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Tigers’ James McCann has joined the fly ball revolution

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Forget about his low batting average and enjoy the fireworks.

MLB: Boston Red Sox at Detroit Tigers Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

You’re forgiven if you aren’t quite sure what to make of Detroit Tigers catcher James McCann so far in 2017. A quick glance at his numbers could fill one with horror. Or excitement. Either extreme is arguably an acceptable reaction. Only by looking pretty deep into his statistics and metrics does a clearer picture start to emerge.

With about a fifth of the season gone, McCann has seven home runs, good for a three-way tie for first among all catchers. Yet McCann’s batting average sits at a meager .195 on the year. To many observers, a batting average below the Mendoza line is an indicator that not only is McCann failing to improve in his third major league season, but that he doesn’t belong above Triple-A ball.

Some of us, myself included, are excited about the home runs and what they portend. There’s a revolution going on in the game at the moment. Hitters without the speed to capitalize on simply putting the ball in play, are recognizing that selling out for power is the best way to remain productive offensive weapons. Players like Yonder Alonso of the Oakland A’s, or Daniel Murphy and Ryan Zimmermann of the Washington Nationals are quickly becoming the poster boys for the importance of adding heavy doses of fly balls into their batted ball profile to hit for more power. From this point of view, there’s reason to believe that McCann is onto something and another convert to the fly ball revolution. Let’s see if we can unpack the deeper story within the numbers.

BABIP

First, let’s take a look at how real those numbers are. Early season statistical anomalies are always fraught with sample size issues. However you look at the game, a batting average as low as McCann’s isn’t going to work over the long haul. Likewise, McCann probably isn’t going to continue to hit home runs at quite the rate he has so far. More home runs are great, but it’s a little early to predict say, a 30 home run campaign.

Currently, McCann’s batting average on balls in play (BABIP) stands at .160, compared to a career mark of .291. Obviously, more of his non-home run balls will drop in over the long haul. So far he has been almost ludicrously unlucky in this regard. His line drive rate is actually up around six percent from last year, and yet far less balls have dropped in than they should. The league average BABIP for this year is .293, and it’s reasonable to suggest McCann’s numbers will eventually stabilize right around that mark as the year progresses. His low batting average is most definitely a fluke as Statcast’s expected batting average and wOBA confirm.

Statcast Expected BA/wOBA

Season BA xBA wOBA xwOBA
Season BA xBA wOBA xwOBA
2017 0.195 0.251 0.333 0.399

McCann is hitting more balls in the air this season, and that may marginally hurt his batting average over the long haul. Fly balls don’t drop in as often as line drives or ground balls do, resulting in lower BABIPs. Still, his current five percent increase in fly ball rate isn’t going to hurt his average too much. McCann is striking out in five percent fewer plate appearances as well. Should he maintain that, it will balance out the potential decrease in batted ball luck caused by a higher fly ball rate.

Obviously, another key with McCann revolves around his substantial splits. While his discipline improvements even include his numbers against right-handed pitching — he has walked over 13 percent of the time against them — he is still a lefty masher to the extreme. As such, his overall numbers will depend in large part on Alex Avila’s health, and manager Brad Ausmus’ ability to protect him from facing an overwhelming dose of right-handed pitching. So far, that hasn’t happened. But with Avila playing a lot of first base in Miguel Cabrera’s absence, it’s far too early to have a bead on how that will play out over the full season.

That brings us to the power surge. This is where we’re seeing a distinct change, and in the end, will probably determine whether McCann can do more damage with the bat than we’ve seen in his first two seasons in the majors.

James McCann Statcast Data

Season FB% Avg Exit Velo Avg Launch Angle FB Exit Velo FB Launch Angle
Season FB% Avg Exit Velo Avg Launch Angle FB Exit Velo FB Launch Angle
2016 vs RH 37.2 86.9 14.4°
2016 vs LH 47.4 88.6 17.4°
2017 vs RH 41.7 88.5 14.1° 94.6 mph 35.7°
2017 vs LH 52.9 92.1 25.1° 96.4 mph 38.7°

McCann is hitting the ball harder against all pitchers. He’s also hitting more fly balls against all pitchers. But against lefthanders, those improvement are especially dramatic. We don’t have fly ball specific data from 2016, but the average exit velocity on his fly balls in either case is quite good as well.

To put it simply, McCann isn’t hitting flukey home runs. He’s hitting more fly balls and hitting the ball harder overall. That’s a combination that should continue to produce more home run power throughout the year. The most positive sign overall is the simple average exit velocities. According to Statcast, that’s a metric that stabilizes quickly and is generally sustainable. It’s not a guarantee, of course, but signs all point to a positive trend that should produce better power numbers.

If there’s a drawback to watch for, it’s the possibility that adding fly balls will come at the expense of line drives. So far that isn’t the case. He’s cut into his ground ball rate instead, which is ideal. There’s also the possibility that the slight change in swing path and approach could hurt McCann’s average, though certainly not anything like the flukey number he has posted so far. A key indicator to watch for may be in his pop-up rate. So far, he hasn’t hit a single one, but a spike there could indicate that things have gone too far, and the attempt to drive more balls in the air is starting to diminish the overall quality of contact McCann is producing.

Hitting isn’t as simple as this, of course. Should McCann’s pop-up rate spike back above his career norms, or the fly balls become high, lazy flyball outs, that would be the sign that he has gone too far in trying to launch the ball out of the park. Possibly he might start swinging at too many balls high in the zone in the process. So far, however, all signs are clear for takeoff.

More balls that aren’t home runs are going to start dropping in. You can count on McCann’s average improving even with no adjustments from him. Ideally, the Tigers will get both that extra power and a batting average similar to his career numbers. If he can continue to sustain his improved walk rate as well, that would really be the cherry on top. But until we have a little more data to go on, just enjoy the dingers.