Hard-working McCann continues growth at, behind plate

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

This is the fourth day of a series that previews the 2017 MLB season. Today: Detroit Tigers position players.

Lakeland, Fla. — If you are looking to get a few minutes of time with Tigers catcher James McCann on a typical spring training work day, well, good luck.

His day will start between 5:30 and 6 a.m. He will get a workout in, take some early swings in the cage or put the gear on, head out to a field or to the batting cage and work on blocking balls in the dirt with bullpen coach Mick Billmeyer. Many days he does both.

Tigers catcher James McCann says he’s learned to be “a little more creative” when it comes to pitch-calling.

He’s got his own throwing regimen to look after. There are bullpens to catch, video work to do, scouting reports to prepare, meetings with pitchers who will be throwing that day — all of that before the team hits the field for pregame warmups, drills and batting practice.

“I don’t know if there’s anybody who works any harder,” manager Brad Ausmus said. “Sometimes it’s to his own detriment.”

The Tigers last season finally convinced McCann to go easy on the weights, especially before games. He was getting too big and losing mobility. But, as for curbing his work ethic? That’s not happening.

“I don’t think it’s possible to work too hard,” he said.

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When you look for ways the Tigers can grow from within, look no further than behind the plate. McCann will be the first to tell you he has room to grow in terms of pitch-framing, pitch-calling, and, especially offense — all items prominent on his off-season to-do list.

He’s altered his batting stance slightly and his approach more so. Even though he hit a career-best 12 home runs in just 105 games last year, he struck out 109 times, a career-high 29.2 percent. That’s not going to cut it with him, and he’s taken steps (shortened swing, better two-strike approach) to put more balls into play.

“It’s just an approach, honestly — with two strikes you’re not trying to hit the ball out of the ballpark,” he said. “It may happen. But with two strikes, especially with a runner in scoring position, your job is to put it in play. Put the barrel on the ball and good things will happen when you do.”

McCann, embarking on his third year as the Tigers primary catcher, sat down with News beat writer Chris McCosky to discuss the upcoming season.

Tigers catcher James McCann fields a throw during home-plate drills during a workout in February in Lakeland, Florida.

Q. The club decided to make another run with this nucleus of players, banking on health and growth from within. Do you feel you some responsibility there, on both fronts?

A. “Absolutely. First and foremost, the experience I’ve gained the last two years will help a lot, as far as the defensive side of things — calling a game, understanding game management, the relationships I’ve built with these pitchers over the years. And offensively, I’ve been around the league now for two years. I’ve seen different (pitchers). I’ve had some success and I’ve had some failures. I’ve been able to sit back and look: How have I been able to have success and why have I failed.

“It’s a game of adjustments and it’s constant, regardless of who you are. Whether you are a 15-year veteran or you are a rookie, you are constantly making adjustments. It’s part of the learning curve for a young player.”

Q. Have you settled into your mechanics and approach at the plate? Do you think you have a better handle now on what kind of hitter you think you can be at this level?

A. “Yeah, I think I’ve definitely come to a better understanding of who I am. Especially for this team and the type of lineup we have and who I need to be regardless of where I hit in the lineup. I will run into my home runs. But I am a guy who needs to hit my doubles and have solid at-bats so we can turn the lineup over to (Ian) Kinsler, Nick (Castellanos) and Miggy (Cabrera).”

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Q. Part of the learning curve you talked about, right?

A. “Learning who you are as a hitter. I remember at one point in my career, I was in Double A, and Al Kaline said it takes over 1,000 at-bats before you truly know who you are — and that’s 1,000 at-bats in the minor leagues. Then you need another 1,000 at-bats when you get to the major leagues. You really don’t know who you are until you’ve had your fair share of facing pitchers.”

Q. Your high strikeout rate last year was confusing, since whiffs had never been part of your resume. Do you consider last year an anomaly in that regard?

A. “I’ve never been a guy who struck out at the rate I did last year. And that’s something I’ve addressed pretty well. I don’t even know what my numbers are this spring (11 strikeouts in 45 at-bats on March 27), but I know I’m making contact and I’m making good contact.”

Q. Cutting down on strikeouts has been an emphasis this spring with hitting coach Lloyd McClendon and manager Brad Ausmus, hasn’t it?

A. “I remember Mac setting me down and saying, ‘I don’t care what your numbers are during the spring, but you are going to see a difference as far as the kind of contact you’re making.’ And that’s been the case so far.”

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Q. In terms of pitch-calling, you are very meticulous with scouting reports. Ausmus has talked about this, how he showed you his method for making up reports and you’ve kind of taken it and ran. There is a double-edged sword there, though, where you can be over-reliant on the report and don’t trust what you see in-game. Do you feel you can improve in that regard?

A. “That’s something I’ve worked on this spring. I am real big on reports and having a foundation going into a game. At times I may have in the past gotten — I don’t want to say too reliant — but I used the reports as a rule. They are guidelines. It’s something I worked on a lot — not being so by the book. Also, being a little more creative in pitch-calling.

“It’s something we’ve had success with this spring with (Matthew) Boyd and (Daniel) Norris and we take that moving forward into the season.”

Q. We’re talking about reading swings, right?

A. “That’s the whole key. The other thing, too, I’m a hitter. I step in the box and I think along with the pitcher and catcher, as well. As a catcher, you have to realize the hitter is thinking right along with me. Sure, we may have just set up an 0-2 slider right here, but if he’s thinking 0-2 slider, can we sneak a fastball in. That’s the cat-and-mouse game.”

Q. Can you see yourself having a breakout season similar to what Nick Castellanos had going last year before his injury?

A. “Yeah, that’s my goal. That’s what you wish for every year. My average was good my first year. My power numbers were up last year. Hopefully I can put them together and have a great year. But at the end of the day, I know two things I can do to help this team win:

“One is manage a game as a catcher, pitch-calling and all of that. And two, be a tough at-bat. Whether that translates into home runs or doubles or whatever it is, wherever I am in the order I need to be a tough out.”

Q. In terms of putting the ball in play more often? Better situational hitter?

A. “Just be the guy who, we’ve got a runner at second and no outs, move him to third. We’ve got a runner at third and less than two outs, drive him home. Just being that complete hitter. Whether that translates into home runs, I couldn’t care less. Just being that catalyst at the bottom of the order whose not afraid to give up at-bats to move a guy to third or drive in a run when it’s there.”