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Tigers' James McCann is one of the worst pitch framers in baseball

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Since Alex Avila went on the disabled list, James McCann has taken on the bulk of catching duties. How has he fared behind the plate?

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

The Detroit Tigers came into the 2015 season with a solid plan for the catcher position. Stalwart Alex Avila would handle most starts against right-handed bats, while rookie James McCann would play against left-handed starters. Between the offensive platoon and Avila's quality defense, McCann would have been expected to handle approximately 30 to 40 percent of games as the Tigers' catcher. Unfortunately, that has not worked out due to Avila's injury, and the pitching staff has suffered for it to a degree.

McCann has shown several positive traits during his time as the team's starter. He has allowed just a single passed ball over 413 2/3 innings caught. He has thrown out over half of attempted base stealers, allowing just 12 stolen bases in 25 chances. That percentage is much better than league average of 32 percent. "The McCannon" nickname has already been coined to describe his arm strength and accuracy. Only the Yankees and Cardinals have allowed fewer stolen bases than the Tigers this season, and that is almost entirely McCann's doing.

Catcher is the most complex and demanding defensive position in the game, both physically and mentally, and McCann has already shown an aptitude for handling several parts of the game at an elite level. On the flip side, there is one area in particular where McCann has struggled: pitch framing.

Currently, McCann ranks 81st among catchers in terms of getting extra strikes called for his pitches. Yasmani Grandal of the Dodgers has been worth 96.2 extra strikes so far, leading all baseball, whereas McCann has posted a -41.9 on the year so far. This is not good. In fact it's about as bad as it could be, regardless of how much weight you want to ascribe to a catcher's own failings in this regard.

Last season Buster Posey led the league by garnering an extra 171.5 strikes for his staff over the course of the year. Alex Avila was in the plus column with 9.8 extra strikes on the season. In 2013, Avila pulled an extra 49.3 strikes over the course of the season. This year it's been a weakness with McCann behind the plate, and Bryan Holaday's -10.3, with Avila's own -16.5, haven't helped matters, either. Combined, Baseball Prospectus estimates the Tigers' miserable pitch framing has cost the Tigers ten full runs on the year.

It has to be said that the Tigers' weakened pitching staff may be partially responsible for this. It's certainly a possibility that veteran starters may simply get a bit more benefit of the doubt. Even so, these numbers are very, very bad, beyond the vagaries of umpires.

One of the strengths of Tigers' manager Brad Ausmus is presumed to be his own excellence in this regard during his playing days. Ausmus is widely regarded as one of best pitch framers and game callers in recent baseball history. And yet we're not seeing that expertise translate to the skill of his catchers this season.

It has to be hoped that with Avila's imminent return, and McCann growing in experience with the umpires and his pitching staff, that we'll see better numbers in the second half. The Tigers need to be doing a much better job putting hitters away, and yet they rank 27th in ERA, and 26th in strikeouts when they have a hitter down 0-2.

In 1-2 counts the ERA is much better, but the Tigers still rank near the bottom in strikeouts. The team is letting far too many players off the hook, and the catchers are going to have to be a part of turning this around. What can we conclude from all this? That, so far, James McCann has shown a brilliant throwing arm and good blocking skills behind the plate.

The tools are there for him to be a high quality defensive catcher for a long time to come. But with pitch framing numbers so poor, it seems that there's still a lot of work to be done. Even assuming some of the blame can be assigned to the Tigers' younger, less successful starters, McCann has a ways to go until he can truly be looked at like a full-time starter who adds substantial value behind the dish.