Baseball

Do We Believe In James McCann?

I mean he exists. He’s real. So you should believe in that.

In something of a surprise, through the season’s first six weeks two of the three best catchers in baseball, in terms of fWAR, reside in the Chicago. Willson Contreras being the best is only a small shock, because he’s flashed this kind of thing before, if only for a month or two in 2017. Certainly after last year’s before-spinach-Popeye act didn’t portend to dominance this year, but that’s what we’ve gotten.

On the Southside is the real surprise. James McCann has put up 1.1 WAR in just 84 plate-appearances, which puts him behind only Contreras and J.T. Realmuto among major-league catchers. McCann 169 wRC+, which only trails Contreras. His .420 wOBA is also second to Contreras. So yeah, basically McCann has been an instrument of doom for the season’s first month-plus.

Anyone can have a month or six weeks, you’ll say. And that’s true, and we could while away the rest of the afternoon listing off various tomato cans and shaved apes that put up a hot month. Especially at catcher, where being a shaved ape used to be something of a job requirement. So is there anything real about McCann’s start?

More than just luck, it would seem. Clearly, McCann’s .444 BABIP would cause him to be placed right at the top of a lot of people’s “Get Outta My League Leaders!” list. That’s not sustainable.

That doesn’t mean that McCann is going to see a stomach-heaving fall. Because he’s hitting the ball really hard.

If you go by Statcast, and that’s the trend these days, McCann’s average exit-velocity is 90.8 MPH. That’s three miles per hour higher than he managed last year, or ever. It’s not near the hardest around, but it is a big improvement. His hard-contact rate, if you want to go by that, is over 40%. Statcast has this neat thing called expected-slugging and expected-weighted on-base, which basically takes your statcast data and tells you what you should be getting based on every other ball hit at those velocities and angles. McCann’s expected slugging is .501 so far and and his expected wOBA is .424. He’s dwarfing both those figures at the moment, but even if he were to sink back to what he “should” be producing, you’d take that quick enough to leave a cloud outline of yourself.

There’s clearly been a change in approach as well. McCann has dropped both the percentage of pitches he swings at outside the zone and increased the amount of pitches in the zone he offers at 4-5% each. Which has led him to hitting the ball harder, squaring it up more often, and not getting fooled as much. It’s also led to more fastballs in the zone, which he’s turning into paste at the clip of .458 and a .667 slugging.

Another big area of improvement for McCann is his production when seeing sliders. For his career he’d only hit .212 against them, but this year is hitting .350. That’s encouraging, because given what he’s done against fastballs, he’s going to see more and more of them along with curves (which he’s also hitting .333 against). The big change is that he’s getting sliders in the air far more often, about 15% more, than he did before.

The other thing about McCann’s production is it might not matter. Zack Collins is currently tearing AAA to shreds, and could be up later this season. But McCann could either act as a platoon partner for Collins’s introduction, or a trade-chip to bring something back more long-term. Either would be fine with the Sox.

We’re not at the point where you should buy McCann stock. But maybe on the watch-list.

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