The trade deadline has come and gone without the Detroit Tigers taking part in the action. With rising costs, limited resources, and key players returning from the disabled list, the lack of movement was probably the right choice for this team.
One trade that would have been interesting to see, however, was the acquisition of Jonathan Lucroy. I argued that the current tandem of James McCann and Jarrod Saltalamacchia is insufficient, and that the Tigers should look to upgrade. But with Lucroy moving to Texas, the front office has restated their confidence in their current duo.
On the whole, neither McCann nor Saltalamacchia has been overly impressive this season. Each has had their moments of important hits, but catcher is still the least effective spot in the batting order for the Tigers. Despite this, there is a simple way to improve these numbers without even making a roster move: utilizing a platoon.
The current situation
McCann’s first full season was nothing too spectacular, but it gave signs of promise; he hit .264/.297/.387 with seven home runs and an 85 wRC+. With the number of quality batters in the Tigers’ order, he came into 2016 with just modest expectations, but the first two months of the season fell significantly short. From April to May McCann hit .150 with just one home run. He struck out on over 31 percent of his plate appearances while walking less than five percent of the time, and he tallied a wRC+ of 1. One (100 is the average).
Meanwhile, Saltalamacchia enjoyed a better start to his Tigers’ career, seeing a decent amount of playing time with McCann spending a few weeks on the disabled list. Saltalamacchia homered seven times with an even 100 wRC+ in 140 plate appearances during April and May. He did feature a rough .191 batting average with a strikeout rate near 40 percent, but he managed an 11.3 percent walk rate to boost his on-base percentage.
Since then, McCann has been much better.
In June and July, McCann hit .238 while dropping his strikeout rate and raising his walks. His seven home runs matched his total from all of last season, and his 91 wRC+ was a much more respectable total. None of these numbers jump off the page, but they do show a positive progression. Meanwhile, Saltalamacchia has generally continued his pace from the first couple months. Since June he is behind McCann in average and homers but ahead with a 97 wRC+.
Understanding the splits
Manager Brad Ausmus has used both McCann and Saltalamacchia a fair amount throughout the season, but he might want to consider using a stricter platoon going forward. The right-handed McCann has been brutal against righties, while the switch-hitting Saltalamacchia does the majority of his damage against them, setting up a pretty simple strategy. McCann is hitting .165 against righties with one homer. He is hitting .266 against lefties with seven homers. Saltalamacchia has hit .211 against righties, homering nine times. Against lefties he hits just .167 with one home run.
To put it simply, McCann’s splits are a 138 wRC+ vs. lefties compared to a 4 wRC+ against righties. Saltalamacchia’s are a 116 wRC+ vs. righties and a 30 wRC+ against southpaws. While it is impossible to let McCann only hit against lefties and Saltalamacchia only against righties, utilizing a stricter platoon could be a huge improvement. Only five teams have gotten over 100 wRC+ from their catcher’s spot, and the Tigers currently sit at 73 wRC+. Using these two players correctly could easily move the Tigers' platoon toward the top of the list.
The Tigers have used both catchers almost equally in 2016, and it makes sense as to why. While Saltalamacchia has better overall numbers at the plate, the Tigers will certainly want to give the younger McCann plenty of opportunities to develop and progress going forward. Additionally, McCann's 53 percent caught stealing rate and positive pitching framing grade make him the better catcher defensively. At such a physically taxing position, off days will always be part of the rotation.
But the playing time distribution seems to be blind to the potential platoon advantages. Even if the Tigers made only marginal chances, the improvement from the position could be drastic. The more McCann is used against lefties and Saltalamacchia against righties, the better the bottom of the order will become. There is no real reason to not implement this strategy with the splits so pronounced. If utilized correctly, the Tigers' production from their catcher spot might be even better than it could of been by making a trade.