Baseball

If you want to be truly embarrassed by the spot the Cubs find themselves in the standings, tied with the Cardinals for first, consider that in terms of fWAR, Paul DeJong is the best player on the Cardinals. By some distance actually, as he’s accrued nearly twice the WAR of Marcell Ozuna in second. And that’s with DeJong unable to hit a bull in the ass with a snow-shovel since April. Some of that is Paul Goldschmdit’s struggles and playing first base (thus getting little to no defensive credit), and Matt Carpenter being ouchy, old, and grizzled (the official motto of St. Louis). But yeah, the Cubs are tied with a team whose best player got there almost entirely through defense.

If you feel like the Cardinals have been advertising DeJong as a future star for half of eternity at this point, and being influenced on another level by some big homers against the Cubs, you’ll probably be shocked to learn he’s still only 25. But their version of Javy Baez he has not become, nor anywhere close, and let’s all revel in the fact that Cards fans so desperately want their own version of Javy who also happens to be white.

For a minute there, DeJong looked like he might just be that in April. That month saw a .342/.403/.607 slash-line, good for a 163 wRC+. To go along with his spectacular defense, and it looked like you had a real player here, and us lamenting the Cardinals finally being right about a product of their system.

DeJong has been living in an abandoned boxcar since with one can of baked beans, at least offensively (by defensive runs he’s been the best SS in the NL). He hit .200 in May, .218 in June, and .225 in July. His wRC+ have been 95, 66, and 100, as he walked a ton in May (17%), and slugged just enough lately to barely claim average.

It’s not hard to find the discrepancy in DeJong’s start and the rest of the season. DeJong’s BABIP in April was .389. It hasn’t been above .236 since. And yet DeJong, for the most part, has hit the ball extremely hard. Only in June did DeJong not have a hard-contact rate above 45%. Since May 1st, DeJong has the worst BABIP in the National League.

It’s weird. DeJong doesn’t hit an abnormal amount of flies, which tends to lower one’s BABIP because they don’t just fall in when they don’t go out of the park all that much. He doesn’t hit a ton of line-drives, which would help, but that rate isn’t so low as to explain three months of taking it in the moon fortune-wise.

It doesn’t really work to say the past three months have just been market correction on DeJong’s April, because that would entail a higher force equaling out DeJong’s numbers simply to balance the universe. And as we all know because we’ve been told all our lives, if there’s a higher power it definitely works for the Cardinals. Still, DeJong’s numbers are right where they should be according to Statcast, as his batting average and weighted on-base are right in line with his expected-batting average and expected-weighted on-base.

And yet that low of a number over three months seems a tad harsh. DeJong doesn’t have an abnormal amount of flies not leaving the park, as his HR/FB rate is about league average at 12%. As we said, he doesn’t hit an abnormal amount of fly balls. It’s just weird.

Still, with all of that DeJong is a couple of weeks away from his best season in the majors, which was 3.3 fWAR. And if he finds any luck at all in the next two months, he might give Baez a run for title of best shortstop in the National League (0.5 fWAR behind right now). It’s been an odd year for him, and you wonder what the Cardinals might conclude about him if it doesn’t change. They’ve given up on better players, y’know.

Baseball

James McCann’s hot start to this season was easily one of the biggest surprises in the baseball world. He was, well, bad in his first few years in Detroit, never posting a wRC+ better than 95 and never quite adding much defensive value as a catcher either. Most teams will deal with a sub-par bat behind the plate if you can at least be a good framer and/or have a strong arm to control the run game, but if you’re not bringing any of that to the table, you have very little value to the team, even as a backup.

Quite honestly, McCann hasn’t brought much to the table in the framing or strong arm regards this year for the White Sox, either. He ranks 27th in MLB in average pop time, which has him in the 22nd percentile, and he is in the 14th percentile among catchers in framing, per Baseball Savant. There are plenty of good thoughts out there about how valuable framing actually is when we know that by and large umpires are just terrible at their jobs, but it’s still pretty easy to tell who is and isn’t good at it, and McCann is not.

However, the Sox haven’t exactly needed him to be that good at it because he has handled the pitching staff very well, and by “pitching staff” I of course mean Lucas Giolito. While it would unfair to Gio to attribute too much of his 2019 success to McCann, Giolito himself has lauded the catcher for his game planning and preparation, and all of that has certainly helped accentuate (you didn’t know I knew words like that, did ya) all of the mechanical adjustments Giolito made over the offseason to help turn him into the ace-level pitcher he has been this season.

And oh yeah, McCann was smacking the shit out of the ball, which certainly made it all worth it.

McCann’s offensive epiphany was certainly surprising but welcome in a lineup that, on opening day at least, didn’t figure to have more than three or four above average hitters, and that was assuming that Moncada and Anderson progressed (which happened) and Eloy’s natural hitting followed him (which took a month, but also has kinda happened). It was really nice to have a reliable bat that you could slot into the middle of the order and feel comfortable, and nobody in the world thought McCann would be that until it was actually happening. He was seemingly hitting everything, and felt especially reliable in clutch moments. And while I certainly enjoyed it, I always felt like I was waiting for the other shoe to drop.

By “shoe” I mean BABIP. Which until mid-June was over .400, but even when it eventually dipped below that mark on June 14 (if I used FanGraphs’ splits tool correctly) had already been steadily declining. In fact, it dropped quite quick in June, falling from .432 June 1 to .390 on June 14 (but rebounded to a .403 at the end of the month) and now sits at .383.

So, he had been getting very lucky at the beginning of the year, and in a lot of ways that was the source of his outbreak. But that luck at the plate lately has run out. Since the beginning of June he is slashing .241/.310/.447 with a wRC+ of 99, and his BABIP is a much more normal .325. All of that is fine. July is…. ugly.

Since July 1, he’s slashing .197/.234/.377 for a wRC+ of 58, and since coming back from the All-Star Break he is an abysmal .150/.190/.375 with a wRC+ of 42. However, his BABIP in July is just .290 and since the All-Star Break it’s (avert your eyes) .167. So he has been ridiculously¬†unlucky of late, and the results have accordingly looked like Fels on the Monday after an all weekend bender (I have never actually seen what that looks like but I can only assume it’s not pretty) (You’re fired. – ED).

But the big concern is that when look back at his career, a .290 BABIP is actually not an indication of bad luck. In fact, it’d be on the higher end of McCann’s past numbers. In Detroit from 2014-2018 his BABIPs were .300 (in nine games), .325, .283, .300, and .282. That is certainly troublesome when you consider that his season line is currently at .383, meaning there is potential for some serious correction on the way and he could be in for a truly terrible second half.

Or to be a bit less rosy about it, we might be about to see the real James McCann stand up.

There are a lot of questions that are to be raised from this exercise, none of which I have actual answers to. Primarily, as I just referenced, I am curious if the first half had anything real in it that he can build on, or if it was built entirely on luck. There is also a good chance part of this is the result of playing so damn much, as he’s been in 72 of the Sox 99 games this year and caught 66 of them.

In the end, the 2019 season means very little to the White Sox outside of the most important players playing well, so if McCann struggles in the second half it won’t be that big of a deal, it will just make them less fun to watch. But 2020 figures to be very important for this organization, and as such we need to know what McCann is. He’s worth keeping for 2020 if only for Lucas Giolito, and hopefully Michael Kopech and Dylan Cease can have similar success.

The one conclusion I do draw from all of this, though, is that the White Sox should not head into this offseason assuming McCann is their primary catcher next year. More specifically, they should not let McCann’s presence on this roster preclude them from potentially being interested in a guy like Yasmani Grandal. McCann is a good catcher because of his prep work, but if the bat isn’t at least close to average, the glove and arm don’t do much for you either, and he’s back to backup status.