The one thing James McCann can do

(Keith Allison / Flickr)

Rogers Hornsby spoke for White Sox fans everywhere with his famous quote about the offseason.

“People ask me what I do in winter when there’s no baseball. I’ll tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for my team to acquire a catcher with poor framing stats.”

The Sox did it again by acquiring James McCann on Friday. He continues the thread of Dioner Navarro, Alex Avila and Welington Castillo — all veteran catchers, all of them with a history of costing their pitchers strikes. The rookie catchers that came along didn’t help much, either, although Kevan Smith tried.

Three of McCann’s four full seasons attempting to command the strike zone have finished in the red according to Baseball Prospectus, although he rebounded from a terrible 2017. How terrible was his 2017? He improved by 10 runs and still finished 2018 below zero.

He also isn’t much of a hitter. He alternated acceptable seasons with ugly ones over his four full seasons with Detroit, and 2018 qualifies as the latter. He hit .220/.267/.314 over 457 plate appearances, and failed to reach double-digits in homers for the first time since his rookie season, which is especially underwhelming for a strong-looking  6-foot-3-inch catcher.

Combine the erratic offense with the substandard receiving (blocking is also a problem), and he’s basically been a replacement-level catcher over the course of his career, more McCan’t than McCan.

McCann apparently offers some things metrics can’t account for, and the Detroit News’ story of McCann’s non-tendering did give them a nod

But the bat has since dipped, all while defensive framing and blocking became liabilities, even as his pitch-calling skills rose and as his arm shut down opposing runners. He was a popular clubhouse teammate, as well, good with pitchers, and consistent with his cerebral gifts, one of the team’s player representatives.

The Tigers, though, might well believe a salary projected somewhere north of $3.5 million for 2019 is more than is worth investing in a catcher whose overall numbers, particularly on defense, have been stuck in the game’s lower tier.

… but the Sox have fallen into this trap before with catchers, prioritizing their leadership quality over documented liabilities and never getting their investment back. McCann was the one catcher I wanted the Sox to avoid, because I wanted to see them take a different approach to their second catcher, even if it resulted in a batless defensive whiz like Martin Maldonado.

Alas, here comes McCann, for $2.5 million.

In the White Sox’ defense, McCann isn’t a pure intangible grab. He brings one specific skill to the table, and it’s one that addresses a rather signficant shortcoming in their run prevention strategy.

He can throw.

The back of his Players’ Weekend jersey reads “McCannon” for a reason, and it’s one with which the White Sox are familiar. The White Sox have tested him plenty over the last four seasons, and McCann has generally been up to the task. The Sox succeeded on just 19 of 31 stolen base attempts with McCann behind the plate. At 61 percent, it’s well below the break-even rate for stolen bases, and yet it’s also near McCann’s career kill rate of 37 percent.

From this past season, McCann gunned down Yolmer Sanchez and Yoan Moncada on Aug. 13

… and Tim Anderson found out on June 17:

McCann ended up leading all catchers in throwing runs according to Baseball Prospectus. It speaks to the rest of his game that he led catchers in throwing and still finished below average defensively, but at least he does have a skill the Sox can use.

The White Sox had big-time problems in this department in 2018. They allowed 133 stolen bases, third in baseball behind the Mets and Blue Jays. They also allowed a 77 percent stolen-base clip, good for eighth in baseball, but here’s where the raw total is more indicative of the struggles. The Cardinals allowed a 78 percent rate on stolen bases, but they only surrendered 47 steals on the season.

As always, it’s a joint production and not all on the catchers, but they did their part. Omar Narvaez was expected to be below-average, and sure enough, he held steady at a 24-percent kill rate from 2017 to 2018. But going from the average Castillo to a major liability in Smith for 80-plus games really stung. Smith was just 7-for-48 against baserunners, and he only threw out three of those runners himself (the other four were pickoffs). Over the last two seasons with the Sox, he allowed 97 steals over 126 games, with only 15 unsuccessful attempts.

As you might expect, runners were extremely aggressive against Smith, as he finished in the bottom 10 according to Baseball Prospectus’ Swipe Rate Above Average, which isolates the catcher from the pitcher.

And here’s where you might actually sense some dramatic improvement among White Sox catchers for once.

  • Smith: 1.18 percent (eighth-worst)
  • McCann: -2.75 percent (best)

That’ll help, because according to SRAA (which also isolates the pitcher from the catcher), all three incumbent starters were all easier to run on than the league.

  • Lucas Giolito: 7.5 percent
  • Reynaldo Lopez: 5.6 percent
  • Carlos Rodon: 2.3 percent

Giolito gave up 26 steals in 30 attempts, and it might’ve been more had Giolito not had the tendency to clog bases himself with walks. Baserunners were 14-for-18 off Lopez and 16-for-20 off the lefty Rodon.

The one regular starter who could actually hold runners was James Shields. He allowed 18 steals on 26 attempts, which is a league-average rate. However, those eight unsuccessful attempts led the league, and he led the team in pickoffs with three. He kept baserunners honest, and that’s reflected in a below-average swipe rate (-2.82 percent).

This might provide another reason for the acquisition of Ivan Nova. Besides the competent, unspectacular innings and being the most veteran member of the rotation, he may also replicate Shields in being the hardest starter to run on.

Nova hasn’t really allowed much in the way of stolen bases over his career — a max of 10 in three different seasons, but only five in seven attempts last year. He benefited from Pittsburgh’s strong defensive catchers, who were second in SRAA and throwing runs to McCann’s Tigers. However, Nova also kept runners in check on their own, whittling his SRAA to the other side of zero for the first time (-0.10 percent) in 2018.

This isn’t the kind of stuff that’ll generate a whole lot of excitement, especially for McCann, who needs it more. I suppose we’ll find out more about what the Sox got for $2.5 million once Maldonado signs. For the time being, there’s at least a little bit of logic behind this deal. McCann might be able to aid the development of young White Sox pitchers by keeping runners under control. Hopefully he’s not a leading reason why there’s a runner on base to begin with.

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Lurker Laura

Well, that’s not nothing.

Rex Fermier

Thanks, Jim, for trying to cheer us up!


What’s the record for the fastest promotion to MLB roster after being drafted in June ?? C’mon Rutschman !


The 1973 draft was interesting for answering this question Dave Winfield never spent a day in the minors after the Padres took him, and that worked out well. David Clyde came up three weeks after the Rangers drafted him. I wouldn’t want his career to be a precedent for anything the Sox do next year.


Can we just get more Harold Baines stories please


Appreciate the ‘ole college try here, but what a brutal signing.

As Cirensica

McCann improves one area, yes, but it comes with a cost. It might end up being a wash off which I would call McCann’s ceiling with the Sox. Ultimately, McCann is cheap, and just a backup catcher, so he won’t be the main cause the Sox will lose more or less games as his contribution (or destruction) will (should) be negligible.

Greg Nix

If the Sox are lucky, they’ll get a catching tandem that puts up a .750 OPS and is only below average defensively, not catastrophic. If they’re unlucky, they’ll have the worst production in the majors.

Not a fan of the floor/ceiling here.


Given that super reasonable deal, kind of odd they spent so much time screwing around with Miami.


Does this set a lower bar for Grandal? MLB TradeRumors had Grandal @ 4/64. That seems high now.

Patrick Nolan

Oh give me a break, Rick.


After having a few days to think about this, I’ve decided that I don’t hate it. If the Sox are treading water at catcher waiting to give Collins and Zavala their shot that’s fine. I don’t have a lot of faith in either guy to stick defensively but they at least deserve a shot. Especially Collins. There’s a reason he was a #11 pick and if he figures it out that would be huge. If not, I hear there’s this Realmuto guy who’s going to be a free agent in a couple years. Not to mention a few guys at the top of the draft next year who could be interesting…

Trooper Galactus

Unfortunately, the reason he’s the #11 pick could be similar to the reason that Carson Fulmer was the #8 pick: The White Sox are poor judges of young talent. I really hope Collins can be half of a decent catching tandem, but the questions about his ability to stick at catcher are bad enough without questions about his ability to hit.


The Mets just signed Wilson Ramos for $19 million over two years. The Sox picked up McCann and Alonso for Alex Call and are paying them $19.5 million total over the next two years. Meanwhile rookie GM Brodie Van Wagenen avoided the panic move of trading Noah Syndergaard for a couple years of Realmuto and got a good hitting, fine defensive player for just cash (no compensatory draft pick lost). Good job, rookie.

Joliet Orange Sox

Please ignore this comment. My original comment was rendered obsolete by an edit to the prior comment.


Yes, consider that my wishful thinking. I would have been thrilled to get Grandal, even if Hahn somehow signed McCann to be the third-string catcher.

Trooper Galactus

If Hahn signs Grandal, that would make the McCann signing a whole lot more sensible.


In retrospect, it would.


Huh? They don’t have to pay Alonso unless he breaks past around 520 plate appearances. I don’t think he’ll get past that.

Trooper Galactus

(crosses fingers)

Trooper Galactus

“Hopefully he’s not a leading reason why there’s a runner on base to begin with.”

Closing with an absolute GEM. Thank you, Jim, this pretty much sums up my feelings on White Sox catching decisions for the past three seasons.


Thanks for this small ray of sunshine but it would have been better if he was Bryce Harper newly discovered half brother just revealed by Ancestry DNA.