Earlier this week, Major League Baseball announced this year’s All-Star Game starters following a lengthy (and convoluted) fan-voting process. Gary Sanchez won out among American League catchers, and as such will begin the game in the squat. When the full rosters are announced on Sunday, Chicago White Sox backstop James McCann should hear his name announced — after all, it’s McCann, not Sanchez, who has been the AL’s best hitting catcher so far this season.
You read that correctly. McCann entered Saturday with a slight lead over Sanchez in FanGraphs’ wRC+ statistic — a measure that adjusts for ballpark and gives proper credit to on-base percentage. Even if Sanchez pulls ahead in the coming weeks, McCann deserves credit for having one of the game’s most surprising, and least covered, breakout seasons.
McCann entered the weekend hitting .327/.385/.530 with nine home runs. Take the best of those categories from his previous big-league seasons, and you’d end up with a .264/.318/.415 slash line with 13 dingers. Breakout season, indeed. McCann’s chances of having a year like this were so remote that the Detroit Tigers non-tendered him over the winter. He then signed a one-year deal worth $2.5 million with the White Sox, which has proven to be a bargain.
That’s the what — what’s the how?
For those who have read The MVP Machine, you’ll probably nod in learning McCann altered his setup and trigger, opening his stance and embracing a full leg kick. The leg kick has helped Jose Bautista and Justin Turner, among others, tap into their full offensive potential. But here’s the funny thing: McCann has toyed with these elements before. A few seasons ago, he dumped his leg kick after observing how Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez succeeded without one:
“You look at guys like Miggy and Victor, who are consistent day in and day out, their feet are always on the ground. Where I’m at, trying to come back from an injury, (it’s) for timing purposes.”
To solidify McCann’s breakout as the most counterculture in baseball, note that his launch angle this season has changed dramatically versus past seasons — but not in the expected way. He had launched the ball over the last three years between 15 and 16 degrees on average. This season, his launch angle has dipped to 9.7 degrees. Clearly, the tweak has worked for McCann, who, in addition to improved raw numbers, has upped his walk and barrel rates.
Before we anoint McCann the new Tyler Flowers — that is a mediocre backstop for most of his 20s who then develops into something more — it’s important to remember one big difference between the two: Flowers is a plus defender, McCann is … well, not. His poor defensive metrics have often been overshadowed by his strong arm, but that doesn’t make them any less detrimental to his overall value. There’s a case to be made McCann is the worst framing backstop in the game — at a time when teams value that skill more than ever before.
McCann, then, needs his breakout to be legitimate — not 100 percent of the way, but most of the way. If it’s not, the All-Star Game roster won’t be the only one he has to worry about making.