor mill. There’s a reason for it. McCann can do everything that Realmuto can. You just don’t know who he is.
Let’s get the offense out of the way first. The movie Moneyball is right in one aspect. Players are overlooked for a number of biased reasons. McCann was a bit of a late bloomer but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t blossomed into a beautiful flower.
McCann, since 2019: .276/.334/.474, 116 wRC+, 25 HR, 75 RBI
Realmuto, since 2019: .273/.333/.492, 112 wRC+, 36 HR, 115 RBI
This isn’t mean to disparage Realmuto. He’s a terrific catcher. Realmuto bests McCann is homers and RBI’s (while having significantly more at-bats). MLB free agency is about finding value. Realmuto is going to get a $100 million plus contract. McCann will go for a fraction of that.
McCann’s development behind the plate has been remarkable. The former Tigers farmhand has gone from one of the worst pitch framers in the sport, to one of the best. In 2020, McCann ranked in the 88th percentile in pitch framing. His overnight improvement has been drastic.
McCann’s Statcast runs from extra strikes total and MLB ranks, 2015-20
2015: -14 (55th of 56 qualified catchers)
2016: -3 (44th of 63)
2017: -11 (59th of 62)
2018: -1 (30th of 60)
2019: -15 (64th of 64)
2020: +2 (T-6th of 62)
McCann is a big guy checking in at 6-foot-3. It’s hard to be nimble back there for someone that tall. Apparently, McCann spent a lot of time with Jerry Narron who mentored Martin Maldonado, Jonathan Lucroy, and Jeff Mathis.
“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 The Athletic. “I’ll definitely be monitoring it closer than I ever have.”
McCann got the message and become one of the best pitch framers in the sport. Lucas Giolito threw a no hitter during the shortened 2020 season. If McCann doesn’t deserve an assist in the record books for his performance, I don’t know what does.
Stealing extra strikes for your pitcher is the most important skill set a catcher can provide. Nothing else matters when it comes to catchers. The offense does not matter. It’s like adding a cherry to ice cream. Smart teams are recognizing how valuable catchers like McCann are.
Let’s go back to the Mike Brosseau at-bat against Aroldis Chapman in the postseason. Of course, Brosseau’s homer eliminated the Yankees and eventually helped propel the Rays to the World Series.
Chapman got Brosseau down 0-2 from the jump. You will notice a handful of potential strikes that Gary Sanchez couldn’t frame properly. The home run that Chapman gave up is just as much on Sanchez for not stealing those extra strikes. When you give good hitters more cracks at the apple, bad things happen.
Catcher ERA is far from a perfect metric. The pitchers you are dealt to work with has a lot to do with it. However, McCann was able to post a 2.82 ERA while being behind the plate. Chicago has a dearth of quality arms but there’s no question they all benefited from having McCann on their side.
Baseball is a complex game, but it’s also simple at the same time. It’s pitch and catch. For some reason, the catch part of it has been overlooked. It turns out throwing to a statue doesn’t help your cause. Catchers have a massive impact on pitcher performance.
This is one of the reasons why I was so high on Zack Wheeler. After signing a lucrative contract with the Phillies, Wheeler more than did his part. Wheeler pitched significantly better in Philadelphia compared to New York. It wasn’t surprising considering the data showed that Wheeler was being used incorrectly and Wilson Ramos was killing him. Turns out I was right about that one.
Oddly enough, the Mets are one of the teams involved in the James McCann sweepstakes. It seems as though they have learned from their mistakes. Prioritizing an offensive first catcher like Wilson Ramos was a terrible blunder. McCann is someone that can help your staff pitch up to its capabilities.
Sometimes the biggest moves in the offseason are the ones that nobody cares about. Signing someone like James McCann can have a huge impact on your franchise. There’s a reason why so many teams are coveting McCann this Winter.