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James McCann needs to put the ball in the air more in 2017

It wouldn’t require a lot for the young catcher to become a pretty valuable player for the Tigers.

Chicago White Sox v Detroit Tigers Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images

There are precious few good bats around the league in the hands of starting catchers. James McCann is clearly not one of them. But the Tigers don’t need McCann to develop into a good hitter, just a better one against right-handed pitching. McCann improved defensively as a catcher in 2016, and as he heads in his age-27 season, there’s still a good chance that he has more to offer offensively.

The catcher position is going to remain a primary focus around the Detroit Tigers until (or if) it’s addressed this offseason. Based on the level of options they seem to be considering, it may well remain a contentious topic well into the 2017 baseball season. Yet, compared to the other obvious center field hole in the roster, the Tigers are in much better position behind the plate.

For McCann, there are already reasons to expect a little bit of a better season in 2017. The question is whether there is still any semblance of a breakout in McCann’s future. To manage one, he clearly has to put his focus on improving against right-handed pitching this offseason.

Season wRC+ BB% K% BABIP O-Swing O-Contact Z-Swing Z-Contact SwStr%
2015 85 3.8% 21.2% .325 39.0% 60.1% 67.8% 87.9% 12.2%
2016 66 6.2% 29.2% .283 30.5% 56.0% 63.5% 84.1% 11.8%
2017 (Steamer) 75 5.4% 24.3% .304

Steamer is modestly optimistic about McCann’s upcoming season. FanGraphs forecasts a 75 wRC+, with an overall value of 1.5 fWAR across 382 plate appearances. He never struck out at uniquely high rates in the minors, nor in his first season. So, his strikeout rate in 2016 seems an aberration at this point. He’ll always strike out a lot, but probably not to the same extreme degree.

He also doesn’t strike out against right-handed pitchers notably more than left-handed ones, so it’s not overexposure to right-handed pitching driving that strikeout rate. McCann walked more in 2016, but patience has never been his forte, so some regression there feels right, as well. Steamer expects more of a league average BABIP for McCann, and that should drive a little better production, even without any real changes.

There are two basic ways to be an effective hitter in the major leagues. You either get on base a lot, or you hit for power. But there’s no reason to think that McCann’s strikeout and walk rates will improve much. And he isn’t fast. So, McCann’s only real hope for improvement is to add more power to his profile. That is the only reason Salvador Perez, for example, is a more valuable catcher than McCann at this point.

Hitters do manage to succeed with high strikeout and low walk rates, but when they do so, it’s usually by hitting the ball hard, and, as often as possible, on the optimal trajectory to maximize their power. Hitting the ball with authority is not McCann’s real issue.

McCann’s average exit velocity this season was 88.88 miles per hour, just shy of league average overall. Not great, but certainly enough to get more out of balls in play than he currently does. McCann might bounce into better fortune, and a higher average, again next season. But the only way he can really ensure a notable improvement, is to put the ball in the air more often.

McCann exit velocity

The problem is, is that far too many of his balls in play, particularly against right-handers, are hit on a line or on the ground. So, while McCann’s strikeout rates are basically the same against either-handed pitcher, he doesn’t maximize his contact against right-handers in the same way at all. He hits the ball nearly as hard, averaging 88.2 miles per hour against right-handed pitching. But he gets much better results against lefties. The reason is largely that he his flyball rate against lefties was 47.4 percent in 2016, compared to just 37.2 percent against right-handers.

McCann Launch v LH
McCann Launch v RH

The difference, is that McCann drives the ball in the air more against left-handers and to better success. Those are the balls that go for extra base hits and home runs. Against right-handers, McCann hits mainly hard groundballs, or low line drives, for singles. That’s the kind of hit profile a speed player with low power, and low strikeout rates, aspires to.

As a result, McCann’s isolated power against right-handed pitchers was a whopping 200 points lower than against lefties. Against right-handed pitching, he struck out less, hit the ball a little less hard overall, and got absolutely horrific results in comparison. He posted a 34 wRC+, as compared to his 124 wRC+ versus left-handed pitchers — largely because he didn’t put the ball in air enough.

Overall, McCann hit for just a 36 wRC+ on groundballs in 2016. On flyballs: a 115 wRC+. The man needs to launch more balls up in his sweet spot against right-handers. Of course, it’s easy to tell someone to try and drive the ball in the air more often. Harder to do, without turning into a pop-up machine and exacerbating the issue.

McCann’s spray chart against right-handed pitching illustrates what success in this area would look like. If some of those hard groundballs to the left side turn into line drives, or if that array of line drive and ground ball singles to middle outfield depth turns into a few more deep flyballs up the gaps, McCann could probably get within shouting distance of a league average hitter in 2017.

McCann RH Spray

Teams have gotten smarter about improving hitters’ swings to maximize their contact through launch angle in recent years as new data has rolled out. It will fall to hitting coach Lloyd McClendon to find ways to help McCann drive the ball in the air more effectively against right-handed pitching. McCann’s only real chance for some lasting improvement offensively, is to find a way to put that knowledge to work in his mechanics and his approach.

Last season, 240 of McCann’s 373 plate appearances were against right-handed pitchers. That isn’t going to change much next season. The Tigers appear in no position to acquire another starting caliber catcher. Even a quality left-handed backup may prove elusive. And the overriding consideration for playing a catcher is always going to have more to do with the guy he’s catching than with the opposing pitcher.

You’re just not going to be able to protect him that much without another very good option available. He’s got to produce more power against right-handers by driving the ball in the air more often while still making hard contact. At 27, entering his third year in the major leagues, McCann is embarking on what should be his prime years. Catching is hard. There is far more to learn for a catcher entering the major leagues than any other player.

By the time they’ve got the position figured out, a lot of guys are already succumbing to the rigors of the position. Peaks are short for all but the best. There’s a window when a young catcher has both experience and his health. If McCann has anything more to offer, it’s time to see it. But at least catcher is a position where the Tigers have potential for solid production. And as a result, center field should be the Tigers’ main focus for improvement this offseason.