McCann grinds on: 'I am mentally strong enough'

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Detroit — It’s not that James McCann was wracked by self-doubt or anything like that. He’s struggled before and he knows he will struggle again. He’s committed to the process and to the grind.

Still, he very much needed to hear what coach Dave Clark told him the other day.

“You are a good player,” Clark told him. “Never lose sight of that.”

It was the equivalent of a warm bowl of chicken soup when you have a cold.

“Really, that’s the hardest part during a stretch like this,” McCann said. “You start to question things. Obviously, failure is a part of this game. But when you are failing more than you expect, it’s human nature for those thoughts to creep in.

“The best players are the ones who are able to prevent those thoughts.”

McCann is doing his level best. In fact, whatever self-doubt, whatever frustration he is dealing with internally, it’s not visible to his teammates or his manager.

“He doesn’t show a lot of stress,” manager Brad Ausmus said. “Even when he was struggling earlier in the season, he generally stays pretty positive. Which is good. That can be the hardest part.”

McCann was hitting .199 entering play Tuesday night. His on-base percentage was .249 with a .309 slugging percentage.

“This game will humble you quickly,” he said. “I feel overall, if you take out the first month after I came back (from missing a month with an ankle injury) after I made my adjustment, there are completely different numbers.”

McCann hit .154 in May after coming off the disabled list. At the end of May, acting on a suggestion from Angels slugger Albert Pujols, McCann altered his swing. He abandoned the high leg kick he’s used the last three seasons.

Since making the change, he’s hit .238 with a .286 on-base percentage. He’s also hit four of his five homers with the new swing. July has been rough for him so far. He took a 1-for-16 skid into the game Tuesday.

But he feels like he’s putting the barrel of the bat on the baseball more often, having better swings and better at-bats.

“As a hitter, that’s what you have to concern yourself with,” he said. “There are different ways to judge yourself. Obviously fans and media are going to point to the stats that are on the scoreboard, and at the end of the day, those really are the ones that matter.

“But for a player to stay sane, and for a player to be able to grind through when he’s going through it, that’s what you go off of — was it a quality at-bat, did I hit it hard, hit it on the barrel?”

This is his first prolonged slump in the big leagues, but he went through an even worse stretch in 2012 after he was promoted to Double-A Erie. He had a horrendous July and his average plummeted well below .200.

He got some much-needed affirmation then, too. This time it came from then-Tigers director of player development Dave Owen.

“I remember him telling me, ‘We’re not worried about it. Defense is what got you where you are. We know that you are going to hit. We’re not worried about it, so there’s no reason for you to worry about it,’ ” McCann said.

Once the calendar turned to August that year, McCann started to hit.

“I remember I had to hit like .280 in August to get my average over .200,” he said. “I mean, it was a real rough transition. But then I came back the next year and had a good year at Double-A. It was a big learning curve for me.

“It was the first time in my career I had to make an adjustment where I could see results over the course of time. It was a big learning experience.”

For him, the experience is applicable to his current struggles.

“As bad as what I am looking at now, and I would give anything to change those numbers, my numbers were even worse then,” he said. “I had to hit .280 just to get to .200.”

He has a lot more time now to turn it around, and he’s started feeling more comfortable with the swing change. He’s committed to the process.

“The saving grace for me, I know at my position, I am going to impact the game a whole lot more on the defensive side than I am on the offensive side,” he said. “Even on a day I go 3 for 4 with four RBIs, if I’m not doing my job defensively, I could easily neutralize what I produced offensively.

“I feel like through the course of my career I’ve been good at separating the offense and the defense. A catcher can’t carry it over, whether was a bad day at the plate or a good day at the plate.”

McCann’s defense remains exemplary. He is second in the American League, throwing out 55.6 percent of would-be base stealers.

“It’s not fun going through this,” he said. “But I know who I am as a player. I know who I am mentally and I know I am mentally strong enough to overcome it. I’ve said all along, let’s look up in September and see where it is.”

Twitter: @cmccosky