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Know Your Orioles 40-man: James McCann

The new backup to Adley is looking for a bounce-back year

New York Mets v Oakland Athletics Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

How he arrived: Acquired from Mets for player to be named later, 12/21/22

Who left: Tyler Nevin designated for assignment, 12/21/22

Adley Rutschman can’t catch 162 games. No one can, or should. Even when a team is fortunate like the Orioles and is able to draft a prospect at #1 overall whose rookie season gives every reason to believe he can live up to the hype, the backup catcher will still play often enough for it to matter who he is. The O’s found their guy to do this in a salary-absorbing trade with the Mets late last month: James McCann.

This was not a roster spot that helped the Orioles very much last season. The team’s record in which Robinson Chirinos played was 29-38. That broke down as 12-16 before Rutschman’s debut and 17-22 from then on. This is not entirely his fault. He was often part of “forfeit lineups” where other regulars rested. Chirinos didn’t help, though. The team was shut out eleven times and he started six of those games. He didn’t hit and his defense wasn’t good either.

It’s not a great sign, to me, that the O’s choice to be the next Rutschman backup is a guy whose previous team decided to pay money just to make him go away. McCann signed a four-year, $40.6 million contract with the Mets prior to the 2021 season. The Mets absorbed $19 million of the remaining obligation, leaving the O’s on the hook for $5 million over the next two seasons.

Chirinos set a very low benchmark to beat with his poor batting line of .179/.265/.287. There’s a lot of room for a player to still be bad and hit better than that. McCann’s 2022 campaign with the Mets saw him hit .195/.257/.282. He was, somehow, worse! So much for stopping the forfeit lineups.

Picking a bit deeper into the performance, there is at least some reason to think McCann is capable of better than that. His 2022 season saw him miss six weeks due to surgery for a broken hamate bone, and not long after returning from that, an oblique strain cropped up that cost him most of July. The hamate injury is something of a fluky one, and one that tends to linger even after a player is healthy enough to return.

McCann was hitting poorly even before the May hamate injury, mind you. Or at least getting poor results. He sits somewhere in the Ryan Mountcastle realm of having Statcast expected stats that were much better than his actual stats. McCann’s batted ball profile led to an expected batting average of .240 and expected slugging percentage of .411. Orioles fans would be a lot happier with a backup catcher hitting like that.

One reason to believe a rebound is possible is you don’t have to wind the clock back too far to find some acceptable hitting from McCann. In his last two seasons with the White Sox before he became a free agent - 2019 and 2020 - he combined to post an OPS above .800. That’s surely what got him the free agent contract he got, but that stuff didn’t carry over to New York. Now 32, McCann will be trying to get back to that form from his age 29 and 30 seasons.

In his introductory conference with Orioles media, McCann addressed the topic of his struggles at the plate in New York:

I think there’s a lot that went into ’21. A new league, facing pitchers I hadn’t faced really my whole career, hitting at times throughout the season with a pitcher hitting behind me and without having a DH in ’21. And there’s some habits that I created in ’21 that I actually fixed in ’22. Unfortunately, the numbers don’t show that. I think that ’19 and ’20 weren’t necessarily outliers being in Chicago. I think that I can get back to playing at that level.

Major league players are, as a group, usually disposed to think that they’re right about to be able to turn the corner. The confidence that McCann has here that he can do better comes with a grain of salt. It’s a plausible enough story, at least, given that the batted ball data supports the idea that there could have been a rebound in his habits that just didn’t show up in the outcomes. It won’t take long into the season to find out if he’s right.

Defensively, there’s one big reason to be interested in McCann compared to Chirinos. In the Statcast pitch framing numbers, Chirinos was effectively the worst catcher in baseball at getting called strikes for his pitchers. He was 1st percentile. McCann is much, much better, in the 64th percentile. O’s pitchers this year ought to be a lot more confident in being able to get calls on the corners even when Adley is resting.

McCann also has a career track record of controlling the running game, though this wasn’t on display last year. He threw out just 24% of runners in 2022 - the same as the league average. In every other season of his career, he was above 30%, and he’s been above 35% in half of his eight full seasons. Getting back some of that form would be advantageous with the larger bases coming along this season.

Reading the tea leaves of beat writer speculation, it seems like the Orioles will get some periodic rest for Rutschman by having him play at first base or serve as the designated hitter. McCann will have an opportunity to make a positive impact for the 2023 Orioles. Hopefully his brand of veteran leadership comes with more on-paper contributions than did his predecessor Chirinos.

Still to come: Darwinzon Hernandez