August 11, 2014 at 1:00 am

Finding power stroke could determine prospect James McCann's future with Tigers

Mud Hens catcher James McCann's batting philosophy: 'I just try not to think about (home runs). Consistent at-bats are what's important.' (Robin Buckson / Detroit News)

Toledo — During a game at Indianapolis last week, Toledo Mud Hens manager Larry Parrish and infielder Danny Worth were talking about catcher James McCann, who is having a breakout offensive year.

After McCann smashed a hard ground ball to shortstop, Parrish turned to Worth and said, “He’s starting to get the head (of the bat) there consistently. Now we’ve got to get him to hit it in the air.”

Worth, as Parrish relayed the story, said, “Well, he’s hitting .300.”

To which Parrish replied, “Yeah? So? This is what we try to tell you guys. When we are looking at guys for the Big Leagues, we are looking for production, not necessarily batting average.

“Batting average comes into play if you are a base stealer or a table setter. We want him to be a guy who clears the table.”

McCann is the Tigers’ best catching prospect. He is a 6-foot-2-inch, 210-pound, right-handed hitter, batting .310 with a .799 OPS with 31 doubles and 47 RBIs. In his last 28 games, he’s batted .403, with a .611 slugging percentage and a 1.034 OPS.

There are no debates about his defensive skills. He has thrown out 36 of 52 attempted base stealers and he handles the pitching staff like a 10-year veteran.

But the statistic that may ultimately determine whether McCann is the Tigers’ backup catcher of the future or eventual everyday catcher and heir apparent to Alex Avila is the home run category.

Through 88 games, he hit just two. But, he has hit two in the last four games, including one Saturday night.

“He’s capable,” Parrish said. “He’s physically strong. He’s in impeccable shape. But his swing is more of an inside-out, right-centerfield swing. All year we’ve been working with him to get the head of the bat to the ball. He’s starting to get the head there now, but he’s still having trouble hitting the ball in the air to left field.”

Watching him take batting practice Thursday at Fifth Third Field, there is some pop in his bat. He smashed one ball high off the big scoreboard behind the left field wall. But McCann, as you would expect from a guy hitting better than .400 over the past month, is reluctant to alter his hitting approach.

“I just try not to think about (home runs),” he said. “To me, consistent at-bats are what’s important, hitting the ball hard consistently. In time, the power will come. If I start worrying about the power, then it takes away from the consistent at-bats.

“The big thing is trying to stay consistent and work on what I’ve been working on. The doubles are there. The big thing is not trying to hit home runs. That affects the entire approach.”

That actually happened to him earlier in the season.

“It’s gone through stages,” Parrish said. “He got to trying to swing harder to hit the ball out, especially if he got ahead in the count. You’d see this big swing, but he never made contact with that swing. We had to get him mentally to think it’s not about swinging harder. It’s about getting that bat head out in front so that you are catching the ball at the apex of your power.

“That’s just the learning curve that he’s gone through.”

A point of reference: Cardinals perennial All-Star Yadier Molina didn’t find his power stroke until he was 29. In his first four minor league seasons, Molina hit just 14 home runs. McCann, 24, had 15 home runs in four minor-league seasons before Sunday.

“Yeah, Yadier wasn’t a big power guy when he got to the Majors, but over time, with the consistency of his swing and figuring things out, he was able to become a big-time hitter,” McCann said. “I understand. It’s not that my body frame doesn’t allow for (power) or my strength doesn’t allow for it. It’s just understanding my swing and what it takes to make it happen.

“A lot of people told me, you might not tap into your power until you are older and have been in the big leagues for a while. So just stay with a solid approach and try to hit the ball hard.”

Parrish said that instead of being a .300 hitter with four home runs, McCann would be better off hitting .270 with 20 home runs. McCann offered another alternative.

“I think you’d rather have a .280 to .300 hitter with 10 home runs than a guy who’s hitting .210 with five home runs continually trying to hit the ball out of the yard,” he said.

Parrish just shrugged.

“It’s a tough thing for a young player to understand,” he said. “Their whole life they’ve judged themselves that a good year was hitting .300. ... He’s hit a lot of doubles. If he could get the power numbers to make a jump, and the RBIs would go along with that, you are looking at a guy who could be an everyday catcher in the big leagues.”