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James McCann: Coming into his own ... or outperforming his skills?

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The catcher has clearly improved at the plate, but there is a bit of luck that’s come with his success as well

MLB: Chicago White Sox at Houston Astros
Double duty: James McCann not only is doing things with his bat, but he has helped Lucas Giolito turn a corner.
Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

Back in 2008, James McCann was drafted for the first time, out of high school, in the 31st round ... by the Chicago White Sox. He decided to go to school, and in the process greatly improved his draft status, as the Detroit Tigers selected him in the second round in 2011. McCann quickly rose up Detroit’s minor league ranks, earned himself a promotion to the big leagues in 2014, and stayed there.

In 452 games in Detroit, McCann had a 75 wRC+, with a slash line of .240/.288/.366 — and those paltry numbers weren’t because he was unlucky, because his BABIP was .298. McCann simply was not a good hitter, with poor plate discipline. He swung at 35.1% of pitches outside the zone and was only swinging at 66% of pitches that were inside the zone, per FanGraphs.

McCann also was not rated very highly as a defensive catcher from 2014-18, either. What he had was one of the better in the game, arms according to both FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus. His framing? Hit-or-miss, which still continues to this day with the White Sox. But overall, in Detroit McCann was just a replacement level player, with a -.3 fWAR or -.4 WARP.

Then, April and May of 2019 happened.

McCann currently has a slash line of .336/.376/.500 for a 137 wRC+. That wRC+ is fifth-best among all catchers (min. 100 PA), and his .336 batting average is first among all catchers, 22 points higher than anyone else.

So where has this massive improvement come from? First: plate discipline. Overall, McCann is swinging about 3% more often, and his most frequently since 2017. This may make you believe that he is striking out more, but he is actually striking out about 3% less often and also walking at about the same rate as last season, so that equates to more contact. First, the swinging more often only comes from pitches inside the zone, as that has gone up about 8%, while the chase swing (outside the zone) rate has fallen about 3%. You can see those visualized below:

James McCann’s in-zone swing rate on the left, chase rate on the right, from 2014-2019.
Baseball Savant

Now, McCann’s plate discipline is an improvement, but it does come with its own worries. He is making more contact overall compared to last season, but that is predicated on contact outside the zone, which is about 4% better than his 2018 season. However, that extra contact has not led to any hits. Literally, McCann does not have a hit off of a pitch outside the zone. That can be a good or bad thing. The good? That McCann isn’t getting hits outside the zone while having a batting average of .336 means he is commanding the zone and hitting batter-friendly pitches. The bad? Well, if pitchers start going outside the zone more often and McCann reverts backs to his career-norm chase rate, that might be a problem.

James McCann’s batting average per zone in 2019.
Baseball Savant

You might think, oh well, McCann must be fouling off more pitches with such an increase in O-contact rate. However, his foul ball percentage on balls outside the zone (as categorized by Baseball Savant) is down from 10.3% from 2014-18 to 9.1% this season.

On top of that, McCann (min. 500 pitches seen) has an 8.1% meatball pitch percentage, which is much higher than the MLB average, and he has swung at 90% of those, which is a Top 25 mark in baseball (min. 25 pitches seen in Gameday Zone 5). That is a good idea for any hitter, and McCann is punishing those whenever he can, as you can see in the heat maps above and below:

James McCann’s exit velocity per zone in 2019.
Baseball Savant

There is a good and bad to this as well. McCann is capitalizing on bad pitches; every good hitter (and even bad ones) should be able to do that. On the negative side, eventually that meatball percentage will start to normalize, especially if McCann’s swing rate continues at this career-high mark, and that would be great loss of production.

This is what McCann’s start has been to a T, with really any statistic. People can point to his .422 BABIP as a negative, as they should because that type of good fortune is unsustainable. But McCann’s expected batting average (.280) is in the 79th percentile in MLB. He is hitting near his career mark for ground ball rate (41.5%) and at his lowest fly ball rate (21.7%) since his first real season in 2015, and those figures are not awe-inspiring, especially for what has been at least a top three hitting catcher.

However, again, McCann currently has a line drive rate (31.1%) that is about 6% better than the MLB average, and far and away a new career high. That line drive rate has helped him reach a new career high in exit velocity, hard-hit rate, and an above-average barrel percentage. All of which are very good things, but the line drive rate along with some batted ball numbers is another positive or negative.

Besides the fact that the line drive rate will go down, the increase has come from McCann’s ability to spray the ball anywhere he wants to right now. Baseball Savant has 35.8% of his batted balls going to the center-third of the park, which is why the barrel rate has increased by about 3.5% from last season. But also, McCann is going to the opposite field at an unprecedented rate of 37.7%. That is about 12% more than the MLB average, and McCann is going to the opposite field about 11% more often than he pulls the ball. It would be the first time in McCann’s career that he hits more baseballs to the opposite field than the pull side, and here is the spray chart for that:

James McCann’s 2019 spray chart of all BIPs.
Baseball Savant

This comes into play when you see how teams are playing McCann on the field. He has been shifted against 14.1% of his plate appearances, which is a career-high mark (though it has steadily decreased the past few weeks). Since McCann is hitting the ball to the opposite field more than ever before, it should come as no surprise that he has a significantly higher wOBA against the shift. He has a .542 wOBA while teams shift and a .351 wOBA with no shift, which is still good and far better than the MLB average — just not .542 good. This odd split would also be the second time in his career McCann had a better wOBA against the shift. But he’s never been better against the shift to this extent (2018, his wOBA against the shift was 32 points higher compared to the 191 point difference this season).

Whatever the case, it is clear McCann is overplaying his expected stats significantly. The good thing though, is that all of his expected stats are still all career highs, and all well better than the MLB average. Much of the improvement is predicated on McCann’s increase of swinging inside the zone, but also getting lucky with some easy-to-hit pitches and successfully beating the shift at an incredible rate.

Should McCann be knocked for that? No, but teams will adjust, and then McCann will have to readjust his original approach to the first two months of the season. Am I punting on my assessment? Sure, but the summer is coming, and this next month will be critical for a McCann All-Star candidacy. At the very least, even if his offensive statistics drop to his 2014-18 norm, he is one of the better framers the Sox have had, and it seems to be showing, especially with Lucas Giolito.