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Healthy McCann aims to be 'tough out' for Tigers

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
Tigers catcher James McCann is looking to bounce back at the plate after dealing with an ankle injury last season.

Lakeland, Fla. – James McCann's forehead was slick with perspiration, an apt visual considering the work he is putting into his third full big-league season.

Especially on the hitting front. McCann isn’t revealing what his target numbers are for 2017, but he didn’t argue with a clubhouse visitor Monday who suggested a reasonable year for the Tigers starting catcher would be .265 with 15 home runs.

“That’s probably in the neighborhood,” McCann said following a mid-day sweat session ahead of Monday's 6:05 p.m. game against the Braves at Disney World.

“My goal, offensively, is to be a tough out. To move a runner ahead, or hit a sacrifice fly, and be a catalyst who can turn the batting order over to (Ian) Kinsler and those guys.”

A big-league starting catcher has so many chores in need of constant upgrading: defending the position, calling pitches, keeping an eye on runners, trying to establish like-minded approaches in cohesion with his pitcher.

And, oh yes: Try and be a weapon on offense, too, if you don’t mind.

They are not skills easily amassed, not quickly, and not in ways that gratify a man who is only 26 and who is still considered something of a newbie to the big-league catching galaxy.

McCann, though, understands he needs his bat to climb a gear or so in 2017 after he batted .221, with a light .629 OPS, and 12 home runs in 2016.

There’s a bit of an irony to McCann’s offense. When he hits a home run, it tends to be a 400-foot-plus rocket. His doubles (nine in 2016) can likewise be shots against a center-field or gap fence. But that might have been part of his issue in 2016.

Henning: Toughest cuts loom at TigerTown

“The power numbers will come,” said McCann, who was the Tigers’ top draft pick in 2011. “That’s not my job on this team.

“If anything, I think I got caught up last year in trying to hit the ball in the air. The philosophy of a lot of guys these days is to try and hit the ball in the air. But line drives turn into homers.

“When you barrel the ball on a line, you’re hitting it as well as you can. If it’s a tick below, the ball is going to carry. Again, I can’t be thinking about homers. I’ve got to be a tough out.”

McCann concedes he was dealing with another hassle last year. His right ankle. He sprained it the first week of the regular season and didn’t make it back until early May. McCann says the ankle influenced his balance and hitting stride for much, if not all, of 2016.

Now, it has healed “completely,” he said Monday. “Haven’t had any issues.”

McCann understands those better hitting numbers in 2017 must begin with swinging better against right-handed pitching. He batted .201 against righties in 2016, down a bunch from his rookie season in 2015, when he hit .247 against right-handers and .320 against lefties – all part of a heartening first year in the big leagues when he batted .264 overall.

“I think I’ve addressed some mechanical issues,” McCann said of his bad splits that he insists won’t be part of his long-term hitting profile.

But again, the ankle’s effects in 2016 are probably underestimated.

“It was my first time on the disabled list,” McCann said. “I’m sure I played with some soreness before in baseball, but nothing to that degree. I was talking to (Justin) Verlander about it, and like he said: This game is hard enough to compete in when you’re healthy, let alone when you’re hurt.”

But the ankle is last year’s news. And so, McCann believes, are those lightweight hitting digits. He’s feeling good in 2017 – about his ankle, and about his potential to help lift the bottom end of manager Brad Ausmus’ batting order.

Twitter: @Lynn_Henning