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James McCann could be poised for a breakout season in 2018

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An adjustment in his swing has him making harder contact than before

Cleveland Indians v Detroit Tigers Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images

Tigers fans have been waiting for a breakout season from James McCann ever since he became the everyday catcher in 2015. To this point, however, all he has shown is flashes of promise and an above average throwing arm. Now the Tigers are hoping to see him breakout offensively, and adjustments he made last season might prove to be the big turning point he needed.

In some ways the McCann of 2017 was the same as he’d been since arriving in the big leagues: the 6.6 percent walk rate (compared to the 6.2 rate he put in 2016), or the 30 percent caught steal rate that gave him the nickname “McCannon.” In other areas there was some improvement, such as the decrease in strikeouts (22.8 percent compared to the 29.2 percent in 2016), and the increase in power (.162 ISO compared to .137 ISO in 2016). Overall, though, it was an underwhelming season, with a below average 94 wRC+ and a 1.5 fWAR.

McCann had a horrible first half of the season last year, hitting a mere .201/.282/.416 with a .210 BABIP. However, the batted ball data tells a different story. McCann’s hard hit percentage was a staggering 43.6 percent in the first half. When a player hits the ball hard that often and they do not fall in for hits, that’s just plain dumb luck. What’s even more astonishing is that a significant percentage (69 percent) of those hard hit balls were line drives. There’s a big correlation in line drives and hard hit percentages and batting average, but McCann’s BABIP on line drives the first half was .607, which is a pretty low number for that batted ball type.

James McCann batted ball data

Time frame BABIP LD% Hard Hit%
Time frame BABIP LD% Hard Hit%
First half 0.210 26.6% 43.6%
Second half 0.359 29.3% 34.4%
FanGraphs.com

Now the second half of the season showed a modest increase in line drive rate, 29.3 percent, while his hard hit rate dropped to 34.4 percent. However, notice the vast increase in BABIP to .359. This shows a more accurate portrayal of what a BABIP should look like considering the high line drive and hard hit rates. And it is no coincidence his batting line resulted in a much better .291/.345/.414.

One of James McCann’s biggest issues has always been against right-handed pitchers, and it was again in 2017 when he hit .234/.296/.355 against them. However, his advanced metrics were not all fueled by hitting well against left handed pitching.

James McCann against right handed pitchers

Year LD% Hard Hit%
Year LD% Hard Hit%
2015 22.6% 24.6%
2016 19.9% 27.0%
2017 27.5% 38.0%
FanGraphs.com

Against right handers, James McCann had a 27.5 percent line drive rate and a 38 percent hard hit rate, very close to numbers against left handed pitching (29.5 percent line drive rate and 38.6 percent hard hit rate). McCann was able to increase his line drive rate against right handed pitching by 7.6 percent from 2016 and his hard hit rate by 11 percent, which is a significant amount. Again, his second half numbers showed better results, .277/.327/.405 versus right handed pitching.

Overall, James McCann’s BABIP at the end of the year was an even .300, with a line drive rate of 28.2 percent and a hard hit rate of 38.2 percent. With 391 plate appearances, it is not a small sample size. In fact, among players with at least 350 plate appearances, McCann ranked second only to Jon Jay in line drive rate.

2017 BABIP and line drive rates

Player BABIP LD%
Player BABIP LD%
Jon Jay 0.368 29.0%
James McCann 0.300 28.2%
Daniel Murphy 0.341 27.6%
Alex Avila 0.382 27.6%
Domingo Santana 0.363 27.4%
FanGraphs.com

One player looks out of place here, and that’s McCann. Everyone else has a mid-to-high BABIP to go along with their high line drive rates. But McCann is sitting with a low .300 BABIP and a 28.2 percent line drive rate. It doesn’t make much sense.

James McCann made great strides to become better at the plate in 2017, even if the efforts were not immediately noticeable. The first half of the season can be written off as a fluky, bad luck situation. The second half of the year, where many Tiger fans stopped paying attention, shows a much truer picture in what to expect from a high line drive/contact rate player.

Players typically do not suddenly change their batted ball data unless they have made some sort of adjustment. Look at J.D. Martinez as an example. His last year in Houston, he had a 33.6 percent hard hit rate. Then he made an adjustment, and his hard hit rate has been above 40 percent ever since. That is not to say James McCann will turn into J.D. Martinez, but a similar kind of jump has happened (33.9 hard hit rate to 38.2 percent).

If his improvement is the result of an adjustment, one can assume that it can be repeated in the following years. Just like McCann’s second half numbers, the good results should also be there going forward.