The first player the Mets selected in the October 1961 expansion draft was a journeyman catcher named Hobie Landrith. The reason, Manager Casey Stengel famously explained, was quite simple: “You gotta have a catcher, or you’ll have a lot of passed balls.”
Good point, and until Saturday, the current Mets had a similar void behind the plate. They have filled it with James McCann, a free agent from the Chicago White Sox who agreed to a four-year deal worth a bit more than $40 million.
The deal was confirmed by a person with direct knowledge of it; it will not become official until McCann passes a physical. One of the pitchers he will catch, the right-hander Marcus Stroman, did not wait for official word to welcome McCann to the team.
“Beyond excited to work with @JamesMcCann34,” Stroman wrote on Twitter. “I’ve heard nothing but unbelievable things about him as a player and person. Guy rakes at the dish and is always locked in behind the plate!”
McCann, 30, flourished in two years with the White Sox after five ordinary seasons with the Detroit Tigers, who did not offer him a contract after he hit .220 with eight home runs in 2018. He made the American League All-Star team in 2019 and continued his improvement last season, when he split time at catcher with Yasmani Grandal.
In 149 games for the White Sox, McCann hit .276 with 25 homers and 75 runs batted in. His .334 on-base percentage and .474 slugging percentage combined for an .808 OPS, trailing only Willson Contreras, Grandal and J.T. Realmuto among catchers with at least 500 plate appearances over the last two seasons.
Realmuto, a two-time All-Star who has spent the last two years with the Philadelphia Phillies, is a headliner on the free-agent market and perhaps baseball’s best catcher. The Mets had seemed to be a natural fit for Realmuto, but the deal with McCann could indicate that they may be saving their biggest expenditures for other free agents, like center fielder George Springer of the Houston Astros, starter Trevor Bauer of the Cincinnati Reds, or both.
The Mets’ new owner, Steven A. Cohen — who spent part of Saturday greeting season-ticket holders outside Citi Field with his wife, Alex — has energized the fans with a pledge to spend more aggressively than his predecessor, Fred Wilpon. McCann is the second free agent to agree to a multiyear deal with the team, after reliever Trevor May, who got a two-year, $15.5 million deal to leave the Minnesota Twins.
McCann, a right-handed hitter, has batted .320 against left-handers over the last two seasons, and .259 against righties. He started at catcher for 27 of the White Sox’ 60 games last season and two of their three playoff games, while greatly improving his pitch-framing statistics.
According to Statcast, McCann ranked 56th among 64 qualified catchers in strike rate on borderline pitches in 2019. Last season, he rose to eighth out of 62 and forged a strong bond with the White Sox ace, Lucas Giolito, whose earned run average with McCann in eight starts (including a no-hitter) was 2.61, three runs better than it was in four starts with Grandal.
As a Tiger, McCann also worked well with Justin Verlander, whose 3.07 E.R.A. with McCann was the best E.R.A. among the seven catchers who caught Verlander for at least 70 innings with Detroit.
“He’s unreal back there,” Giolito told the Chicago Sun-Times in August. “Every single game, every single pitch, he’s into it 100 percent.”
Now the Mets will get the benefit of that intensity, as their pursuit of other All-Stars continues.