McCann shaping up as grade-A catch for Tigers

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
James McCann is hitting .250 (2-for-8) in three games this season.

Lakeland, Fla. – One class. One lousy class kept James McCann from acing his academic life.

Blame it on biology, his freshman year at the University of Arkansas, when McCann, who is the new Tigers catcher alongside Alex Avila, needed a score of 90 for an "A" and instead pulled 88.9.

It was the only non-A grade he has received in any class, at any school, kindergarten through college, in a 24-year-old man's classroom experience.

"I studied non-stop," McCann said Monday, speaking in the Tigers' clubhouse after the Braves had beaten Detroit, 4-2, at Marchant Stadium. "I worked at it. I'd study sometimes till 2 or 3 in the morning."

This push to be magna cum laude, in classes or on the baseball diamond, is a trait the Tigers have appreciated since they made McCann their top draft pick in 2011. He has a reputation for doing State Department-grade analysis on opposing hitters as part of his game preparation.

It factors into defense and pitch-calling the Tigers always thought would be the guts of his big-league game. That he has developed polish as a hitter (.371 in Grapefruit League games) is the big reason McCann beat out Bryan Holaday as Avila's catching alternate.

Future plans

Ausmus acknowledged Monday what for months has been clear. McCann, who bats right-handed, could work as more of a shared-time option for the Tigers. Avila bats left-handed, but with an overload of right-handed starters in the big leagues, a player with McCann's potential can be more than a platoon option.

"Alex will get more playing time, "Ausmus said, "but he (McCann) has to see some right-hand pitching, as well."

James McCann's weighted on-base average puts him among some on the top hitting catchers in the AL.

Left unsaid is another roster reality the Tigers face and McCann protects against. Avila will be a free agent this autumn. Even if he were to have a gold-star season on offense, Avila would be expensive to re-sign.

McCann, who is under club control for the next five seasons, is a more affordable and, potentially, a more consistent two-way player than Avila, although that assessment is a long way from being conclusive.

McCann is 6-foot-2, 225 pounds, and already has had a taste of Detroit. The Tigers included him in their September call-ups last season. It was a chance for McCann to see how the big-league stage differs, especially for a hitter.

"The big thing was how you have to make adjustments pitch to pitch," McCann said. "You see with guys like Miggy (Miguel Cabrera) that they're not adjusting after one or two at-bats. It's pitch to pitch. It's fastball to slider. Slider to change-up.

"During the offseason, I knew I had to get mentally stronger to handle those adjustments. You can't think about the next pitch, or the pitch prior. It's the pitch in that moment. I think it has made me freer as a hitter. I'm doing more reacting, rather than guessing."

The Tigers had no first-round pick in 2011 (forfeited after signing Victor Martinez) but ended up snaring McCann with the 76th overall pick.

"We always thought his defense would carry him," said David Chadd, who directs the Tigers' amateur scouting. "It was just a matter if he'd hit. The player development staff deserves a lot of credit for working on his swing and his approach.

"But one thing I was certain about with James McCann: He was a leader. The tools were all there. Then when you took his work ethic, and his ability to handle pitching, it put him over the top."

Separation factor

McCann is a native Californian, raised in Santa Barbara. He picked Arkansas over prime-time schools (Rice, notably) that were as intrigued by McCann's academics as by his baseball skills.

Hitting the books came so naturally to him that boning up on hitters' tendencies and a pitcher's ideal sequence for throwing particular pitches has been for McCann one more exercise in academics.

"For me, that's kind of the person I am," said the former Arkansas pre-med major who shifted to communications when baseball interfered with too many lab semesters.

"On the field, I want to have all the knowledge I can have. I was told, as a young player, 'That's what will separate you.'

"I've definitely been blessed. But, at the same time, I've worked at it."

Now he'll work as Avila's co-pilot at catcher. A year from now? Not only is McCann expected to be on Detroit's Opening Day roster. Chances are good he'll be the Opening Day catcher.