The chirping for James McCann got a little louder Tuesday night when Yasmani Grandal’s defensive miscues cost the Sox a run—and possibly the game. He did homer—without which his error would have never happened—and Cordero’s toss was a poor one, but, nonetheless, it wasn’t great.
To be fair, the pining for McCann started before Tuesday night. McCann’s encore in 2020 has been just as good, if not better, than his 2019 performance. And with each Giolito start, McCann’s 2019 looks less and less fluky.
Yet, it’s not just McCann. Grandal, brought in to replace the All-Star catcher (!), hasn’t always looked deserving of the largest contract in team history. This has left some Sox fans wondering, or even asking: should the White Sox stick with McCann at Catcher in 2020 and moving forward?
Consider this a longer, but hopefully more fun, way of saying “no.”
For starters, there’s a reason the Sox handed Grandal that contract: he’s got an impressive track record of success and, especially for a catcher, durability.
This sustained run makes him a good bet to be at least good—if not great—during his tenure with the Sox, even if the ole’ knees catch up to him.
McCann 2019 was great. He played 118 games (career high) with a 109 wRC+ (career high) and 2.3 fWAR (career high) is nothing to sneeze at, especially from behind the plate. But the four years prior he was worth a combined -0.1 fWAR. His wRC+ topped out at 94 (2017), but dipped to 57 (2018) the year before the Sox signed him.
Yet, even if you want to bet on the 2019, there were signs in 2019 that 2019 was a mirage. Because James McCann didn’t really have a great 2019. He had a great first half of 2019:
- 2019 McCann 1st Half: .316/.370/.502, 133 wRC+
- 2019 McCann 2nd Half: .226/.281/.413, 83 wRC+
The 2nd half numbers still aren’t bad for a catcher—especially one with McCann’s arm. But they don’t scream “All-Star!” nor invoke much confidence, in conjunction with his history, that he would be a solid rock at catcher in 2020 and moving forward.
But here we are. Grandal has started slow and McCann looks even better than in 2019.
It goes without saying that 2020 is an odd year. I don’t think anyone is sure how to interpret the numbers, but even if they are relatively normal it’s still permitted us only a very small sample size.
But it’s not no sample size. So, how do Grandal and McCann stack up both defensively and offensively?
Defensively, they’ve oddly beaten the other at their own game. McCann has been the slightly better framer, according to Baseball Savant.
Meanwhile, Grandal has thrown out 60% of runners to McCann’s 44%. It’s difficult to know what to make of this, but most likely—nothing. It’s a small sample size, so we should expect McCann, whose CS% usually hovers around 35-40%, to eclipse Grandal in this area, whose CS% usually hovers around 30%. Likewise, we should expect Grandal to be the better framer.
The traditional numbers don’t give us much help, either. In 162 innings McCann has 1 PB and 6 WP, while Grandal has 3 PB and 8 WP in 196 innings. But McCann’s 3 errors (in less innings) surpass Grandal’s 1.
Maybe the McCann lovers can hang their hats on handling the staff. After all, McCann’s staff ERA is 2.66 to Grandal’s 4.72. But this has always been ethereal and difficult to judge—and I can’t imagine those numbers tell us much since Zach Collins’s staff ERA is 2.70 and McCann is Giolito’s personal catcher.
Defense is, by nature, difficult to evaluate, but especially with a small sample size. Even if your prefer McCann’s body of work in 2020, Grandal has been the superior defender in previous years and his framing is, purposively, difficult to detect.
McCann has clearly improved, but it’s far from clear that he’s been better in 2020 behind the plate than Grandal.
At first glance, McCann has been better offensively.
While Grandal is doing Grandal-things, McCann is also doing Grandal-things but at a slightly higher clip—and with a better average.
Yet, there is an important piece of the puzzle missing: McCann’s offense is helped and Grandal’s hurt by McCann’s enormous platoon splits.
McCann has an impressive 1.201 OPS vs. LHP, but an unimpressive .668 OPS vs. RHP. Understandably, Ricky has almost no choice but to sit him vs. RHP (unless Lucas is pitching)—so a whopping 41% of his PAs have been against LHP. Must be nice!
Against RHP, McCann’s slash line falls to .256/.273/.395 with a 79 wRC+. Against LHP, his K% and BB% are exactly the same: 12.9%. Against RHP, the scale swings wildly to a 27.3 K% and 2.3 BB%.
What does this mean? It means McCann looks a lot better than he is offensively because of Grandal’s presence. Grandal carries the load against RHP while McCann siphons off Grandal’s LHP PAs.
He “siphons off” LHP bats from Grandal because Grandal is also better against LHP. His 1.024 OPS vs. LHP is much better than his .784 OPS vs. RHP. But with McCann offensively inept against RHP, Grandal has to face them more—so he only sees LHP 19% of the time. Grandal is good against RHP, with a 118 wRC+, 14.9 BB%, and 29.0 K%. Still, he’s much better against LHP (169 wRC+), but can’t face them because, well, McCann has to.
In short, because of McCann’s huge platoon splits, McCann looks better offensively than he his while Grandal looks worse. Even if the numbers initially suggest McCann is having the better offensive season, it’s an illusion brought on by McCann’s being bad against RHP.
We probably can’t say for sure who “would be” better if either was the only catching show in town, but I know where my money would be if Grandal got 31 more PA against LHP and McCann got 107 more PA against RHP.
I’m in favor of keeping McCann around for 2021 (and beyond). The Sox are elite at catcher—both for their star and for their depth. It’s loads of fun. And I do think McCann has had some impact on Giolito, whatever it may be. But it would be a mistake to slot James McCann in as the everyday catcher again. In a larger sample size, he is exposed in a way than Grandal can’t be.
Grandal has probably been the better player in 2020, but it’s admittedly close. However, with only a little history and context, it’s clear whose the better bet for the rest of 2020—and beyond.
(Photo by Nick Wosika/Icon Sportswire)
Good article. Not sure how some folks are coming to the conclusion that they’d rather see more McCann going forward. Grandal has his numbers pretty damn close to what we were hoping and expecting. McCann has been a pleasant surprise, but there’s always the vociferously ill-informed that want the backup QB.
Having Grandal and McCann is such a sight for sore eyes for White Sox fans, going from hella weak at the catcher position to arguably the most elite tandem in the league.
I think McCann is probably going to prefer somewhere he can be the #1 catcher on a team when he hits free agency this winter though. If there was an offer that could persuade him to stay as 2nd on the depth chart I don’t think the White Sox are spending it on a position where they’re already strong.
I’m still most curious about how the limited selection of umpires is affecting framing this year. It seems like zones are huge this year regardless of catcher, and it can’t all be because everybody got great at subtlety.
People have been talking about the increasing dominance of pitchers and whether MLB needs to ban the shift, lower the mound, etc. to even the balance of power with hitters. Honestly, I feel like robo-umps should do the trick. I haven’t looked at the stats, but the eye test tells me a lot of free strikes will be going away.
Yes, the eye test certainly suggests something is amiss. Grandal seems to be hurt by it on both ends: both as a framer and a hitter.
I still agree with the conclusions of this article, but I can’t help but appreciate how funny it is that McCann hit two home runs (off a right-hander!) on the day it was posted. I can only assume that everyone in the Sox clubhouse is an avid reader of Sox Machine and that this was bulletin board material for McCann.
James, if you’re reading–we love ya, big guy!
Yep, I couldn’t help but laugh at it. This was my second post of the year. The other, posted August 5th, outlined Luis Robert’s early MVP candidacy. In the ensuing series, Robert went 1-8 with 5 K and a CS.