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McCann continues to build trust with pitching staff

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Chicago – — You see Justin Verlander on the mound, shaking off signs from catcher James McCann. You see him shaking him off again and then calling him out to the mound. You see the two talking to each other, gloves over mouths, and generally Verlander is more animated than McCann.

So you think, “Man, those guys are not on the same page.”

That’s not always the case. In fact, it’s rarely the case.

“A lot of times we’re switching up signs with a guy on second base,” McCann said. “Other times he’ll say, ‘Hey, this is what our game plan is, but do you think we should stick with it here? You think he adjusted?’ Or it’s, ‘I know we said no change-ups here, no change-ups or sliders to this guy, but I think we can throw one here. What do you think?’ ”

The point is, most mound visits are two-way conversations, not dissimilar to discussions over shot and club selection between a caddy and his golfer.

“For the most part, it’s just talking something through,” McCann said. “I know a lot of people think, ‘Oh, you’ve got to make a mound visit, obviously you aren’t on the same page; obviously you don’t know what you are doing back there.’

“The reality is, it’s more to make sure you talk something through. You may not be 100 percent on something or you don’t want to just have him shake, shake, shake.”

McCann cited an example of a situation in one of Michael Fulmer’s starts. McCann was certain the situation called for a fastball. He called for it and Fulmer shook him off. Called for it again, got shook off again. Finally, he called timeout and went to the mound.

“Hey, I don’t want to get beat with the change-up here,” he said, recalling what he said. “I don’t want to get beat with a slider. This is what I am thinking. He will say either, ‘Yeah, you are right,’ or ‘I really want to throw my slider here.’ Then I will say, ‘Well, then make it a good one.’

“That’s the conversation.”

Manager Brad Ausmus caught 18 seasons in the big leagues. He’s had his signs shaken off, been called to the mound and had his opinions disregarded by the best pitchers in the game.

“I never told a pitcher he had to throw a pitch,” Ausmus said. “Even if it was absolutely the wrong pitch. I would go out and ask, ‘What do you want to do right here?’ I’d give him my reasons for doing something else.

“If he wanted to stick with it, I’d tell him to make it a good one — even though I knew in my gut that if he threw it anywhere near the strike zone, it was going to get tattooed. And yet, there were times when that pitch would get him out.”

From the sound of it, McCann’s on-field relationship with Verlander was a lot like Ausmus’ relationship with Roger Clemens.

“It seems to happen with veteran pitchers,” Ausmus said. “Clemens used to call me out all the time. Sometimes I told him I’m not coming out. Major League Baseball warned us one time that we were having too many conversations. I said, ‘It’s not my fault; he keeps calling me out.’

“I’ve told Mac (McCann), if there is any doubt, go talk to him. I don’t care if they yell at you about going out. I would rather you be on the same page than have something screwed up because there was a miscommunication.”

Ausmus and Verlander both have commented this season about McCann’s growth in terms of game planning and calling games. But there is still a learning curve. It’s part of the reason Ausmus has been using the more experienced Jarrod Saltalamacchia to catch young pitchers Matt Boyd and Daniel Norris.

Saltalamacchia got the start with Michael Fulmer pitching Friday largely because the White Sox started right-handed pitcher Jacob Turner.

“He’s got the experience and experience is huge at that position,” Ausmus said. “With the exception of pitcher, it’s one position where experience can really affect the game. Salty’s experience helps Boyd’s inexperience.

“Mac will get to this point. In fact, he will probably get there quicker than Salty did. But the more you play at that position, the easier it is to grasp what the pitcher is thinking and trying to do, and also the easier it becomes to convince the pitcher to follow your lead.”

McCann understands it’s a long and gradual process. He witnessed how former Tigers catcher Alex Avila built his relationship with Verlander over a period of six years.

“It something that takes a long time to build up,” McCann said. “It’s something I am consistently trying to do, whether it’s by watching video with pitchers or just talking with them and going over scouting reports.

“Trust is hard to build and it’s easy to break, in baseball and in life. I take pride in making sure I cover all my bases and continue to try and build trust and develop those relationships.”