Who Plays a Bigger Role for the 2023 Baltimore Orioles: James McCann or Ryan McKenna?

Toronto Blue Jays v Baltimore Orioles - Game One
Toronto Blue Jays v Baltimore Orioles - Game One / G Fiume/GettyImages

Last week, the Orioles acquired their backup catcher for the 2023 season, James McCann, from the New York Mets. As part of the deal, the Mets are paying the majority of McCann's contract after he underperformed the past few seasons. The trade gives the O's a true backup catcher for Adley Rutschman which will lessen the load for him next season as McCann has much more upside than Robinson Chirinos or any of the other catchers the O's have claimed off of waivers since the season ended in October.

McCann was an All-Star in 2019 with the Chicago White Sox as he accumulated a career-best 2.2 fWAR behind a strong first half but a bit of a struggle in the second half of the season. All this being said, adding James McCann mean the Orioles have two players on the 40-man roster with 'Mc' last names in McCann and Ryan McKenna. Both players are fairly similar in that neither one will be everyday players for the Orioles, barring injury, and they both bring value outside of their ability to swing the bat. Of the two players, though, who plays a bigger role for the Orioles in 2023?

The Case for James McCann

As of December 26th, McCann and Rutschman are the only catchers on the 40-man roster and Adley will obviously take up most of the reps behind home plate since he is a former number one overall pick and was the top prospect in baseball at the time of his call-up last season. Adley has also already proven himself to be one of the best catchers in baseball with his well-rounded abilities with drawing walks, getting extra-base hits, framing, and throwing out baserunners.

Which Baltimore Orioles hitter has a bigger impact on 2023: James McCann or Ryan McKenna?

McCann spent the last two seasons with the New York Mets where he has struggled at the plate but has provided positive defensive value. In his two seasons with the Mets, McCann had a .220/.282/.328 slash line with a 70 OPS+ in 182 games. This past season was particularly brutal at the plate as he ended the season with a 55 OPS+ and .195 batting average. That being said, McCann did provide positive defensive value in each of his two seasons in New York. He was an above average pitch framer which gives him a huge advantage over Chirinos from last season and he has an average ability to throw out potential base stealers as he threw out 8 of 34 baserunners in 2022.

His framing ability has improved throughout his career. This is not a surprising trend as framing has become much more emphasized for catchers over the past few seasons and teams believe that framing ability is one of the most important aspects of a good defensive catcher. In 2015, which was McCann's first full season, he had -13.7 framing runs saved above average. In other words, the Tigers lost nearly 14 runs throughout the season because of his inability to frame the ball compared to an average catcher.

Last season, McCann had 2.1 framing runs saved above average which put him in the 64th percentile amongst catchers in terms of pitch framing. This ability will need to continue to improve if James wants to solidify himself as the backup catcher all season as there are always opportunities to pick up players off the waiver wire if McCann does not provide positive framing numbers for the O's. Furthermore, McCann was in the 14th percentile amongst catchers in pop time to second base which means that he was one of the slowest catchers in the majors getting the ball from home plate to second base. Opposing teams like to take advantage of catchers with slow pop time and this could mean that baserunners are more aggressive when McCann is behind home plate.

Another advantage McCann has over McKenna is his ability to play first base which could be important since the O's do not have much depth at the position behind Ryan Mountcastle. In a pinch, Adam Frazier or Anthony Santander could play first base but neither player has much experience at the position and McCann could play first in instances where Mountcastle needs rest or is nursing a minor injury. If Mountcastle is ever placed on the IL, then minor league assets like Franchy Cordero or Tyler Nevin would likely fill in at first base full time. This topic will be discussed more in depth later this week at Birds Watcher.

The case for Ryan McKenna

It is not guaranteed that McKenna will make the 26-man roster out of spring training as he will likely compete with minor league free agents like Cordero or Nomar Mazara. Last season, McKenna was mostly used as a late game pinch runner and defensive replacement and did not start a lot of games as he was lodged behind Austin Hays, Cedric Mullins, and Anthony Santander on the depth chart. McKenna did not provide much offensive value in his limited opportunities as he had a .237/.294/.340 slash line in 172 plate appearances over 104 games. This was good for a 80 OPS+. The signing of Adam Frazier may also prove costly for McKenna as Jorge Mateo may take on his role as a late game pinch runner and defensive replacement.

Baltimore Orioles: Breaking Down James McCann and Ryan McKenna

Similar to McKenna, Mateo provides most of his value on the basepaths and in the field and has struggled at the plate throughout his career. However, Mateo has proven to be a better baserunner and more versatile defensive player than McKenna as Jorge can play six positions compared to Ryan's three outfield spots he can play.

Regardless, McKenna was valuable last season as he was in the 94th percentile in MLB for sprint speed and the 80th percentile for arm strength. Both of these factors show that McKenna is a valuable player and the O's will likely find a spot for him on the 26-man roster. Hays, Mullins, Santander, and Kyle Stowers should all start the season above McKenna on the outfield depth chart which means his plate appearances will continue to be limited but McKenna is a significant upgrade over Santander and Stowers in the field and on the basepaths. McKenna also has youth on his side as he will be 26 on Opening Day which means he is likely still approaching his most productive years.

Ultimately, both McCann and McKenna will play different roles for the O's in 2023 but neither player will be an everyday player for an O's team that will sport a strong lineup throughout the season. McKenna will likely play a similar role to last season as a late game replacement and not start many games. McCann will provide a similar veteran presence to Robinson Chirinos last season as a backup catcher and potential emergency first baseman. James has higher upside than Chirinos as he is 32 years old and was an All-Star with the White Sox in 2019. It is hard to say which player will have a more productive season but it appears that McKenna has the potential to have a strong season in his role if given the same opportunities that he did last year.