Breaking through: McCann's shorter swing brings big results
Arlington, Texas — James McCann, as part of his daily game preparations, puts together scouting reports with very detailed heat charts on all the hitters his pitcher will face that day. The charts show the hitters’ swing-and-miss rate and batting averages — hot and cold zones — for each quadrant of the plate.
So, when McCann was in the depths of his own hitting woes earlier this season, manager Brad Ausmus thought it would be beneficial to show McCann his own heat chart. It was revealing, to say the least.
“I showed him and he could see how much he was swinging and missing balls up in the zone that he was trying to lift,” Ausmus said. “He was like, ‘Oh, OK.’ I showed him the charts from 2014, 2015, 2016 and this year, showing how much he’d changed and how much he was swinging and missing up top.
“I think it kind of hit home with him, because he was so used to doing those charts on other hitters, it was easy for him to see. He was like, ‘Well, I know how I’d pitch me.’”
It’s been a gradual, arduous process, overseen by hitting coaches Lloyd McClendon and Leon “Bull” Durham, and it’s involved countless hours in the cage. It’s also involved him moving back off the plate, choking up on the bat and shortening his swing.
But McCann is back to hitting line drives, gap to gap. Since July 16, he’s hit .364, the highest average of any catcher in baseball since that point. He had hit safely in 19 of 22 games entering play Monday, including a career-best 14-game hitting streak.
His on-base percentage is .395 with a .915 OPS over those 22 games. He’s raised his average from .199 to .254.
“The simple answer is I shortened my swing,” McCann said. “I know it wasn’t on the forefront of my mind, but subconsciously I was trying to do more. I was trying to hit the ball in the air.”
McCann, going back to when he was in Double-A and Triple-A, has fought the notion that he was a power hitter. His whole mission then was to hit line drives, put the barrel on the ball and produce hard contact. Home runs would come organically.
But here he was, gripped by a lingering, frustrating slump that’s lasted more than a year, and suddenly it looks like he’s trying to launch balls to the moon.
“I did everything I could to not let it mess with me (mentally),” he said.
Consider all that he was going through at that time. He had lost his starting catcher’s spot to Alex Avila, who was on a torrid offensive pace the first three months of the season. He was basically only starting against left-handed pitching.
And he had been fighting this thing for a year and a half.
“He was coming to or he was at a crossroads,” Ausmus said. “It had been over a year that we’d been watching the same swing with mediocre at best results. He wasn’t hitting enough that you felt good running him out there.”
The one thing he was doing at the plate was hitting home runs. He hit a career-best 12 in an injury-plagued year in 2016, and he hit eight in the first three months of the season, when he was in full scuffle mode.
He wasn't consciously trying to launch balls in the air, but that’s exactly what he was doing. And it wasn’t a recipe for success.
“I can tell you I wasn’t stepping into the box trying to hit the ball in the air,” he said. “I wasn’t buying into the fly ball revolution. But did my swing get to the point where that might’ve been happening? Maybe. Maybe.
“But you go watch my batting practice right now and I don’t want to hit home runs in batting practice. I want to hit line drives — the kind that Lloyd calls penetrating line drives that turn into home runs when you just miss underneath it.”
McCann said he did all he could not to press mentally during the time he was relegated to backup status behind Avila. He continued to work. He continued to be a good teammate and remain a positive presence in the clubhouse.
“That being said, it’s human nature to press,” he said. “It’s human nature to try to do more when things are going bad. It’s such a results-oriented game. The big thing was, when Alex was so hot, just stay patient and don’t let the negatives outweigh the positives. Find a way to take a positive out of each day, even if you didn’t play.”
He fully understood why he wasn’t playing. He just hoped he’d get another shot at reclaiming his starting role.
“I know how it works,” he said. “When a guy is hot you don’t put him on the bench. It’s not like there wasn’t a reason why he was playing and I wasn’t. It was very apparent. I want to win, so you go with the hot hand, obviously.
“But it was similar to my rookie year. I put in the work and when my name was called, be ready to go.”
With the shorter swing, he’s back to making more contact, especially with two strikes. Before the All-Star break, he was striking out 25 percent of his plate appearances. Since the break, he’s cut that to 16 percent.
“This is the hitter I envisioned him to be,” Ausmus said. “He’s done a really nice job of righting the ship, along with Bull and Mac.”
McCann, while pointing to the shorter swing and better understanding of what pitches he needs to lay off of, said the unsung facet of his turnaround is confidence.
“That's something that doesn’t get talked about," he said. "You string a couple of good games together and all of a sudden you go 0-for-4 and it’s, ‘Well, I got four hits in the last two days.’
“As opposed to when you’re 0-for-4, 0-for-3, 0-for-4. Then it’s like, “Gosh darn it, I need to get a hit.’”
Don’t think for a minute he’s taking this hot streak for granted, though.
“The thing about baseball, the reason we love it and hate it — as soon as you think you’ve got something figured out, as soon as you think you’re on top of the world, this game is going to knock you down,” he said. “There is no other sport that’s going to humble you like this game will.”
He’s living proof.