James McCann can't hit. Sorry that the opening sentence had to be a shot to the gut, but it's the blatant truth. Although he hit a big home run against the Rays, McCann has been a black hole in the Tigers' lineup this season. In 19 games he has a mere 10 hits, and none of them have gone for extra bases. While he missed two weeks because of an ankle injury, he's gotten the bulk of the playing time when healthy, but has not contributed any value at the plate. So far this year McCann is slashing a line of .152/.200/.197. His wOBA is .183, and he's been worth a gut-wrenching 5 wRC+.
Since being drafted in the second round in the 2011, McCann has been known as a defense-first backstop who needed to develop as a hitter. As he rose through the minor leagues, he developed into a solid hitter against left-handed pitchers, but still left a lot to be desired against right-handers. In his first full season as the Tigers catcher in 2015, he was below average as a hitter, finishing 14th out of 16 in wRC+ among catchers with at least 400 plate appearances. Among catchers with at least 300 plate appearances, he was still in the bottom third, finishing 19th out of 28. Additionally, when facing right-handed pitchers, he was 36-percent worse than the average hitter, which offset him being 49-percent better than the average hitter against left-handers.
Still, the Tigers were comfortable enough to go into 2016 with James McCann as the everyday catcher, letting Alex Avila walk after an under-appreciated seven year stint in Detroit. Sadly, the move has not worked out in the Tigers' favor. All of McCann's weaknesses from 2015 are being exploited in 2016, and he has not been able to make the necessary adjustments yet. In 2015, he hit the ball on the ground at a high rate for a guy with his body type. Yes, I'm alluding to the fact that most catchers are slow. Last year he hit nearly 50-percent of his balls in play on the ground, and produced a mere .229 average and 24 wRC+ on grounders. This year he's hitting ground balls at a 56-percent rate, good for a batting average of .160 and -25 wRC+.
As you can see, he is pulling most of the balls that he hits on the ground to the shortstop and third baseman. While it's tough for hitters to control where they hit the ball (unless that hitter is Miguel Cabrera or Victor Martinez), McCann routinely hitting the ball on the ground to the left side of the infield is allowing the opposition to start shifting him, which will take away even more hits in the future.
Overall, McCann has decreased his swing percentage (52.1 percent in 2015 to 45.1 percent so far in 2016). However, the amount of swing and misses on breaking pitches have increased substantially.
According to Brooks Baseball, nine of his 11 hits have come off of fastballs, either on four-seamers or two-seamers (sinkers).
McCann does not have a single hit against a breaking ball from a right-hander this year. If you're doing the math on that, you'll come up with a batting average of .000.
This is nothing new, though. Last year he hit only .145 with a .073 ISO against right-handed sliders, and .212 with a .030 ISO against right-handed curveballs. He hit both fastballs and changeups above a .330 clip, but when a righty decided to throw a McNasty against McCann, he was a dead duck. While data this specific isn't available for his years in the minors, he has always struggled overall against right-handed pitchers, so it's a safe assumption to make that he's always had trouble with their breaking balls.Sliders have particularly been bad for McCann. Pitchers with great sliders that break low and away have eaten McCann up.
McCann's lack-of-bat is taking a toll on the Tigers lineup. In order to reverse this trend, he needs to restructure his approach so he can start elevating the baseball. While that change probably won't turn him into J.D. Martinez, it will at the very least allow him to be an extra-base threat. His problems against right-handed pitchers are probably here to stay. McCann's never had professional success against them, and it's incredibly hard to reverse that trend against the righties that pitch in the major leagues.
If the Tigers want to succeed as a team, and see McCann's numbers rise, they'll give the majority of the starts against right-handers to Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who can get on base and hit for power against them.