It’s funny to look back at how fans reacted when James McCann was first breaking into the major leagues. Normally, they will over-hype the prospect in question, especially when their favorite team’s farm system is as bad as Detroit’s was at the time. However, expectations for McCann were surprisingly measured — around here, at least. Alex Avila was still the unquestioned starter at that point, with most simply hoping McCann could spell him enough to keep the veteran backstop healthy.
As it turns out, we were probably right to not get our hopes up. McCann has been serviceable and durable as the team’s primary catcher over the past few years, but endured his worst season to date in 2018. He hit just .220/.267/.314 with eight home runs in 457 plate appearances, and was below replacement level according to both FanGraphs and Baseball Reference. He posted career-worst totals in nearly every offensive category, and slid backward from a strong second half in 2017 that had us somewhat excited for what this season would bring.
While McCann flopped offensively, he was actually a bit better on the other side of the ball in 2018. He graded out as one of the worst pitch framers in baseball again, but was nearly 16 framing runs better than some truly horrendous numbers in 2017. He also threw out a few more attempted base stealers, bringing his caught stealing percentage back up to 36 percent.
But even with those improvements, McCann wasn’t able to overcome his poor showing with the bat.
One big stat: 38 wRC+ vs. LHP
As most of you know, McCann has always struggled against right-handed pitching. He has been at least 27 percent worse than the average hitter against righties in each of his four full seasons, with 2017’s 73 wRC+ his high water mark for offensive production off right-handers. But despite a 152-point drop in OPS from 2017 to 2018, McCann’s numbers against righties didn’t drop off much. He produced a 64 wRC+ and .265 weighted on-base average (wOBA) against same-handed pitching, numbers actually a tick better than his career norms.
This time around, McCann’s production against lefties let him down. A career .287/.346/.538 hitter (137 wRC+) against left-handed pitching heading into this year, McCann hit just .176/.229/.284 against southpaws in 2018. That was a 414-point drop in OPS compared to 2017, and it lowered his carer wRC+ against lefties by 23 points.
While a low batting average on balls in play (BABIP) is partly to blame here, McCann’s drop-off was more than just bad luck. His walk rate against lefties fell off somewhat, dropping from 7.8 percent prior to 2018 to just 6.4 percent this year. His strikeout rate against southpaws also jumped by five percentage points, up to 27.5 percent. His low BABIP is partly due to him making worse contact too; he hit more ground balls and fewer line drives against lefties than before, and his hard contact rate dropped from 39 percent pre-2018 to just 31.9 percent this season. He also saw a jump in soft contact, which doesn’t blend well with his poor speed.
There could be reason for optimism, though. McCann’s offensive production on fly balls (against both righties and lefties) fell off a cliff in 2018 despite little change in quality of contact. His HR/FB%, or the percentage of fly balls that leave the park, was cut in half against lefties. While his poor quality of contact against lefties was partially to blame for that last nugget, his longer track record of performance against southpaws suggests he should bounce back next season.
But even if McCann does return to his old ways against left-handed pitching, he might not be worth rostering. He still has yet to eclipse 2.0 WAR in a season, and is projected to make $3.5 million in salary. General manager Al Avila has already wondered aloud about McCann’s future with the club — a bad sign when you consider that tendering McCann a contract is Avila’s decision.
Now, time for grades!
What grade would you give James McCann’s performance in 2018?
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