James McCann has bounced back from failure before. He believes the ability to do so is among his top traits as a baseball player.
Out to display that skill again, he hopes he can help many young Orioles learn it, too. Acquired late last month in a trade with the New York Mets for a to-be-named minor leaguer, McCann, 32, will serve as catcher Adley Rutschman’s backup in the former top prospect’s first full major league season and work with a pitching staff loaded with talented but inexperienced arms, many of whom, like McCann, have been let go by their previous organizations.
“I’ve been through the downs before,” McCann said on a video call Tuesday. “I’ve experienced failure at this level, and I’ve found a way to succeed after.”
After five seasons with the Detroit Tigers in which he rated below league average offensively, McCann was non-tendered by the only organization he had been with as a professional. He then signed with the Chicago White Sox, with whom he was an All-Star in 2019 and posted a career-best .896 OPS in the shortened 2020 season.
That earned McCann a four-year, $40.6 million contract from the New York Mets, but after he struggled in the deal’s first two years, the Mets sent him to Baltimore for what’s not expected to be a significant prospect. The Mets agreed to pay $19 million of the $24 million owed to McCann to free up his roster spot.
McCann, though, believes he is far more like the player he was in Chicago than he was in New York. He pinned his struggles in 2021 on “bad habits” and those in 2022 on bad luck. McCann hit .195 and slugged .282 last year, but his quality of contact suggested a .244 average with a .414 slugging percentage, deficits that were the worst among catchers that put at least 100 balls in play, according to Baseball Savant. In earning Most Valuable Oriole honors and finishing as the runner-up for American League Rookie of the Year, Rutschman posted a .248 expected average and .411 expected slugging percentage, with true marks of .254 and .445, respectively.
“Everything was good except for the actual results,” McCann said. “It’s very frustrating going through it, but I also know that at my position, the value that I bring on the defensive side is tremendous compared to what I can do offensively.”
He has yet to dive into potential adjustments with the Orioles’ hitting staff, with the trade coming amid the holiday season and a family move. But he’s looking forward to joining a team he described as “up and coming,” noting that players on other teams have reached out to pass along praise for what Baltimore is building. That’s especially applied to the group of pitchers he’ll work alongside.
“Hearing about the bullpen that Baltimore’s put together here and about the youth and just the unbelievable talent, guys [are] telling me how much they hated having to face the Orioles’ pitching staff,” McCann said. “I didn’t get to see it firsthand, but when I have guys telling me that, that’s a good sign.”
McCann has caught some of the game’s top pitchers, partnering with former Cy Young Award winners Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Jacob deGrom, David Price and Dallas Keuchel in his career, though none earned the honor in a season McCann was their batterymate. Still, he’s seen firsthand how they operate, and he’s looking forward to the coming weeks and spring training, when he can share those insights with the Orioles’ young staff and get to know them better in the process. He’ll also have an impact on the field; Baseball Savant rated Rutschman’s previous backup, Robinson Chirinos, as the worst framing catcher in the sport, with McCann regarded as an above-average defender.
“I can bring them a lot as far as sharing what different guys do as routines, sharing different bits and pieces that I’ve learned over the course of my career,” he said. “One thing that you just can’t replace is experience. You can’t take a guy that’s only played for one or two years and expect them to have the experience and the knowledge that somebody who’s played for an extended period of time at this level has.
“I think part of my role, whether it’s in Baltimore, whether it’s in New York, wherever, is sharing that expertise, sharing what I’ve learned in my career, and I’m a big believer that that’s the job of veteran players, to share with young players.”
He plans to take that approach with Rutschman, who he hasn’t had the chance to speak with yet. Before 2022 — a season in which McCann noted he “spent more time on the injured list than I had in my entire career combined” — he played in at least 105 games in each of the previous six full seasons, but hitting that mark in 2023 as Rutschman’s backup could be a challenge. He’s expected to also see time at designated hitter and first base, particularly against left-handed pitchers. Before the Orioles acquired Ryan O’Hearn from the Kansas City Royals on Tuesday, McCann’s nine major league games at first base were the second most among players on Baltimore’s 40-man roster.
“Adley’s obviously a very talented player,” McCann said. “He came up last year and had a heck of a season. I’m looking forward to working with him, looking forward to offering any sort of just veteran experience to help him in his learning curve, and understanding calling a game and managing a game at the big league level.
“I can’t control the games I play, the games I don’t play. All I can control is the kind of teammate I am and what I do when my name does get called. I’ll be prepared for whatever comes my way. I’m looking forward to meeting Adley and hopefully helping him continue to develop.”
McCann is one of four players 30 or older Baltimore has added this offseason, having only three otherwise. The other additions — starting pitcher Kyle Gibson, second baseman Adam Frazier and reliever Mychal Givens — have all spoken about wanting to have a veteran influence in a young clubhouse, but McCann’s position will enable him to directly influence Orioles on both sides of the ball.
“Guy’s going through a tough stretch, I’m a veteran player that’s been there and been through those stretches and come out of it,” McCann said. “Talking to a young player, that’s a game changer. Baseball is such a mental game. If you can have a guy that’s been around and experienced failure, experienced success, and the ability to share those experiences with a young player, a lot of times that can help a young player out a lot.”