Mets have a James McCann problem developing, and there is no easy solution

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James McCann TREATED ART blue jersey 2021
James McCann TREATED ART blue jersey 2021

During this past offseason, the Mets could have made a strong effort to sign J.T. Realmuto. Instead, they signed James McCann, zeroing in on him and inking him to a four-year deal worth $40 million.

Part of the Mets' reasoning, as Sandy Alderson explained before the season, was that Realmuto's market was going to take much longer to develop than McCann's and that the team wanted to address other needs.

When the Mets were exploring the possibility of signing McCann instead of Realmuto, I was in favor of the move -- not because I felt McCann could have a similar offensive impact, but because of what signing McCann instead of Realmuto could allow for elsewhere when it came to adding impact players to the team.

McCann did not come without risks, but the numbers he put up across the 2019 and 2020 seasons with the Chicago White Sox were impressive. And it seemed he had turned a corner and unleashed offensive capability that had staying power.

In 587 plate appearances over 149 games with the White Sox from 2019 to 2020, McCann slashed .276/.334/.474 with 25 homers and 29 doubles.

In addition to McCann's offensive awakening, he was viewed as a tremendous leader for the pitching staff and a strong defender.

Jun 29, 2021; Cumberland, Georgia, USA; New York Mets catcher James McCann (33) watches after hitting a threeun home run against the Atlanta Braves during the seventh inning at Truist Park.
Jun 29, 2021; Cumberland, Georgia, USA; New York Mets catcher James McCann (33) watches after hitting a threeun home run against the Atlanta Braves during the seventh inning at Truist Park.

There have been no issues with McCann's stewardship of the pitching staff during his first season with the Mets, and his defense has been solid. His offense, though, has fallen off a cliff.

And with the very large caveat that a lot can change between now and the end of McCann's contract, he is not hitting nearly enough to be a starting catcher right now.

How did we get here, and what does that mean for the Mets going forward?

Analyzing McCann's sagging offense

Entering play on Sept. 9, McCann was hitting .236/.297/.349 with nine homers and nine doubles in 347 plate appearances over 102 games.

He has been a double play waiting to happen for most of the season, and a look at his ground ball rate (a career-high 52.9 percent after it was 37.7 percent last season) tells a big part of the story there.

When it comes to hitting the ball in the air, McCann is doing it just 28.1 percent of the time, well below where he was at in 2020 (37.7 percent) and his lowest rate since 2015, which was his first full season in the majors.

And when McCann has hit the ball in the air this season, he hasn't done it with much success, as evidenced by his 14.5 percent HR/FB rate, which is far below where it was in 2020 (26.9 percent) and a good deal below where it was in 2019 (18.6 percent).

Jun 25, 2021; New York City, New York, USA; New York Mets pinch hitter James McCann (33) hits the game-tying sacrifice fly in the eighth inning against the Philadelphia Phillies at Citi Field
Jun 25, 2021; New York City, New York, USA; New York Mets pinch hitter James McCann (33) hits the game-tying sacrifice fly in the eighth inning against the Philadelphia Phillies at Citi Field

A deeper look into the numbers shows that McCann is in the bottom 15 percent of the league in xBA, xSLG, xwOBA, chase rate, and strikeout rate, the bottom 20 percent in average exit velocity, and the bottom 30 percent in barrel percentage and whiff percentage.

McCann has hit just three home runs since June 6 (a span of 58 games), and has just two extra-base hits since July 20 (a span of 23 games).

A telling moment

During the 10th inning of the Mets' loss to the Marlins on Sept. 8 in Miami, with the go-ahead run on third base and two outs, Luis Rojas pinch-hit for McCann with Patrick Mazeika.

This is not to pile on Mazeika, who has had some nice moments this season while helping to fill in at catcher.

But Mazeika profiles as a Triple-A player or perhaps a part time backup, and entered that at-bat hitting .200/.265/.280 in 83 plate appearances this season.

That Mazeika was called upon to pinch-hit for McCann in that spot is just one example of how badly McCann is struggling. And it had to be painful for McCann to be pulled there for his backup, who grounded out to end the inning.

What happens now?

There is of course a chance that McCann comes out of this -- if not by the end of this season than by the beginning of next season.

May 24, 2021; New York City, New York, USA; New York Mets first baseman James McCann (33) rounds the bases after hitting a solo home run against the Colorado Rockies during the seventh inning at Citi Field.
May 24, 2021; New York City, New York, USA; New York Mets first baseman James McCann (33) rounds the bases after hitting a solo home run against the Colorado Rockies during the seventh inning at Citi Field.

And the Mets don't necessarily need him to be the guy who slugged close to .500 in 2019 and 2020. They just need him to be a solid offensive performer and combine that with his defense and leadership.

If McCann continues to struggle, though, the Mets will be in a bind since Tomas Nido has not distinguished himself, and because they don't have anyone else currently on the 40-man roster or in the upper levels of the minors who profiles as a starting catcher.

The presence of Francisco Alvarez, who is the No. 10 prospect in baseball, is rising through the system quickly, and will likely begin the 2022 season with Double-A Binghamton, adds another wrinkle to the situation.

If Alvarez was going to be ready in 2022, the Mets could just ride this out. But the odds are that he won't be ready until some point in 2023.

And if McCann can't be a solid offensive performer, he will likely wind up being a very expensive backup sooner rather than later, leaving the Mets with a mess on their hands.