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Mensching: James McCann not Tigers’ long-term answer at catcher

By Kurt Mensching
Special to The Detroit News
James McCann

It should be pretty clear by now that James McCann is not the Tigers’ long-term solution at catcher. The only question that remains is whether he can do enough during the final two months of the season to avoid being non-tendered at the end of the year.

That, too, seems unlikely.

It’s hard to find too many teams where McCann would be considered starter quality. Yet he has started 83 of the Tigers’ 115 games and should be expected to sit behind the plate in most games for the rest of the year.

McCann just doesn’t do a lot well, and a catcher should at least be good at something.

He can’t hit. Among the 22 catchers who have at least 250 plate appearances (McCann has 329) he ranks last by a sizeable margin in just about every advanced stat you can think of.

This might be forgivable if you could point toward game calling or other defensive strengths. After all, catcher is about the only position beside pitcher where you’re willing to forgive a weak bat.

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It’s hard to find any evidence McCann provides leadership to his pitching staff in game calling. It’s not a perfect stat by any measure, but McCann’s catcher ERA is the highest among the three Tigers who’ve caught games, including John Hicks and rookie Grayson Greiner. Recently, manager Ron Gardenhire called him out after he asked reliever Joe Jimenez to throw fastballs every pitch, saying “he’s got other fingers.”

Framing pitches is another area you might expect to find a catcher making a difference. Essentially, the thought is that the way a catcher receives a pitch can lead an umpire to mistakenly call a strike a ball, or likewise. Umpires dispute this, but repeated reviews show otherwise.

StatCorner is the best place to find the data on this, and it’s not pretty for McCann. For context, the Dodgers’ Yasmani Grandal leads MLB with 13.3 runs above average. Former Tiger Alex Avila is 0.4 runs below average for 2018. And as you might expect, most catchers are within a run or two of average.

McCann ranks as far down as 8.4 runs below average, five worse than Hicks and six worse than Greiner.

Most often, compliments toward McCann go to his arm. This year, he’s stopped 17 of the 56 stolen base attempts for 30 percent. That is, in fact, just above league average of 28 percent. McCann threw out 30 percent of attempts last year as well, but hasn’t reached the 40 percent figure since 2016.

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So why does McCann play so much? For one, Hicks has spent a lot of time playing first base with Miguel Cabrera’s injuries this year. He was the main fill-in for Cabrera in May, then split the time with Jim Adduci since Cabrera was lost for the year with a ruptured tendon in his left biceps.

And for two, Greiner wasn’t without his own struggles, hitting .229 with .588 OPS. It’s kind of hard to hand the starting gig to a rookie in over his head. He’s heating back up for Triple-A Toledo and we’re likely to see him more in September, however.

For now, the Tigers are committed to playing McCann for 2018, and there’s not a lot of reason to worry about it.

However, McCann will be entering his second year of arbitration for 2019. Currently he’s being paid $2.3 million to be the only regular catcher in the game playing at less than replacement level. Even if you acknowledge 2019 is just another year of rebuilding, there’s no reason just to rubber stamp another year. The Tigers need a fresh look at catcher.

Kurt Mensching is a freelance writer.