Detroit Tigers’ McCann Catching A Lot Of Attention


“With their first pick in the 2011 draft, the Detroit Tigers select James McCann, catcher, Arkansas.”

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Alright, cue the music and highlight reel!

What? No music and video clip?

OK, then, let’s cut to the draftee’s living room for the live look-in, to capture that touching moment when the conquering hero hugs everyone and everything in the room, starting with his mother and girlfriend, working his way through all 132 assembled close relatives, and finishing with a flair while high-fiving the family’s pet aardvark.

Alright, no live look-in either.

Maybe we got the wrong sport here.

Alas, that’s the case. This was the June, 2011, MLB draft, a far cry from the NFL’s over-hyped annual meat auction. Lacking a first round pick, at slot number 76 in the second round the Tigers drafted McCann as their first overall selection.

Tiger Nation was immediately unimpressed.

Another catcher? Don’t we already have a litter of those? (The Tigers had included three catchers among their first nine picks in the previous year’s draft).

Oh, and a “good field, no hit” guy at that? They’re a dime a dozen.

Let’s see–with a lowly .284 career batting average in college, if he ever gets in a major league line-up, maybe we can petition the league to create a tenth spot in the batting order?

Flash forward four years, and James McCann is now one of the bright young catchers in the American League. No less an authority than the Angels’ Mike Scioscia, the dean of MLB managers and a former catcher himself, recently sang McCann’s praises.

So how did McCann, who possessed obvious defensive skills in college but toted a flaccid bat, get from there to here?

Well, let’s start with his defense.

Playing soundly behind the dish is every catcher’s prime responsibility, and it’s the reason McCann was drafted by the Chicago White Sox out of high school in the 31st round in 2008 (he didn’t sign). His defense was once again the paramount reason Detroit selected him three years later after he had chosen to attend college.

The 6’2″, 210 pound backstop is surprisingly agile for a big man. He moves well laterally and responds nimbly to balls in the dirt. He frames pitches naturally, and deftly transitions from a crouch to a throwing position when challenging base runners.

In his brief time as a Tiger catcher, he’s also shown he’s not afraid to hold runners close by quickly snapping accurate throws to the bases. That’s something new around here, and is a sign of a confident catcher.

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McCann’s arm rounds out his full complement of catching skills. It’s strong and true, and serves him well in shutting down opponents’ running games. Last year in Toledo he threw out an impressive 42% of attempted base stealers, and is at it again this year at the major league level–to date he has cashiered 9 of 19 base stealers (48%), placing him solidly in the upper echelon of AL catchers.

So with the gear on, even at the callow age of 24, McCann is every bit a major league catcher.

What about his bat, then, which has always been the question mark attached to the Georgia native?

Though he started humbly as a professional with the lumber, he has made dogged progress.

In his first summer, he hit a combined .146 in the rookie league and Class A West Michigan.

In 2012 he bumped that up a couple notches to .237 while playing at high-A Lakeland and AA Erie.

He  continued to progress while at Erie for the entire 2013 season, carving out a .277 average.

But the big breakthrough came last year at AAA Toledo, when for the first time McCann flashed a major league bat, slashing  .295/.343/.427 with an OPS of .770, the highest of his career. Although he hit only seven home runs, significantly five of those came in August.

This year McCann made the team out of spring training and for the most part platooned with Alex Avila until Avila went on the disabled list in early May. Since then, the rookie has been the Tigers’ starting catcher.

The early returns are promising.

While his fine defensive play is a given, his bat has surprised on the upside. Despite the inevitable challenges of adjusting to big league life, McCann has more than held his own at the plate.

He has delivered several clutch hits while slashing .278/.311/.409. Along the way he’s also demonstrated excellent bat control and advanced bunting skills, which are always welcome in a catcher.

The Bottom Line

In recent years the Detroit Tiger organization has aggressively pursued catching expertise through the draft purely for one reason.

That’s because–to paraphrase Mae West, an impeccable source on masculine qualities– “a good catcher is hard to find”.

In James Thomas McCann, it appears the Tigers may have caught lightning in a bottle.

And considering the dearth of good news coming from the club lately, anything resembling a good catch is cause for celebration.

Next: Last Place, struggling Kinsler, farm report