McCann drawn to Mets 'from the first minute'

December 17th, 2020

NEW YORK -- ’s career arc is not the typical sort. Once a promising young catching prospect, McCann delivered his worst big league season at age 28, which was enough for his longtime employer, the Tigers, to take a hard look at his escalating salary and non-tender him. That was merely two offseasons ago.

Many stories would have ended there or shortly thereafter. McCann’s did not. Instead, he hooked on with the White Sox, where McCann retooled both his offensive and defensive games. The result: an All-Star season in 2019, a strong follow-up campaign in 2020 to prove the first one was for real, and a four-year, $40.6 million contract with the Mets.

“Things happen for a reason,” McCann said Thursday during his introductory Zoom conference. “I’m a big believer in that.”

Career arcs like McCann’s can portend many things, including something as simple as luck. Upon doing their due diligence on McCann early this offseason, the Mets concluded that his uptick represented clear and sustainable improvement -- the type that, in team president Sandy Alderson’s words, was “really due to James’ commitment to being better.”

Generally considered an average to below-average catcher with poor framing skills entering 2020, McCann sought the advice of former big league manager Jerry Narron, who offered independent catching instruction. Narron explained how framing metrics are calculated, telling McCann that his deficiencies in that area were not due to a lack of ability, but a problem with his setup behind the plate. Upon adjusting it, McCann improved his FanGraphs framing metric from 9.0 runs below average to 2.3 above average, albeit in the small sample of a 60-game season.

Some may consider such numbers mere noise. The Mets do not.

“I don’t think it’s serendipitous, if you will,” Alderson said. “I think it’s more a function of his work ethic and his awareness of what he needs to do to get better.”

Framing isn’t the only area in which McCann has improved. Following the season that led to his non-tender, in which he put up a .220/.267/.314 slash line for the Tigers, McCann broke out with a .273/.328/.460 mark in 2019. He improved all those figures in a smaller sample this summer, giving the Mets -- who sought a right-handed hitter such as McCann for balance in their lineup -- a bit more data upon which to make their decision.

McCann also established himself as a clear favorite of starting pitchers in both Detroit and Chicago. The Mets, who wanted a veteran to work with some of their younger starters such as David Peterson and Sam McWilliams, valued that as well.

“The first thing to know about me is I’m always going to pride my game on my defense,” McCann said. “I’ve always felt that way, because I truly believe that a catcher can impact the game tenfold defensively than he can offensively, especially over the course of the season. Especially in a day when everything is measured through a metric, through analytics, there’s one thing that we haven’t, as a baseball community, come up with is a value for the relationship between a catcher and a pitcher.”

If there is an area in which McCann does not rate highly, it is in comparison to J.T. Realmuto, the top catcher available on this year’s free-agent market. But the Mets saw McCann as a close-enough facsimile to provide better value than Realmuto over the next four seasons. More than that, Mets officials came away from their conversations with Realmuto believing he had little interest in signing anywhere until later in the offseason. That left Alderson with a choice: Wait on Realmuto and risk losing both catchers, or sign McCann now.

As they engaged in talks with McCann, the Mets hosted a Zoom call for him to speak with Alderson and members of the coaching staff. It proved so productive that Alderson laughed when recalling it.

“What struck me was how our side and James had already made an assumption this was going to happen,” Alderson said. “So it wasn’t really a selling job as much as it was just providing information, and I think comfort to James about what we had to offer.”

McCann largely didn’t need the nudge. Much like the Mets’ first prominent free-agent signing of the offseason, Trevor May, McCann said he paid close attention to the team’s ownership and front-office transitions. At his home near Nashville, McCann regularly works out with Mets pitchers Steven Matz and Brad Brach, who told him more about everything happening in Flushing.

“When the Mets came calling, from the first minute, they were high on the list,” McCann said. “Especially with the new owner and everything that he’s doing -- I’ve seen what he’s come out and said in the media. I’ve seen what he does on social media. I’ve seen the excitement from current players. … I didn’t really need any selling.”