Ask any Tiger fan how happy they are to have James McCann on the team and they will answer undoubtedly with "very much" without hesitation. And why shouldn’t we be happy? McCann is hitting .286 (over 100 points better than that other catcher, Alex Avila), he has hit some clutch home runs and is third in the American League among rookies in WAR at 1.4. Recently he has shown some leadership qualities that has impressed the team, fans, media and even a former teammate. However, there are a few areas in his game that could use some work.
1. McCann’s BABIP is a high .347
It's very hard to maintain a high batting average of balls in play (BABIP) unless you're an elite hitter. McCann's BABIP actually isn't a big concern when his batted ball types are factored in, though. He has been hitting the ball very well with a 25 percent line drive rate. How likely is he to continue that? Everyone was excited when Nick Castellanos had a high 28.5 percent line drive rate in 2014, but then pitchers made some adjustments and it's down to 20.3 percent in 2015 and his overall batting average is down by 22 points. The batted ball data that really jumps out the most to me is the ground balls at nearly 50 percent. A player isn't going to hit for much power when half the balls they hit are on the ground. If/when his line drive rate falls, so will his power unless he can exchange some of his ground balls for fly balls.
2. McCann has massive platoon splits
As most right-handed hitters, McCann can hit left-handed pitching very well. Last year at AAA, he hit lefties at a .336/.396/.469 pace while only righties at a .276/.316/.405 clip. This year in the Majors, the splits are even more pronounced.
McCann has had the good fortune to limit his playing time against right-handed pitching by platooning with Alex Avila this year. If forced into an everyday role in 2016, his overall rate stats will decline unless he can make an adjustment against right-handed pitching.
3. McCann cannot hit the breaking ball
According to Brooks Baseball, McCann has ended 59 at bats with a slider and 21 at bats with a cureveball and is hitting .153 and .238 on those pitches, respectively. Nearly half of his strikeouts (27 of 56) have come on either pitch. Against hard and offspeed pitches, he his hitting much better.
Pitchers are already throwing almost 30 percent breaking ball pitches to McCann. Unless he can make an adjustment and start hitting these breaking pitches, opposing pitchers are going to throw him a lot more sliders and curveballs.
4. McCann has below average plate discipline
James McCann's walk rate is at a pathetic 4.3 percent. During the minors, McCann was never one to walk much, having walk rates range from 3.5 to 6.2 percent. According to FanGraphs, McCann is now first on the Tigers at swinging at pitches out of the strike zone at 38.9 percent now that Yoenis Cespedes is off the team (another player who rarely walks). The amount of contact that he makes is actually pretty decent (77.4 percent overall; 58.7 percent out of the strike zone). However, if he were to lay off some of these pitches, he'd be able to draw more walks. And by making pitchers throw more strikes, McCann can do more damage; he has a very good 90.2 percent contact rate at pitches in the strike zone.
James McCann is barely above average as it is when factoring in ballpark and league adjustments with a 102 wRC+. Any kind of decline will result in a below average hitter. Which isn't bad in itself; the catching position is weak overall and it's very hard to find an elite hitting catcher. Alex Avila had a wRC+ between 91 and 104 in his previous three season for example.
The best thing to do for next year is to resign Alex Avila at a discount (say about half as much as he's making this year) and continue the platoon plan. This will allow McCann to work on his weaknesses while limiting his exposure to right-handed pitching. Avila has the experience working with the Tigers pitching staff and with his poor performance this year, not too many teams will be calling him for a starting role anyway. It'll be a win/win/win situation for everyone.