Tigers’ McCann out to show sophomore slump was anomaly

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Lakeland, Fla. — You would be hard-pressed to find anybody on the baseball side of the Tigers organization who doesn’t think James McCann is going to be a productive big-league hitter.

“I’ve said before, I think he’ll hit 15 to 20 homers,” manager Brad Ausmus said over the winter. “I’d like to see him cut down on the strikeouts and I’ve talked to him about this. Especially hitting towards the bottom of the lineup — shorten up and put the ball in play.

“I think that’s where you will see the most dramatic change for him. I think you’ll see him cut down on his strikeouts this year. I still think he will be a good offensive catcher.”

After hitting .264 his rookie season, McCann fell to .221 last season, slugging just .358 and striking out nearly 30 percent of his plate appearances (29.2).

There were mitigating circumstances. He suffered a severe ankle injury in early April and though he only missed three weeks, it hampered him all season.

“I felt like I was really locked in last spring,” McCann said Monday, after hitting a crisp round of batting practice on the back fields. “I never really found it after the ankle injury.”

He didn’t push his batting average over .200 until June 21. And yet, it wasn’t a completely lost year offensively. From June 21, he hit .234 with eight home runs and 30 RBIs. He finished with 12 home runs and 48 RBIs on the year.

He did his best work in clutch situations. He hit .313 with two outs and runners in scoring position, knocking in 20 runs. He batted 20 times with a runner at third and two outs and produced six hits, two home runs and 13 RBIs.

Needless to say, McCann found little solace in that slight silver lining. He’s devoted the bulk of his offseason to, if not redefining himself as a hitter, then at least making himself a much more consistent offensive threat.

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“I watched a lot of film and made a few changes,” he said. “I’ve been out here early hitting with Lloyd and Bull (hitting coaches Lloyd McClendon and Leon “Bull” Durham) and I really like where I’m at right now.”

McCann would only speak in general terms about the changes he’s incorporated. He’s standing more upright in the batter’s box and he has, at least for now, quit the leg kick.

“I’m just trying to simplify things,” he said. “I did a lot of self-evaluation in the offseason and I talked to Lloyd a little during the offseason. We’ve come to camp on the same page and we’ve had a real good first week together.”

McCann went back and forth with the leg kick last season, and seemed to have his best results when, on a suggestion from Angels’ slugger Albert Pujols, he incorporated it in his swing.

“No leg kick right now,” he said. “That’s not to say it won’t come back. But it’s one of those things where consistency is most important. I am just trying to get into my legs. Leg kick or no leg kick, you still have to get into your legs.”

McCann’s strikeout rate in five minor league seasons was 18 percent. Strikeouts weren’t an issue his rookie season in the big leagues, either (21 percent). So, last year may have been an anomaly in that regard.

McCann, though, isn’t treating it as such.

“It was really the first year I struck out at the rate that I did,” he said. “But I am only looking forward to this year. I think some of the changes I’ve made will impact that area directly.”

From the sound of it, McCann may be taking a page out of Ian Kinsler’s book. Two years ago, Kinsler, striving to put the ball in play and get on base more consistently, broke his swing down to the basics, shortened it up and hit 21 points higher in 2015. Then last year, more confident and comfortable with the swing changes, he turned it loose and hit 28 home runs, 17 more than he did the previous year.

So if McCann has to sacrifice some power for more consistent contact, at least in the short-term, he’s willing to do that.

“It’s just an approach, honestly,” McCann said. “With two strikes, you are not trying to hit the ball out of the ballpark. It may happen, but with two strikes, and especially with runners in scoring position, your job is to put the ball in play.

“Put the barrel on the ball; good things happen when you do.”

That may end up being the mantra of spring for the hitters.