Look out, American League baserunners: the McCannon is here to stay. After a productive offensive year in Triple-A Toledo in 2014, James McCann wrestled the starting catcher's job away from Alex Avila with a solid rookie season. He won't bring home any hardware, but a 112-game error-less streak behind the plate will land him in the record books anyway.
The signs were there in spring training. Coming off of a breakout season in the minor leagues, McCann thoroughly outplayed Bryan Holaday in Grapefruit League action, batting .348/.388/.435 in 21 games. He even blew up a bird. McCann continued this blazing start in the regular season, batting .295/.311/.432 through his first 15 games. The Avila-McCann platoon that many clamored for at times in 2014 was working like a charm, with Avila getting on base at a .342 clip during that same stretch.
It wouldn't last, though. McCann's role quickly expanded when Avila went on the disabled list on May 9. The rookie backstop started 27 of the Tigers' 37 games in Avila's absence, and hit .259/.303/.415 with three home runs and 12 RBI. The "McCannon" nickname quickly stuck, as he threw out several speedy baserunners during this stretch -- including the reigning AL MVP.
By the end of the season, McCann made 103 starts behind the plate and hit .264/.297/.387 with seven home runs and 41 RBI in 425 plate appearances. His .297 wOBA and 85 wRC+ were well below league average, but his solid defensive numbers earned him 1.0 fWAR for the season, which ranked 15th among AL rookies. His WAR total ranked 19th among 28 MLB catchers with at least 300 plate appearances, but it's worth noting that only four catchers were worth more than 2.5 WAR.
Bryan Holaday was a capable backup catcher in 2014, but many believed McCann was better suited for the job because his ability to hit lefties made him a perfect complement to Avila's severe platoon splits. McCann delivered on his previous lefty-mashing tendencies, hitting .320/.359/.557 with four home runs in 105 plate appearances. His walk rate wasn't great -- we'll get to that -- but he hit the ball hard 32.9 percent of the time when he made contact against lefties, which ranked in the top third of baseball. He hit the ball in the air more often, which helped contribute to a 17.4 percent HR/FB rate and a .237 ISO. The positives go on, and the splits are significant.
|PA||HR||BA||OBP||SLG||wOBA||wRC+||HR/FB||Avg Exit Velocity|
|vs. LHP||105||4||.320||.359||.557||.390||149||17.4%||90.0 mph|
|vs. RHP||320||3||.247||.277||.332||.267||64||5.0%||88.1 mph|
Part of McCann's stellar production against lefties stems from location. Many lefthanders will generally work away against right-handed batters, but breaking pitches are naturally going to work down and in to right-handed hitters. McCann was no exception this season, and for good reason. He swung at a lot of breaking pitches, both inside and outside the strike zone. However, that low-and-in quadrant was McCann's happy zone.
Many of McCann's homers involved him dropping the bat head on a pitch low in the zone and pulling the ball to left field. Over half of his extra base hits went to the pull field as well, though he did flash a decent amount of power to center and right. Good low-ball hitters are thriving now with the strike zone expanding lower and lower every year, and McCann showed the ability to punish those pitches when they came his way.
McCann's offensive numbers weren't bad for a rookie catcher, but it requires that qualifier to make his numbers stand out. Objectively, he was a below average hitter, one that walked just 3.8 percent of the time and finished the season with a .297 on-base percentage. Only eight players (minimum 400 plate appearances) had a lower walk rate than McCann in Major League Baseball this season, and all of them were below average hitters. Only Dee Gordon, who had an identical walk rate to McCann, posted a wRC+ over league average.
Unfortunately, McCann does not have Gordon's elite speed and contact skills. In fact, he was nearly the opposite. McCann was one of the most aggressive hitters in baseball last season, swinging at 53.2 percent of the pitches he faced. This included a 40.5 percent swing rate at pitches outside the strike zone, the 10th highest rate in baseball among hitters with at least 400 plate appearances. McCann's contact rate and whiff rate were slightly below league average, but nowhere near as extreme as his penchant for swinging at pitches off the plate.
The good news is that there are productive players within this cohort. Starling Marte and C.J. Cron were directly behind McCann in the "swings at bad pitches a lot" category, and a massive outlier in Nolan Arenado lurked just a few spots away. However, those guys hit for a lot more power than McCann -- and in Marte's case, stole 30 bases -- to offset their lack of walks.
Then, there's the framing. Baseball Prospectus rated McCann as the second-worst framing catcher in baseball in 2015, while StatCorner had him dead last. Many will argue against the utility of these stats, but when the real nerds say it's a skill, you have to wonder if this saps McCann's value a bit. Sure, there needs to be more data. Does framing improve with age? Many of the guys atop these charts have been around for a while. Having the "pitch-framing king" in your ear everyday is also a good omen.
But, man. Let's hope this gets better.
Only a month into his rookie season, McCann was asked to take on full-time catching duties as Avila went on the disabled list. His first home run was an inside-the-parker and he dazzled defensively. There were some slumps at the plate as the league adjusted to McCann and visa versa. His pitch framing needs work and at the end of the season his caught stealing dropped off a bit. He finished the season without an error. McCann is just the sixth catcher in MLB history to go a full season (min. 100 games) without an error, and the first since Chris Iannetta did it in 2008. Not a bad start.
Expectations for 2016
Barring a major shakeup, McCann will be the team's starting catcher in 2016. He's a young, cost-controlled player that the team desperately needs to offset the bloated contracts elsewhere on the payroll, and the franchise showed plenty of faith in him this season even before Avila's injury. It's hard to see McCann sliding backward offensively, and any improvements in his plate discipline and power could pay dividends going forward. Catcher defense is harder to gauge with the naked eye, but I would expect to see solid improvements in his game calling and pitch framing as he becomes more comfortable behind the plate. McCann is exactly the type of young talent the Tigers also need elsewhere on the roster, and should capably fill a need at catcher for years to come.