Henning: Tigers catcher McCann on his way to stardom

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

Lakeland, Fla. — Rain put a third-inning stop to Tuesday’s game at Marchant Stadium between the Tigers and Blue Jays. The wet stuff also rinsed away another base hit by James McCann.

He’s been getting a lot of those this spring. His batting average is .325 in 15 Grapefruit League games. His OPS is a trophy-winning .991, in large part due to a .650 slugging percentage forged by four doubles and three home runs.

A catcher in his second full season in the big leagues is on his way to becoming an All-Star. Give him some time, but McCann is on track.

He has the essential skills: a steady bat he has been swinging with more and more pop as his body has matured and gotten stronger. A bold throwing arm. An athletic approach behind the plate. A high-octane intellect seen in catchers who are deft at calling pitch sequences and harmonizing with their staff.

All that’s required for an All-Star ticket is for McCann to stay healthy and to develop at something near the pace he has been showing since the Tigers drafted him in 2011 following his junior year at Arkansas.

“His bat is really developing quickly at the major league level,” said David Chadd, the Tigers assistant general manager who drafted McCann. “He’s got all the qualities.”

Tigers hunch paying off

Four years ago, Joe McDonald, the former Tigers general manager who is one of the game’s best scouts, was asked for a thought on a Detroit prospect he had seen during his inspections of Florida State League players.

He mentioned, instantly, McCann, who then was playing his first full season of pro ball at Single A Lakeland.

Tigers’ Castellanos making defensive strides at third

This was not headline news. McCann had been the top Tigers pick in 2011, the 76th player drafted in a year when they had no first-round choice. He was 6-foot-2 and scouts thought he would move ably behind the plate even after he filled out.

Why he had lasted relatively deep into the draft was curious when big league catchers are gold. In fact, the scouts had questions, which began with his offense. Not all the bird dogs were sure he would hit enough to be more than a quality backup.

Others weren’t wild about his setup behind the plate. The Tigers decided his upside and makeup were too good to bypass, especially at a time when they had little catching depth beyond Alex Avila.

Their hunch was bang-on.

He hit .288 at Lakeland, .277 at Double A Erie, .295 at Triple A Toledo. If there were concerns, and Toledo skipper Larry Parrish was among the curious, McCann’s lack of power didn’t seem to jibe with a player so sturdy.

But later in 2014, when he was still at Toledo, the homers and 400-foot drives began to show up more regularly. He was called to Detroit and by last spring he was the new Tigers starter as Avila became a straight backup.

Plus, he’s a leader

Fans have adopted him. They see his talent. They particularly love something else about a Santa Barbara, Calif., kid and scholar who could have played at Stanford and who instead decided on an adventure far from beaches and palm trees.

Mention his name and Tigers fans glow like a full moon. They talk about the night last August when McCann and Jose Iglesias skirmished in Comerica Park’s dugout after McCann didn’t appreciate Iglesias’ approach to a ground ball.

If he had broken Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak, Comerica’s customers would have been no more thrilled. This moment, they said and have continued to say for seven months, was about that word “leadership.”

It makes fans swoon, this idea that something intangible and romantic could be working its magic on the Tigers roster.

In truth, it probably made for better theater than for better baseball, but tell that to folks who prefer their baseball with a dash of heroism.

To the credit of McCann, and Iglesias, who was only a few weeks from having played in the All-Star Game, nothing more was made of a spat a team took in stride.

McCann has since imposed upon himself a certain amount of pressure as he heads into his sophomore season. He had a nice rookie season, but he needs in 2016 to hit more than .264, with a .297 on-base percentage. He must get better, defensively, calling and framing pitches.

The difference with McCann is that he probably will be better. In all phases. He has the talent and a work capacity to match. And he has, well, ask Tigers fans about that other part.

They’ll talk about a night against the Red Sox at Comerica Park. It will be as if nothing else he did in 2015 mattered.