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As spring training begins, you can't help but be curious about the remarkable transformation that catcher James McCann has made in two years, from being non-tendered by the Detroit Tigers to pulling down a $40 million contract with the Mets, all thanks an eye-opening stint in Chicago with the White Sox.
McCann took it upon himself to make changes both offensively and defensively, but it should be noted that he has never caught more than 118 games in a season. He had only 31 last year while splitting time with Yasmani Grandal.
That raises the question of whether his improved play will hold up now that he’ll be the No. 1 catcher for a team with high expectations.
Judging by the various evaluators I asked, including an executive from a team that had interest in McCann as a free agent, the Mets have reason to feel confident in the answer.
"We took a good look at him," the exec said. "Our scouts were convinced the changes he's made will stick. He's always been a good catch-and-throw guy, and when he changed his set-up, he got better as a framer, especially handling the low pitch and that had been a weakness for him.
"And offensively, he did a couple of things that made him much more of a threat. He opened his stance and he incorporated a leg kick, and since then, he's made more consistent hard contact. If he'd only done it for one year, you might need to see more but he's done it for two years, so you feel like you have a pretty good idea of what to expect."
The numbers support such observations. Since making the changes with the bat, McCann has improved his slugging percentage and OPS -- his .896 OPS last year was a relatively small sample because of his 31 games played, but very impressive nonetheless.
In addition, his exit-velocity numbers have risen, as has his hard-hit rate, as measured by Statcast. One scout called the hard-hit rate, which rose from 38 percent in 2018 with the Tigers to 44% and 48% with the White Sox, "the best indicator of his improvement."
Those Statcast numbers translated to more production offensively, as McCann put together his best full season in 2019, hitting .273 with 18 home runs, 26 doubles and a .789 OPS in 118 games. Then, he took another step during the 2020 shortened season, putting up a .536 slugging percentage and .896 OPS.
Expecting those numbers over a full season may be a bit unrealistic, but it does appear that at age 30, McCann has made himself into one of the better-hitting catchers in the majors.
MLB Network's Tom Verducci, who looked at hours of video in putting together a breakdown segment on McCann, agrees with scouts who think the catcher will continue to produce.
"He used to get beat by velocity," Verducci told me. "He was late getting started. But with the changes he made, he developed a little more rhythm. Opening his stance and turning his head a little more toward the pitcher has allowed him to see the ball better.
"He uses his whole body more now. He used to be more of an arms-and-hands swinger. The leg kick helped him get his lower half more involved in the swing.
"So he's made some real changes. Sometimes guys have fluky years, but when you look at the way he's improved over two seasons, you can see that the changes he made are legit."
Those changes enabled McCann to command that four-year, $40 million deal from the Mets, allowing Sandy Alderson to feel fine about essentially passing on J.T. Realmuto, regarded as the best catcher in baseball.
In truth, however, it's McCann's presence behind the plate that the Mets need more than his offense, after two years of the defensively-challenged Wilson Ramos doing most of the catching. Ramos fared terribly in defensive metrics for catchers, no surprise if you watched him regularly, as his lack of mobility in blocking balls in the dirt was as obvious as his problems skillfully catching pitches at the bottom of the strike zone.
It got to the point, if you remember, where both Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard expressed a preference to pitch to someone other than Ramos.
By contrast, a person connected to the Mets told me, "The pitchers are going to love McCann. I talked with people I know with the White Sox and they tell me he's got this take-charge personality that creates a bond with his pitchers because he's so invested in calling the game and getting the most out of them."
It's a persona the Mets have lacked for years, something that became especially noticeable when Devin Mesoraco, a journeyman catcher acquired during the 2018 season, was embraced for his meticulous preparation and vocal style to the point where deGrom adopted him as his personal catcher on the way to winning his first Cy Young Award.
In addition, McCann has always had good stats throwing out base stealers, another problem area for the Mets (albeit in part because of their pitchers' problems holding runners on). But he also had a glaring flaw until last season, having ranked poorly as a pitch-framer, particularly on the low borderline strikes.
"He set up high and stabbed at pitches down in the zone," an MLB scout explained. "That influences umpires on those borderline pitches because you're moving the glove down to catch the ball."
It was such an issue that in 2019, McCann ranked 35th among 37 catchers in Fangraphs' framing metric. When the White Sox brought it to his attention, McCann sought out catching instructor Jerry Narron on his own after the 2019 season and wound up changing his set-up, wider and lower with one knee on the ground in a way that allowed him to catch the ball at the bottom of the strike zone (or lower) without stabbing downward.
The result was a dramatic improvement: According to Statcast's framing metric, pitches at the bottom of the strike zone were called strikes 61.8% of the time with McCann behind the plate in 2020, compared to 44.1% of the time in 2019.
With that improvement, as well as the offensive changes, it seems McCann indeed has transformed himself over the last two years into one of the top catchers in baseball. And the evidence suggests it’s no fluke.