Like many young players, James McCann has seen mixed results early on in his career. After just nine appearances in 2014, the Detroit Tigers essentially handed over the catcher position to McCann in 2015, where he almost doubled the plate appearances of backup Alex Avila. His 85 wRC+ and 1.0 fWAR that season were far from impressive, but they beat out the numbers of Avila, earning him the right to start again in 2016.
Avila was swapped out for Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who at times showed signs of brilliance, but ultimately ended with just 69 wRC+ and 0.1 fWAR. Unfortunately for the Tigers, McCann’s numbers were not much better at 66 wRC+ and 0.8 fWAR. Nevertheless, the young catcher spent his second season in the majors again with the majority of the playing time at the position.
Year three is not a make-or-break season for McCann, who is under contract for three more seasons and without significant competition present. Regardless, early results brought optimism, as McCann recorded 87 wRC+ through May. A trip to the disabled list sidelined him for a couple weeks, but apparently did not slow him down. Since returning in early June, McCann is enjoying one of the best stretches in his career. A .304/.364/.506 line has resulted in 131 wRC+.
For the first time in three seasons, McCann has not been leading Tigers’ catchers in plate appearances, but with Avila traded he will likely see a bump in playing time. While this gives him a chance to showcase his ability, it ultimately may not be for his benefit.
Total package or one-trick pony?
The biggest factor affecting McCann’s success has been pitcher handedness. He entered this season batting .228 with 52 wRC+ against right-handers compared to .283 and 132 wRC+ against left-handers. With just over 30 percent of his at bats coming against southpaws, it is not surprise that his overall numbers were uninspiring.
This trend continued into 2017, with McCann seeing lefties only 25 percent of the time, but hitting them much better than righties (198 wRC+ vs. 49 wRC+). However, upon returning from the disabled list, he began to see a much different mix of pitchers.
Since the start of June, McCann has totaled 88 plate appearances, with 41 of them against left-handers. At almost 47 percent, this rate is far greater than the previous numbers in his career. He has fully taken advantage of this change, recording 170 wRC+ against left-handers and also producing an elevated 90 wRC+ against right-handers.
Of course, 88 plate appearances is not a huge sample, but a career 145 wRC+ against lefties is not something to overlook. His recent surge could simply be a hot streak, but perhaps it could be due to his usage as well. An increase in favorable pitching matchups would obviously be great for his overall numbers, but maybe it would help his approach against right-handers as well.
Knowing when to deploy
The Tigers have a couple of months to experiment with McCann, but are unlikely to do so. With backup catcher John Hicks also hitting from the right side of the plate, they cannot mix and match against opposing pitchers are easily as they could when Avila was on the roster.
Even so, manager Brad Ausmus has never committed to a full-time platoon situation behind the plate during McCann’s tenure, as evidenced by his righty/lefty plate appearance split. For whatever reason, this is not a strategy that the Tigers desire to employ. Throughout his career, McCann has played more games than has sat, resulting in a healthy amount of appearances against right-handers.
Treating McCann as the true starter this does make sense, but over two years into the experiment it seems unlikely he will ever produce enough at the plate to be an offensive weapon. His numbers firmly place him near the bottom of the lineup, and his defense is not significant enough to counterweight this mediocrity.
Still, McCann is good enough to be more than a batter who only faces lefties, and it would be in the Tigers’ best interest to find what this optimal utilization would look like. The next two months count for very little in the standings, but they provide an opportunity for both McCann and the team to figure out how to use him best.