They say hindsight is 20/20. Well, that isn’t always true in baseball, but it is good when we need to evaluate players and staff at the end of the season. I can’t think of a more important position than catcher. No matter how good of a pitching staff you have, you cannot succeed without a solid catcher behind the plate backing them up. The Detroit Tigers had two main catchers in 2016, James McCann and Jarrod Saltalamacchia. McCann became the Tigers mainstay behind the plate with the departure of Alex Avila during the previous offseason. Saltalamacchia was signed as the backup catcher since they needed someone to fill that role now that McCann took over as their number one guy.
Offensively, McCann got off to a rocky start in 2016. He batted poorly his first four games before being placed on the 15-day disabled list on April 12 for a sprained ankle. He returned on May 3 and his struggles continued through the month. He quickly turned that around in June, however, posting his best numbers of the season. Through July, August, and September he traded ups and downs, so it really was quite a streaky season in 2016 for McCann offensively. In total, he had 0.2 oWAR according to Baseball-Reference. For comparison, he posted an oWAR of 1.0 in the previous season.
Some things to note about McCann’s offense:
- He batted much better against left handers all-around even with a higher strikeout percentage in fewer at-bats. A focus area for McCann going into next year should be to improve his batting against right handed pitchers.
- James had one of the highest differences in OPS in wins and losses. The only two Tigers who had a higher difference in OPS in wins vs. losses were Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez. Although he batted eighth in the lineup for most of the season, this suggests McCann is more important to the Tigers success offensively than most originally thought.
I compiled some of his batting splits in a table below so that you can compare his stats month to month, lefty vs righty as well as performance in wins vs losses, to draw your own conclusions on his performance with a bat.
McCann, or #McCannon, as he’s often dubbed, was terrific in his sophomore season behind the dish. He was third in defensive runs saved, first in Stolen Base Runs Saved, and second in Defensive Runs Above Average among all catchers who appeared in at least 800 innings (which translates to about 89 complete games). Although James did have four errors (including three throwing errors), he caught 45 percent of runners stealing, which was second only to Kansas City’s Salvador Perez. McCann is definitely in the top echelon of defensive catchers, and is younger than most of his peers.
One stat that is not often considered is pitch framing. It is on the fringe of being a more widely examined stat and is tracked by only a few websites such as StatCorner. They rank McCann 18th out of 32 catchers who caught at least 4,500 pitches. He averaged -0.22 calls for him per game, which means every fifth game a call that should have gone his way didn’t because of his lack of framing ability. Compare him to Salvador Perez, who was ranked last in pitch framing with the same parameters, so it doesn’t cause you to panic. It is an area McCann could improve on moving forward since the rest of his defense was so sound, and he’s even touched on this topic during the season.
“There are certain aspects to framing that are… there are a lot of variables. Different umpires have different zones. If you get an umpire who’s tight on a given day, it doesn’t matter who you are as a catcher; you’re probably not getting many borderline strikes. If you get an umpire who is giving a little bit — his zone is a bigger — you’re going to grade out a little better.
“Another aspect is who is on the mound. A guy like Dallas Keuchel is constantly hitting his spots — corner, corner, bottom, bottom, up — so the umpire is more likely to give him calls. Some pitchers aren’t hitting spots with any consistency. So there are variables. But at the end of the day I know exactly where I stand. Last year I didn’t grade out well, so I’ve worked my butt off to improve as much as I can.
“I’ve watched film on the guys who graded out the best. I’ve paid attention to what they do and tried to see what I could take from their games and apply to mine. The best are the ones who are quietest behind the plate. There’s not a lot of movement. There are other little things, but that’s the biggest thing I’ve noticed.”
Jarrod Saltalamacchia was originally signed as the back-up catcher for McCann during the offseason. He is more known for his offense than his defense, but it was hard to tell that at times, aside from a few clutch hits throughout the year. His offensive numbers were almost identical to that of McCann, with a one-point difference in season OPS+. The only big difference in offensive numbers between the two was batting average. Neither were great, but Salty batted .171 while McCann hit .221.
Saltalamacchia did start off on a good note with a .927 OPS and six home runs in 17 games during the first month of the season. June was the next-best month for Jarrod, as he batted .257 with a .797 OPS, and had a much better strikeout to walk ratio. However, after June his batting average and OPS continued to dip and did not recover. His splits between lefthanders and righthanders were very similar, which isn’t surprising at all considering he’s a switch hitter. Unlike McCann, Saltalamacchia was only marginally better in performance in team wins vs losses. His final oWAR was -0.3, which was the lowest oWAR he has posted in the last five seasons. So, you could say he had an off year at the plate.
As far as defense goes, we knew what we were getting with Saltalamacchia when we signed him. Salty was 25th in Stolen Base Runs Saved, 22nd in Defensive Runs Saved, and 29th in Defensive Runs Above Average among catchers with at least 500 innings (only 35 catchers met those parameters). He caught 24 percent of would-be base stealers and had three errors behind the plate. He also spent some time at first base when Miguel Cabrera needed a day off or was injured. Saltalamacchia posted a -1.1 UZR and -2 Defensive Runs Saved in 64 innings at first base. His pitch framing was tied for 27th out of 32 pitchers who caught at least 4,500 pitches, according to StatCorner. He averaged -1.09 calls per game, meaning an average of one call went the other way per game due to where he framed the pitch.
Overall, the Tigers’ catchers made a positive impact in both aspects of the game in 2016. While Saltalamacchia didn’t perform as well offensively as we had hoped, he wasn’t a bust as a backup, and had several clutch hits throughout the season. Plus, the Tigers only had to pay him the league minimum salary. James McCann cemented himself as one of the premier defensive catchers in the game. If we see an uptick in his performance against right-handed pitching, it’s hard to argue against starting him 130-140 games a season in future years.