Deep Dive: James McCann’s past, present and future with the White Sox

Sneaky sign: James McCann had a surprisingly great year for the White Sox in 2019, even punching a ticket to this year’s All-Star Game. (@JamesMcCann34)

“Deep Dive” focuses on the depth of each position in the Chicago White Sox organization. Each position is broken into a five-part series:

  1. Depth in the rookie levels (Dominican through Great Falls)
  2. Depth in A-ball (Kannapolis and Winston-Salem)
  3. Depth in the higher levels (Birmingham and Charlotte)
  4. Under the Radar-type detail on one of the White Sox players at that position
  5. Free agent options at that position

Let’s delve into the career of James McCann through 2018, his 2019 season, and his future with the White Sox for 2019 and beyond.

How did he get here?

As a catcher from Dos Pueblos High School (Goleta, Calif.), the White Sox actually selected McCann in the 31st round of the 2008 draft. McCann opted for college ball instead, however, and played three years for the University of Arkansas. His numbers got better with each year, culminating in his junior season when he slashed .306/.388/.469 in 61 games for the Razorbacks with 14 doubles, six homers, 38 RBIs, 24 walks and 26 strikeouts. He was named a semi-finalist in 2011 for the Johnny Bench Award, which is given to the best collegiate catcher. As a result, he was drafted by the Detroit Tigers in the second round of the 2011 draft.

McCann gradually worked his way up the Tigers farm system, as he finished the 2013 in Double-A Erie. He had his best season in the minors with Triple-A Toledo in 2014, when he slashed .295/.343/.427 in 109 games with 34 doubles, seven homers, 54 RBIs, 25 walks (5.4%) and 90 strikeouts (19.6%). As a result, he made his MLB debut on September 1 of that year and hit .250 in just 12 at-bats for the Tigers. After a decent rookie campaign in 2015 in which he slashed .264/.297/.387 with seven homers in 114 games, he slumped to .221/.272/.358 the following season with 12 homers in 105 games.

McCann’s best year in a Tiger uniform came in 2017 when he slashed .253/.318/.415 in 106 games while producing 14 doubles, 13 homers, 49 RBIs, 26 walks (6.6%) and 89 strikeouts (22.8%). Unfortunately, the following year saw him reaching career worsts, as he slashed just .220/.267/.314 in 118 games while producing just 16 doubles, eight homers, 39 RBIs, and 26 walks (5.7%) while fanning 116 times (25.4%).

With the White Sox in 2019

With a down year in 2018, the White Sox signed McCann to a one-year, $2.5 million deal knowing that he’d be eligible for one additional year of arbitration on the off-chance he had a productive 2019. This turned out to be one of the most successful free agent signings in recent team history (I know, I know, that doesn’t say much), as McCann proved to be one of the most reliable bats in the White Sox lineup.

Largely fueled by a tremendous first two months of the season, McCann posted career bests in nearly offensive category. In 118 games this year, he slashed .273/.328/.460 with 26 doubles, 18 homers, 60 RBIs, 30 walks (6.3%) and 137 strikeouts (28.8%). Defensively, he was successful 31.5% of the time against would-be basestealers by stifling 17-of-54 attempts. Even more importantly, he managed the pitching staff well — especially Lucas Giolito, who blossomed with McCann as his personal backstop. McCann’s leadership and game-management skills are impossible to calculate on sites such as FanGraphs, Baseball Prospectus and Baseball-Reference. Nevertheless, as a results of his improvement, he made the 2019 All-Star Game, his first All-Star appearance.

Obviously, McCann did many things well offensively this year. His spray chart indicates that he hit the ball well to all fields (34.3% pull, 35.3% straight and 30.4% opposite field). Against fastballs, McCann slashed .258/.351/.452 and fared even better against off-speed pitches (split, fork, change), to the tune of .304/.353/.522. His Achilles heel was facing the breaking pitch (curve, slider, knuckler), as he slashed just .239/.308/.439. McCann was especially effective against southpaws, as he slashed .295/.372/.492 against their offerings, but he was no slouch against righties (.265/.311/.448).

There are some red flags offensively, though: After the All-Star break, McCann slashed just .226/.281/.413 as opposed to his pre-break numbers of .316/.371/.502. Also, his walk rate (6.3%) was well below the league average of 8.3%, while his strikeout rate (28.8%) was much higher than the league average of 21.7%. His 4.6 K:BB rate is similar to his career numbers, and is obviously far from ideal.

As mentioned earlier, McCann’s leadership and game-calling skills proved a pleasant surprise for White Sox fans. However, defensive metrics weren’t quite so kind to him. Among 127 catchers on Baseball Prospectus, McCann ranked 118th in pitch framing, 121st in FRAA (fielding runs above average) and 100th in blocking runs. Because Baseball Prospectus looks at the above catching categories far more closely than FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference, they factor McCann’s WARP as just 1.0 — far lower than his 2.3 fWAR and 3.8 bWAR. Considering that McCann’s relatively low WARP represents his true production, and that each WAR is worth approximately $7.7 million on the free agent market per FanGraphs, McCann still proved an impressive $5.2 million value when considering his 2019 salary was just $2.5 million.

What does the future have in store?

McCann is eligible for one more year of arbitration, and considering MLB Trade Rumors estimates his post-arbitration earnings to be $4.9 million, it seems a safe bet that he will indeed be tendered arbitration. How much McCann plays in 2020, however, will largely depend upon whether the White Sox decide to pursue free-agent catcher Yasmani Grandal. Even if the White Sox sign Grandal, it would still be easy to envision McCann as Giolito’s personal catcher, the right-handed member of a DH platoon with Zack Collins, and simply being the No. 2 option behind the plate. If the White Sox do not add a top-line catcher via trade or free agency, however, McCann’s definitely earned the right to be the team’s primary catcher for 2020. McCann will be a free agent after the 2020 season, unless offered an in-season extension.


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