James McCann Has Lost His Progress by Arvind Kalyan September 3, 2021 For Mets catcher James McCann, 2019 represented a career-altering triumph over the struggles that had plagued him through his first five big-league seasons in Detroit. With the Tigers, McCann’s abject lack of success at the plate led him to yo-yo between batting stances and approaches. In June 2016, he replaced his leg kick with a quieter front-foot step, struck out in a career high 29.2% of his at-bats, and tweaked his stance again in the offseason. McCann closed the book on his rookie contract with a 2018 season from hell — an abysmal triple-slash of .220/.267/.314, and a wRC+ of 56, good for second-worst among all hitters with at least 450 plate appearances. 2018 Worst wRC+ (450+ PA) Player PA wRC+ Chris Davis 522 46 James McCann 457 56 Alcides Escobar 531 59 Scott Kingery 484 61 Billy Hamilton 556 68 JaCoby Jones 467 68 Adam Engel 463 68 Wilmer Difo 456 71 Jonathan Lucroy 454 72 Victor Martinez 508 73 Things opened up (literally) for McCann in Chicago. After signing a one-year, $2.5 million “prove it” deal with the White Sox, McCann’s most radical tweak struck gold. Opening his stance and bringing his hands closer to load unlocked an entirely different hitter in the once-struggling backstop. McCann became a legit power threat, popping 18 homers in just 118 games, and his wRC+ jumped to 108, placing him eighth among all catchers with at least 300 PAs. He continued this trend in 2020’s short-season madness: a slash of .289/.360/.460, a wRC+ within the top-40 of all hitters with as many at-bats, and even a positive grade as a framer. He did exit Chicago with a wRC+ 54 points higher against lefties than against righties, lending some credence to a potential platoon role in his future. Despite the disparity, he managed to slash about league-average against righties, posting an OPS of .756, and while his torrid pace may have subsided in a normal season, McCann’s rising HardHit% (37.4% in 2018 to 43.8% and 47.8% the subsequent two years) to go with his adjustments made the Mets feel comfortable enough to award him with their longest ever free-agency commitment to a catcher: four years $40 million. Once locked in a timeshare with Yasmani Grandal, McCann arrived with the expectation of taking over as the everyday catcher in the Big Apple. What, then, explains McCann’s seeming regression to his 2017 form? His wRC+ has plummeted back below 100, and most notably, his burgeoning power has cratered, sitting at just nine homers through 99 games and an ISO that’s halved from its gaudy .247 mark in 2020. We can chalk some of this to natural regression, but a deeper dive reveals a more fundamental issue: McCann has simply stopped elevating the ball. His GB% has risen by 14.5%, good for the sixth-highest hike among all qualified hitters, to 52.6%. In today’s fly ball revolution, that’s, well, awful. A look at McCann’s spray charts from the past two years confirms two things for us: one, just how bizarre that 2020 season was with so few data-points, and two, judging by that bright orange cluster on the infield, he’s beating pitches into the dirt more in 2021 than he ever has. The frequency of the line drives and fly balls McCann sprayed to all fields in 2020 has dropped sharply, dominated this year by grounders instead. James McCann GB% vs. Handedness Year GB% vs. RHP GB% vs. LHP 2019 45.8% 40.7% 2020 40.0% 33.3% 2021 59.4% 35.0% The split becomes even more pronounced against right-handed pitching (which we’ve known McCann to relatively struggle with), where McCann hits into the ground at a ghastly clip of 59.4%. A step further, it seems that his issues against righties stem from a complete and confounding collapse against four-seam fastballs. It has led McCann to ground into 10 double plays on the year, including six in situations which FanGraphs deems as “high leverage.” Coupled with the fact that he now plays in New York, are you really shocked to see an article like this? James McCann vs. Four-seam Fastballs Year Exit Velocity vs. 4SFB Launch Angle vs. 4SFB GB% vs. 4SFB 2019 93.4 mph 19° 21.4% 2020 94.9 mph 39° 6.7% 2021 88.7 mph 6° 46.7% Sure, the 6.7% ground-ball rate in 2020 was probably never sustainable, but the problems are compounded by a sharp decline in quality of contact with lowered exit velocity and launch angle. All three metrics are now quickly approaching lows McCann hasn’t touched since he was scuffling out in Detroit. A look at McCann’s swing mechanics paints most of our picture. Here’s a plate appearance against Patrick Corbin that serves as a nice microcosm of McCann’s 2021. Upon first glance, it looks like the two-time All Star missed his spot (by quite a bit), threw him a high fastball begging to be elevated, and McCann just got on top of it. But that’s just what he’s been doing all season long — getting on top of it, again and again and again. First, the timing aspect. A side-effect of the open stance and massive leg kick is an even greater significance on precise synchronization of each of McCann’s increasingly complex movements in the box. In this at-bat against Tyler Glasnow (who, unlike Corbin, throws the ball very very fast) we see the impact of a slightly late leg kick. Same deal here against Zack Wheeler. Against pitches at 95 mph and above, the ball comes off his bat and into the ground nearly 60% of the time, and in almost each case, it’s an issue with the timing. Albeit not the most telling sample size, 2020 saw McCann ground it just 40% of the time against high velocity, which, all things considered, is a figure you can live with against premium heat. The main issue I can parse out from these swings is a more upright batting stance in 2021 that we didn’t see a lot of in 2020. He’s no Kevin Youkilis, but the bat is noticeably angled in all of McCann’s White Sox plate appearances. In Queens, on the other hand, the bat is now nearly perpendicular to the ground and far more parallel with the rest of McCann’s body as he loads into a swing. Now here are how those two at-bats ended: The slight tilt of the bat just flows much more naturally into a home run swing on the 2-2 pitch, supplying him with a natural elevation that’s been lacking through this season. Part of this may be a better balance in the 2020 stance, where he’s much more leaned toward his backside as he triggers into motion. But now McCann’s new posture hurts him most in the middle-lower zones, where he’s failing to elevate the ball. Pitchers, never shy to compound the advantage, have attacked him there more frequently than ever. The lean previously helped generate launch in those lower drive zones, allowing him to golf those pitches up and out. Now with so much verticality present in his stance, that same motion becomes unnatural, altering McCann’s swing path altogether. The cascade effect of doing absolutely nothing with the fastball shows itself against breaking pitches, against which his SLG% has dropped from .625 to .432. Of his seven 2020 home runs, three came against the curveball — a pitch against which he slugged 1.154. Unfortunately, that appears more mirage than anything. In 2021, that figure has dropped all the way to .280. What’s most telling is the jump in swinging strike rate against non-fastballs. James McCann SwStr% vs. Non-Fastballs Year SwStr% vs. Sliders SwStr% vs. Changeups SwStr% vs. Curveballs 2019 20.2% 13.5% 16.6% 2020 19.1% 9.4% 15.1% 2021 21.8% 15.8% 20.0% A couple things might be at play here. First, there is a rollover from being unable to hit fastballs, since the concept of sitting fastball and adjusting doesn’t really apply here. The other is pressing… and for a 30-year-old catcher coming out of nowhere then getting his first payday in New York, this is a likely story. It’s the increasingly familiar one: trying just a bit too hard to hit one 500 feet and win your home crowd over (or just to avoid the boos, which fellow first-time Met Francisco Lindor has been unable to do), swinging out of your shoes in the process and turning the whole thing into a nasty vicious cycle. To that end, it usually gets better with time, and with his four-year deal, you’d figure the psychological side of these struggles stands to improve. Around mid-June, McCann actually ditched the leg kick in two-strike counts, moving back to the toe-tap in some effort, I’d like to think, to clean up the timing that’s given him issues. But the results weren’t great, and it’s since been scrapped entirely. That said, while it was an approach he last used in dreaded Detroit, the toe-tap experiment marks the first time he’s attempted to clean up the stride since switching to an open stance. The change might be best served for the offseason, as opposed to on the fly in the middle of a pennant race, but if nothing more, we know that he’s thinking about it. The other fallback from all this is that McCann’s ability to crush left-handers hasn’t gone anywhere. His .286 average against southpaws, .833 OPS, and the 133 wRC+ say as much. At the very least, McCann retains value as a legitimately useful platoon bat against the left side. Now in a division dominated by right-handed aces, the question of whether or not that’s worth $10 million a year remains. Flashes of his 2020 form against right-handed pitching may go a long way for these beleaguered 2021 Mets, who continue to spiral out of the pennant race in the NL East.