The latest edition of the Tigers Show features fallout from the trade deadline and the Hall of Fame ceremony. The Detroit News
Detroit — It’s a suffering business, baseball.
As a young catcher, the first thing you are told is that defense, controlling a game and handling pitchers is priority one. Whatever offense you can give will be considered a bonus. That sentiment is ingrained in every catcher’s head from rookie ball on up.
And yet, here’s James McCann. He’s in his fourth full season in the big leagues. He’s thrown out more base stealers than any other catcher in the Major Leagues except Salvador Perez and Jonathan Lucroy since 2015. He is a proficient receiver and has improved greatly in his ability to block balls in the dirt. He has taken significant, albeit incremental, strides in game-planning and pitch-calling.
Still, because his offense has cratered for the second time in three seasons, there is chatter around the organization that McCann, who is on a one-year, $2.375 million contract with two arbitration years left, may not be tendered a contract this offseason.
To be clear, and I’ve talked to a couple of front office executives this week, no decision has been made regarding McCann’s future in Detroit. It would be completely speculative to suggest they are leaning one way or another.
But it’s going to be a topic of conversation.
As is the custom, general manager Al Avila, his baseball operations staff — including special assistants Alan Trammell and Jim Leyland — the analytics bosses and manager Ron Gardenhire will convene after the season to hash out the next phase of the rebuild.
At the top of the agenda will be targeting a veteran, low-cost shortstop to replace Jose Iglesias (free agent) and fill the void until one of the prospects at Double-A is ready. As Avila mentioned on Monday, they may also seek another veteran center fielder to platoon with JaCoby Jones — could even be Leonys Martin, again.
They will target some veteran starting pitching again, too, just like they did with Mike Fiers and Francisco Liriano last winter, with the same MO — to stabilize the rotation early and then flip them for prospects later, at the trade deadline.
But sooner or later, the conversation is going turn to the catcher position.
Shockingly, I will not be invited to those organizational meetings. But if I were, I would argue as passionately as I could against giving up on McCann. It seems way too premature to cast him aside at age 28, after just four full seasons, with nobody in the organization ready to step into the everyday catcher’s role.
The Tigers have two more years of control with McCann. It’s not going to wreck the budget to re-sign him again for another year, or two. It won’t wreck the budget even if he were to take them to arbitration.
As we sit here today, Jake Rogers is the Tigers’ proverbial catcher of the future. They acquired him from the Astros in the Justin Verlander trade and, after a slow start, he’s producing on both sides of the plate at Double-A Erie.
But, he is 23, and by all accounts at least another full year away from being an everyday catcher in the big leagues.
Grayson Greiner, who performed well as a backup in a short stint with the Tigers this season, and John Hicks are not considered within the organization as everyday catchers.
So, it seems to me, there is more to be gained by sticking with McCann for at least another year or two than there would be casting him out.
Yes, his offense has regressed, alarmingly so, this season. Alarming because, after hitting .221 in 2016 and .201 in the first half of last season, he got right. He hit .291 with a .759 OPS over 58 games after the All-Star break last year.
This year, he’s never got back into that groove. He’s hitting .221, again, with a .595 OPS. That’s not acceptable. Of course it’s not. But it’s also seems rash to define him by these 83 games or these 322 plate appearances.
Especially when you factor in his value behind the plate. FanGraphs ranks him third defensively among American League catchers. He’s thrown out 15 base stealers this year, second to Lucroy. He is developing as a pitch-caller, but since he adopted former manager Brad Ausmus’ system for devising game plans two years ago, he’s made a huge improvement.
Don’t even bring up pitch framing. Yes, he scores low in that metric. But that metric is utterly dependent on the pitchers he catches. Look at the leaderboard. The catchers who score well in pitch framing, invariably are from teams with the best, most efficient pitching staffs. It’s a cause and effect. You catch pitchers with impeccable command, your pitch-framing numbers will be good.
His work ethic, his leadership, his competitiveness, all the intangibles, are sacrosanct.
With McCann, the tender or non-tender debate comes down to his offense. Will the Tigers determine, ultimately, that he will never produce enough with the bat to be an everyday catcher? Or, will they give him more time to figure it out?
You already know where I stand on that.
He has shown, in bursts, that he can hit enough, with enough power, to be a very useful everyday catcher. I would submit, too, that a lot of very productive catchers over the years hit their offensive stride in the later part of their careers.
I am going to give you some examples. Here is where McCann is at, at age 28: Entering the game Tuesday, he had 1,523 big-league plate appearances over 417 games. His slash line (batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage), including OPS: .242/.291/.372/.663.
Darrin Fletcher, who had a 14-year career and is one of the catchers Baseball Reference projects as a career comp for McCann, had a slash line of .258/.315/.392/.707 after 1,578 plate appearances. From the ages 30 to 33, he hit .294/.337/.479/.816.
How about Darren Daulton? Through his age 28 season, 1,582 plate appearances, he hit .227/.332/.359/.691. If the Phillies had given up on him, they would have missed out on the .265/.381/.481/.863 and three All-Star seasons he produced from the ages of 30-35.
I hesitate to use Yadier Molina as an example, because there might not be a better defensive catcher or handler of pitchers in the game. But, offensively, Molina, in his first 1,429 plate appearances, hit a very McCann-like .248/.304/.349/.653.
He figured it out.
Go back in Tigers history. Bill Freehan, who is going to get some buzz for Hall of Fame induction this winter, was a .255 hitter with a .708 OPS in his first 1,500 plate appearances in the big leagues. Over a two-year span — from 1965 to 1966 — he hit .234/.300/.346/.646.
In the two years after that, he figured it out, hitting .272/.377/.450/.827.
Will McCann eventually figure things out at the plate? Can’t guarantee it, but it would cost the Tigers very little to give him more time to figure it out. And it could potentially cost them a lot if he figures it out elsewhere.
Tigers at Angels
First pitch: 4:07 p.m. Wednesday, Angel Stadium, Anaheim, Calif.
RHP Jaime Barria (6-7, 3.84), Angels: The rookie has pitched beyond six innings just once this year. He allowed three runs in five innings to the Indians in his last start. He has sneaky, 83-mph slider with a short, vertical break — holding hitters to a .178 average.
LHP Blaine Hardy (4-3, 3.25), Tigers: He is coming off the best start of his career, allowing one hit in seven shutout innings at Oakland. The one hit, in the seventh, was an infield single. Opponents this season are hitting .211 off his change-up, .238 off his cutter-slider hybrid and .133 off his curve (though he’s only thrown it 8 percent of the time).