When the Detroit Tigers face the Miami Marlins on their Opening Day, it might be hard to distinguish between the two starting catchers if you look at their stat sheets. Because everything looks eerily similar.
First of all, their origin stories are nearly identical. Both James McCann and J.T. Realmuto had a cup of coffee at the major league level in 2014 -- nine games for McCann, 11 for Realmuto. McCann started out as Alex Avila’s backup in 2015 but quickly became the starting catcher after Avila struggled. In Miami, Realmuto started out in Triple-A but became the starting catcher early in the season when future Tigers backup Jarrod Saltalamacchia was released.
Both McCann and Realmuto accumulated more than 400 plate appearances in their rookie years, and posted very similar results. McCann hit for a slightly higher batting average, while Realmuto hit for a bit more power, including double-digit home runs.
Both catchers gave the same exact offensive value to their team, within one point of wRC+. Their on-base percentages were also quite similar, as both hitters struggled with walk rates (3.8 percent for McCann and 4.1 percent for Realmuto). Realmuto showed slightly more speed, with a surprising eight stolen bases, which led all major league catchers. McCann didn't swipe any bases -- he was caught stealing in his lone attempt -- but hit five triples and an inside-the-park home run.
Because of their similar rookie years, many projection systems are projecting similar seasons for 2016 as well. Take ZiPS for example, which projects slightly better power numbers for Realmuto.
But what about their defense? James McCannon has a reputation of a strong arm that can throw out any base runner. McCann had one of the best caught stealing rates at 41 percent while Realmuto was only at 27 percent. However, Neil Weinberg of FanGraphs analyzed catcher pop times and found that Realmuto also has the skills to throw out runners at an above average rate. He had the best average pop time among all MLB catchers at 1.867 seconds (the league average was 1.975).
That article also describes Realmuto as a below average pitch framer, which oddly enough also describes McCann. According to Stat Corner, McCann was the worst pitch framer in 2015, costing the Tigers -15.6 runs. Realmuto wasn’t far behind at -14.8 runs.
Altogether, the defensive rating for FanGraphs’ WAR calculation shows McCann at 8.1 runs and Realmuto at 8.8 runs. Even their respective fan bases think they are similar, giving McCann a rating of 63 and Realmuto a rating of 59 using FanGraphs’ Fans Scouting Report.
McCann quickly became a fan favorite of Tiger fans. I can only imagine the same thing happened to Realmuto in Miami after putting up the same numbers. It's quite fitting that these players get to face each other on day one in 2016.
After all, they're basically the same guy.