White Sox catcher James McCann, given up on by Tigers, relishes first All-Star nod

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News
Chicago White Sox catcher James McCann, a former Tiger, entered Wednesday's doubleheader against his former team hitting .319 with nine home runs, 28 RBIs and a 137 OPS-plus.

Chicago – James McCann, All-Star.

How about that for a guy the Tigers drafted and groomed into a starting catcher for four seasons, and then abruptly gave up on at age 28 with two years of team control remaining.

“It’s definitely validating,” said McCann, now the White Sox starting catcher who went into play Wednesday hitting .319 with nine home runs, 28 RBIs and a 137 OPS-plus. “It’s one of those things where it’s kind of surreal, still.

“But, at the same time, the path that my career has been on, the journey I’ve gone down, to get to this point is definitely special.”

The Tigers made a business decision last winter. Instead of paying McCann perhaps between $3 million and $4 million for one season (he was arbitration eligible and made $2.375 million in 2018), they opted not to tender him a contract offer.

They rolled the dice on two inexperienced catchers — John Hicks and Grayson Greiner. Greiner is on the injured list, replaced by 36-year-old Bobby Wilson. But combined, Hicks and Greiner are hitting .174 with eight homers and 23 RBIs.

The Tigers, frankly, didn’t think McCann, who hit .220 with a .267 on-base percentage last year, would produce any more than that offensively. And with prospect Jake Rogers ascending through the system, they felt he was expendable.

The decision blindsided McCann and hurt him.

“That’s a tough topic,” he said. “There’s definitely memories there that I’ll never forget. I made my debut there. That’s where I came up. That’s where I grew up. That’s where I got my first opportunity. That’s something that will always be special to me and there’s no taking that away.

“But, that being said, it doesn’t mean when I step on the field I don’t want to beat them every time I see them.”

Going back to Comerica Park as an opponent was rough. Rougher than he ever thought it would be. Driving to the park, seeing all the familiar sights and stops, but this time being on a bus and not in his own car. Walking down the tunnel and seeing the familiar faces of the security guards and attendants.

But instead of veering left, like he’d done since 2014, he made the right turn down toward the visitors’ clubhouse. It just felt odd. 

“That’s what makes it tough,” he said. “The relationships I built, not just with the players and coaches, but the security guards and all the people there. All the people we met in Detroit away from the field, all the people we met and built relationships with in Lakeland.

“It’s the place where we had our kids. I get chills talking about it right now.”

Because he had two more years of team control, because he had become a leader in the clubhouse, even through his offensive struggles, because he had continually improved his defensive and pitch-calling game — getting non-tendered was a heart punch.

“Just the way it went down,” McCann said. “It wasn’t like it was my last year (before free agency), and I knew there was a real chance I wasn’t coming back. That was tough.”

Typical of his resolve, though, he didn't allow the situation to embitter him. It empowered him, instead.

“I’ve said this numerous times and it sounds boring, but the truth is, this offseason I wanted to find out who James McCann is,” he said. “As much as it was a blessing to come up with Miggy (Cabrera) and Victor (Martinez) and J.D. (Martinez) and (Ian) Kinsler and guys like that, I’m not them.

“I’m James McCann. You get caught up in trying to do the things they do, you lose who you are. I am who I am, be content with that, take what’s given to you and don’t try to do more.”

McCann found out after he cleared his head and broke it all down, maybe he won’t hit 30 home runs or knock in 100 runs — but he could still be pretty darn productive.

“I opened up my stance, which has allowed my body to get out of the way and use my hands more,” he said. “And I am a little more in my legs. It’s a lot closer to what I was when I first broke into the league.”

He’s driving the ball to all fields. His home run and extra-base hit rates are up and his strikeout rate is down just slightly. He’s also made an impact on the young White Sox pitching staff — in particular, fellow All-Star Lucas Giolito.

“He deserves a lot of credit,” McCann said. “He made a few mechanical adjustments. But he was in a similar spot I was. Last year didn’t go good, and you’ve got to make adjustments. He shortened up his arm action and it’s given a little extra life to all his pitches, not just his fastball.”

Giolito had the highest ERA in major leagues among qualified starting pitchers (6.13) last season. And now he’s the first pitcher in the history of the game selected to the All-Star game the year after he had the worst ERA.

Both Giolito and White Sox manager Rick Renteria have credited McCann with being a stabilizing influence on him.

“We clicked from day one in spring training,” McCann said. “We sat down and I talked to him about what I saw as an opponent facing him. As much as the mechanical stuff has been good for him, a lot of it has been his mental approach.

“It’s understanding, similar to me, what you are is good enough. Don’t try to do more. Don’t allow that one mistake that got hit out of the ballpark to affect your next 50 pitches. That’s when you give up seven runs and get taken out of the ballgame.”

McCann had the Tigers lineup card at his seat in the clubhouse. No Miguel Cabrera. Nick Castellanos, JaCoby Jones and Hicks were the only names on there he knew well.

“There’s a lot of guys over there now I don’t even know,” he said. “Matt Boyd and Daniel Norris are still there. I read about Miggy’s knees. That just kills me. Like I said, there’s memories from there I will never forget and will always think fondly of.

“But, unfortunately, the business side of things can ruin it.”

Around the horn

To make room for left-hander Tyler Alexander on the 40-man roster, the Tigers designated for assignment lefty Jose Fernandez. Fernandez never got his command issues straightened out. He pitched in four games with the Tigers, allowing eight runs, six hits and five walks in 3.2 innings.

… Alexander, added to the active roster as the 26th man, will start the nightcap on Wednesday. Boyd, who had his start rained out Tuesday, will start on Thursday. Gregory Soto is likely to make his next start Saturday against the Red Sox.

...Catcher Grayson Greiner, out since June 14 with a lower back strain, has begun a rehab assignment at High-A Lakeland.

…The Tigers made official the signing of three more international prospects — left-handed pitcher Jorge Boyer and shortstops Jesus Machado and Manuel Sequera, all from Venezuela. The Tigers have signed eight international players the last two days — most prominently, outfielder Roberto Campos from Cuba ($2.85 million) and outfielder Abelardo Lopez (Dominican Republic).

Tigers at White Sox

First pitch: 2:10 p.m. Thursday, Guaranteed Rate Field, Chicago

TV/radio: FSD/97.1

Scouting report

LHP Matthew Boyd (5-6, 3.72), Tigers: He will be pitching on seven days of rest, which doesn’t typically bother him (2-1 with opponents hitting .216 in four starts with extra rest this season). It will be his last start before the All-Star break, and he’s looking for his first win in a month.

RHP Ivan Nova (3-7, 5.92), White Sox: His 122 hits allowed, in 94.1 innings, leads the league. The Tigers belted him around pretty good at Comerica Park in April, scoring six runs on 11 hits. Nick Castellanos is hitting .429 (6 for 14) with two doubles, a triple and five RBIs against Nova.


Twitter: @cmccosky