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Despite a slow start, James McCann proved to be the perfect backup catcher for the 2023 Orioles

A red-hot August was McCann’s shining moment, but he consistently did the little things well and provided the O’s the ideal backup for Adley Rutschman.

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at Houston Astros Thomas Shea-USA TODAY Sports

The Orioles went into the offseason before the 2023 season with several clearly defined needs, and backup catcher was pretty high on that list. After all, in 2022 there was an extreme dropoff every time the O’s gave Adley Rutschman a rest and turned to veteran backup Robinson Chirinos. Baltimore couldn’t repeat that mistake of having inadequate depth behind Adley, and after striking out on the free agent catcher market, they struck a deal with the Mets to bring in James McCann. What at first seemed like an uninspiring move turned out to be another success story for the Mike Elias & Co. as McCann turned into an integral part of the 101-win O’s.

When the trade with the Mets was first announced, there was enough to like about McCann to feel like he’d truly been an upgrade over Chirinos. Throughout his career, which included an All-Star selection in 2019, he’d earned a reputation as a lefty-masher who offered above-average defense behind the dish. After Adley struggled against lefties as a rookie—and Chirinos struggled in all facets on the field—McCann’s strengths seemed to check all the boxes on the Orioles backup catcher wish list.

However, McCann was coming off the worst offensive season of his career in 2022 and early on in 2023 those struggles carried over. In 25 games across his first two months as an Oriole, McCann hit only .187 with a meek .538 OPS. Despite being used mostly against left-handed starters—seeing time as both C and DH—McCann was struggling to do damage even in those favorable matchups. With only six extra-base hits and five RBIs across those first 75 ABs, the early returns from McCann cast plenty of doubt on whether he could contribute offensively at all.

Things got worse for McCann before they got better. From the beginning of June until the All-Star break, McCann featured in only 10 games while going 5-28 (.179) with a double, a HR and three RBIs. Part of that absence was due to an ankle injury at the end of June that landed him on the IL for two weeks. However, that injury felt like a blessing in disguise for both McCann and the O’s. The backup catcher was still clearly going through struggles at the plate and wasn’t rewarding the faith Brandon Hyde showed in him. Taking time off to rehab from the injury gave McCann the opportunity to reset and things certainly started to trend up after the All-Star break.

The 33-year-old catcher collected hits in five of his first six games after the All-Star break and then put up an August that was almost enough on its own to justify the trade for McCann. Starting on August 2, the backup backstop started on a 10-game hit streak that saw him slash .438/.487/.656. The highlight of his entire season came in an August 4 game against the Mets, where McCann went 3-3 with a double and five RBIs in an Orioles 10-3 win. He finished the month with a .358 average and .948 OPS while collecting five extra-base hits and 11 RBIs. It was the first time McCann recorded double-digit RBIs in a month since September 2021.

More importantly, throughout August McCann proved that he can be the difference-maker that the Orioles envisioned he’d be when they acquired him. When you’re backing up the catcher who led all major league backstops in games and at-bats, your opportunities to make an impact may be few and far between. While August was the only month that McCann put up above average production, that one hot stretch can be the difference between an extra win or two. Those one or two wins represent a pretty significant impact from the one position player on the roster who’s guaranteed to be a part-time contributor.

September saw McCann revert back to his previous form, as he hit .179 with a .601 OPS. He did two HRs and three RBIs in a 13-12 win over Boston, but largely he went back to just being the nine-hitter on days when Adley DH’ed or got a full day off. Perhaps his biggest impact in September was becoming the quasi-personal catcher for John Means’ comeback tour. McCann caught Means in three of his four starts, including the September 23 start that saw Means take a no-hitter into the 7th inning.

Defensively McCann was around league average—which represented a huge improvement over Chirinos. At -1 Defensive Runs Saved, McCann ranked 46th out of 84 catchers that caught at least 50 innings last year. His best defensive asset was his arm, as he ranked 20th in Defensive Runs Saved from throwing out would-be base stealers. Still, after Chirinos checked in with -13 Defensive Runs Saved in 2022, McCann’s seemingly mediocre numbers still represented a vast improvement year-over-year and much closer to the defense Adley provides.

Will he be on the 2024 Orioles?

If the Orioles had to pay all of McCann’s $12M salary for 2024, maybe there’d be an argument that they should try and find a cheaper backup catcher. However, with the Mets covering $8M of that salary, it’s a no-doubt decision that McCann will be back on the Baltimore bench in 2024. Despite a .222 average, .646 OPS, 6 HRs and 26 RBI season not exactly jumping off the page, McCann undoubtedly is one of the better backup backstops in baseball. The Orioles will surely be active this offseason as they look to improve different areas on the roster. When it comes to catcher, however, they’re already all set for 2024.

2023 player reviews: Ryan McKenna, Jacob Webb, Austin Voth/Keegan Akin, Adam Frazier, Jack Flaherty, Shintaro Fujinami, Aaron Hicks, Bryan Baker, Jorge Mateo, Kyle Gibson, John Means, DL Hall, Jordan Westburg

Friday: Ryan O’Hearn