Detroit — He might be the perfect catching contradiction. Or, rather, the imperfect study.
James McCann’s early big-league profile was concise. A second-round draft pick from the University of Arkansas was a blessed defender and owned a fine throwing arm. It was the bat scouts had questions about.
Now, concerns drift more toward defense for a Tigers catcher, 27, who has begun his fourth season as the team’s starter.
In tandem with blocking and framing skills that appear to have diminished, a McCann paradox can be found even in his new, bulkier physique. During the offseason he added 15-20 pounds, 10 of which were pumped into his legs as a means, in McCann’s mind, to get stronger and add “mobility” to his catching base.
But is this helping?
He had a key passed ball in the ninth inning of Opening Day’s bizarre scrum that ended when the Pirates won, 13-10, in 13 innings.
One mistake is not an indictment. One mistake added to overall blocking and framing statistics, each of which is next-to-last among 110 big-league catchers during the past year, is alarming.
“He’s working on it,” said Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire, being careful as he assessed McCann’s defense ahead of Tuesday’s Tigers-Royals game at Comerica Park. “Receiving, and framing strikes — he’s been working hard.
“He’s just a big guy,” Gardenhire said of a 6-foot-2 man who is listed, conservatively, at 210 pounds. “It makes it more difficult. You have to work a little harder (on defense) than the small guys.”
Showed early promise
The Tigers have, of course, been aware that McCann’s defense at a wheelhouse position is not a plus.
It can be a baffling analysis. McCann was viewed during his days on the farm as being almost prototypical behind the plate. Great body and set-up. Everything square to the ground. Opposing scouts loved him. And so did the Tigers.
The arm is still first-class. If a pitcher gives him half a shot at throwing out an aspiring base thief — there often is the breakdown — McCann is a splendid bet to nail him.
But because a pitcher’s delivery time to home plate is key, stealing bases is something McCann can only partially control.
Other toolbox items belong exclusively to the man behind home plate. Smothering balls in the dirt is part of a big-league catcher’s job description. Framing pitches so that when they are gloved they give umpires the appearance of a strike is a finesse art McCann has not mastered.
According to data from one of baseball’s top research firms, Baseball Prospectus, only A’s catcher Jonathan Lucroy is worse than McCann at framing pitches, and only Wilson Ramos of the Nationals has a tougher time blocking pitches.
The Tigers have coaxed McCann on moving closer to the plate in a bid to help his framing, as well as his need to corral pitches that dive into the dirt.
“He’s working on it,” Gardenhire repeated, using a baseball manager’s No. 1 tribute. “It’s all a work in progress, blocking balls. But as long as he’s continued to work, I can live with that.”
McCann, in fact, has been laboring mightily to become that top-tier catcher the Tigers thought they were getting when they grabbed him, 76th overall, with their first pick in the 2011 draft.
“It’s the only position on the field where you can go 0-for-4 and still have the biggest effect on a game,” McCann said earlier this week.
“You don’t hear outfielders when they’re talking among themselves talk about defense. They’re talking hitting. Catchers talk about facets of catching.”
McCann did just that during offseason conversations with two of his brethren — Yadier Molina of the Cardinals and Cleveland’s Roberto Perez. They traded thoughts on the subtleties of a baseball job that is pure craft.
In was in that same spirit of self-help that McCann wore out the weight-machines during his autumn and winter tune-ups.
Another vignette, common to all catchers, played out Tuesday morning in front of his locker within the Tigers clubhouse as McCann burrowed into scouting reports on Royals hitters with that day’s starting pitcher, Matthew Boyd.
Boyd and the Tigers lost later that afternoon, 1-0, but the Tigers starter, who allowed only four Royals hits, twice made sure to say: “McCann called a great game.”
Calling a game is parlance for catchers deciding what pitch to throw a batter at a specific time. It’s a process that begins with the catcher and ends with the pitcher agreeing or disagreeing.
And because of his background, it is a sequence you would entrust wholly to McCann.
He not only was an all-A student growing up near Santa Barbara, California — he was virtually an all-life A student.
From kindergarten through college, when early on he was a pre-med student, he got one grade other than an A. It was a B. McCann needed 91 on a chemistry exam at Arkansas to have cradle-to-grave academic perfection. He instead had the gall to score 88.
McCann, in fact, could have stayed closer to home and played baseball at an intellectual epicenter known as Stanford University. But he needed a taste of America far beyond California, he concluded, and he got it when he signed to play for the Razorbacks and travel the Southeastern Conference’s corridors.
He is aware, as in sensitive to, critiques about his defense. He wants mightily to be a plus player there.
“This is something you enjoy,” he said of himself. “So you ask yourself, ‘How can I get better?’”
It was Steve Liddle, the Tigers’ new bench coach and longtime Gardenhire ally, who approached McCann during the offseason about moving closer to home plate.
“Yeah, it was something we kind of talked about as far as getting more strike calls,” said McCann, who knew he was earning some framed strikes at the top of the zone when he was deeper in the box, but losing the lower strike because of the way in which he was blocking the umpires’ vision.
“It’s at the bottom where I’ve been below-average. If you’re going to get that breaking-ball call consistently, you want to stay down.”
Frowning on framing stats
At the same time, he wonders if too much can be made of this framing fascination.
“I don’t think it’s a helpful stat,” he said. “There are too many variables.”
He mentions Tyler Flowers of the Braves. Flowers is, by Baseball Prospectus’ measurements, the most cunning framer of pitches in either league. McCann is 109th.
“But you’d never teach a young guy to catch like that — the way he drops his glove to the ground and comes up,” McCann said.
“Look at Salvador Perez and the Gold Gloves he’s won,” McCann continued, referring to the Royals catcher who is listed 107th in framing pitches, two spots ahead of McCann. “It’s an imperfect stat.”
Blocking pitches is not as arbitrary, and McCann vows his overall handiwork there will improve. That would be helpful when he had 10 passed balls last season, fifth among all catchers, although well beneath the 16 missed by both Yasmani Grandal of the Dodgers and the Yankees’ Sanchez.
“I’ve had one slip away,” he said, speaking of Opening Day’s miscue, “and that’s on me. But I feel good overall.
“I’ve had a few frustrations with myself. But it’s early.”
And, baby, it’s cold outside.
McCann knows the weather soon will warm. Maybe, he might agree, it will happen in concert with a man’s catching portfolio taking an upturn as he and the Tigers tinker away, making the most of what already has been a rugged 2018 baseball experience.
Best and worst
Where select players rank, by Baseball Prospectus, in 2017-18 in framing pitches and blocking pitches (110 catchers listed):
1. Tyler Flowers, Braves
10. Welington Castillo, White Sox
50. Wilson Ramos, Nationals
107. Salvador Perez, Royals
109. James McCann, Tigers
110. Jonathan Lucroy, Rockies/A’s
1. Caleb Joseph, Orioles
10. Salvador Perez, Royals
50. Jorge Alfaro, Phillies
108. Gary Sanchez, Yankees
109. James McCann, Tigers
110. Wilson Ramos, Nationals