What Do The Tigers Have In James McCann?

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

It’s a simple tool, but if you view every position player rookie by fWAR, James McCann comes in 14th with 1.3 so far in 257 plate appearances. There are all sorts of reasons why this isn’t a super useful accounting at the moment: rookies have wildly varying PA numbers, catcher defense isn’t measured terribly well in WAR, and everyone from about 8th to 25th on the list is close enough to McCann that WAR can’t really separate them very easily. The point isn’t that McCann is 14th best, but rather that McCann has been one of the more valuable rookies so far this year. That seems rather obvious to a Tigers fan, even if McCann isn’t among the Bryants, Duffys, and Pedersons of the world.

With Alex Avila set to hit free agency at year’s end, there’s plenty of rumination in Detroit about what will become of the catching situation. McCann is doing a fine job so far this year, but will it continue and what kind of catching partner does he need? While there are a few MLB catchers who are good enough on their own that it makes sense to basically ignore their backups, McCann certainly isn’t at that level. Even if he’s a starter, there’s still room for a quality backup.

Before we can answer that, we have to evaluate the James McCann we’ve seen so far. In 257 PA, McCann has hit .282/.315/.427, which is good for a 103 wRC+. In other words, McCann is just slightly above league average offensively per plate appearance. Keep in mind however that catcher is a depressed offensive spot and that the typical catcher averages an 88 wRC+ in 2015. Certainly, if this is who McCann is as a hitter, he will do just fine in the show.

To give you an idea, a catcher with McCann’s current batting line, extended out to cover 450 PA (assume for a moment average defense and base running) would be something like a 3 WAR player. That’s not a star, but it’s an above average big leaguer. McCann runs like a not-Alex-Avila-catcher, though, so we should probably shave about 5 runs or 0.5 wins off that total for a full season before we move onto defense.

Defense is where it gets interesting. McCann has been outstanding when it comes to preventing stolen bases. Using Baseball Prospectus’ Swipe Rate Above Average statistic, McCann ranks 8th among all catchers in SB prevention per opportunity. That lines up with what we’ve seen from McCann this year and his ability to release the ball very quickly while also delivering an accurate throw. We don’t have a full set of pop times for him, but we’ve seen 1.7 and 1.9 multiple times. He’s been great when it comes to nailing runners, and so far I haven’t seen any reason to think it’s dumb luck or sample size. McCann can’t throw you out if you steal off the pitcher, but basically no one can. When McCann is given a chance, he’s doing the job extremely well.

When it comes to blocking balls and preventing runner advancement, McCann’s been solid as well. BP’s stat has him slightly above average at this as well, and the FanGraphs version will update late in the year, but I wouldn’t expect the numbers to be much different. McCann has certainly not been perfect in this department, but he has shown an ability to get in front of the ball. He won’t wind up adding a ton of value this way, but he won’t cost much either.

So on defense, that leaves us with framing and game-calling. Framing-wise, the numbers suggest he’s been pretty rough. BP has him about 5 runs below average and Stat Corner has him about 10 runs below average this year. I wrote earlier in the year that I wouldn’t put much stock in the first few months of framing for a young catcher for various reasons, but this is obviously something to watch. From my observation, I do think he is worse than average at this point in time. Rather than quietly adjusting his glove position as he receives the ball, he does have a tendency to stab at it a little bit.

I think some of this is probably just due to the horrible staff he’s caught this year and a general inability for them to command their pitches. You can frame a bad pitch, but it’s probably pretty difficult to frame pitches that are so routinely missing their spots. Especially for a young catcher who is just learning the league. I wouldn’t argue he’s been a good framer, but I’m not ready to write him off as a bad framer going forward.

If we put the defense together, let’s call him something like +5 runs for the non-framing and -5 runs for the framing, with the acknowledgement that this could be way off or it could change. Game-calling is such a black box that it’s hard to judge what’s McCann’s doing, and what the pitcher and coach are doing. If I had to guess, I’d say he’s been a little worse than average in this department, and noticeably worse than Avila, but not in any sort of offensive way. Again, it could have a lot to do with the very poor staff he’s catching. Let’s call his defense a wash. We don’t know for sure, but I think we can say he’s probably around average with a bit of room to grow. Especially when it comes to game-calling, as he seems more than capable of working on this part of the game.

So that brings us back to his bat. At this offensive level, he’s about a 3 WAR catcher for a full year. That’s a great piece to have. Even if he’s a bit worse, you still have an average player at the position, and it’s not out of the question he could be better.

This season, he’s hitting .282/.315/.427. His walk rate is about 4% and his strikeout rate is about 20%. He has an ISO of .145 and a BABIP of .342. These numbers aren’t terribly out of line with what we saw from him in AA and AAA in 2013 and 2014. He’s a below average walk guy with a strikeout rate around league average and a respectable amount of extra base pop. Minor league BABIP is usually higher than in the show, but he was a guy who ran higher BABIPs in the minors, so we probably don’t have to assume he’ll come all the way back to .300.

Before the season started, ZiPS/Steamer combined to forecast a .243/.279/.345 line from McCann (.277 wOBA). That projection has increased to .253/.288/.367 (.287 wOBA) after his 250 quality PA so far. In other words, the projections thing McCann’s true talent is about 5% higher now that they did in March.

I will be the first to tell you that projections for players with little MLB experience are far from precise estimates. On average, they’ll be about right, but any one player could vary pretty significantly. So let’s unpack this. To start, the projections have been right about his BB and K mix. But the projections have not properly forecasted his BABIP and ISO.

He hits a lot of line drives and ground balls relatively to fly balls, which could easily explain the higher BABIP. Line drive rate isn’t the kind of thing that stabilizes quickly for a young hitter, but based on what we’ve seen, I do think it’s fair to say that he does tend to have a swing that favors that kind of thing. Meaning: He will have a higher BABIP than league average. Will it stay at .340? Probably not. But let’s call it .320.

The ISO is where it gets interesting, because this is the most extra base power we’ve seen from McCann to date. His best season in the minors was .132 and the projections see him in the .115 range. Right now, it’s .145. This is interesting because you look at McCann and actually think there’s more power in the swing that he’s shown. He’s hit some really solid homers and doubles and it doesn’t seem out of the question that he could be a 10-15 HR guy in a full season, especially once he gets comfortable. It’s widely accepted that catcher offense comes later that offense for most other positions.

Now of course, 250 PA of a .145 ISO doesn’t mean much in the context of what normally happens to catchers with his career development to date. What I think is interesting is that McCann was such a bad hitter in 2011-12 that we might be measuring a player who had a rough transition to pro-ball but found his footing after a year or two. This is true of the scouts and the stats. McCann came out of college as an underwhelming, high-floor type guy. He’s the kind of player a lot of scouts undervalue, and then he came out an stunk in the low minors, leaving the stats to do the same. If McCann had hit well in the low minors, the forecasts might be different. There was a lot of confirmation in the early days of his pro-career, so perhaps we’ve all been a little slow to acknowledge his hit average or better in each of his last three stops.

All in all, I think it’s safe to consider McCann’s walk and strikeout rates pretty well established. We’ll say he’s going to be a decent BABIP guy with some extra base power. That doesn’t make you a star, but that could easily wind up in the 95-105 wRC+ range for the next few years. And that’s discounting the possibility of any type of breakout.

Put that all together with the glove and you have yourself a pretty solid 2-3 WAR catcher with some potential for more. And the downside for McCann is probably a really strong platoon backup, because he hits right handed and is definitely fine on defense.

The Tigers have something here. He probably won’t be a star, but he can certainly be part of the answer. I think he pairs very well with Avila, if Avila doesn’t want to go out and search for a starting job. Avila’s a good OBP guy from the left side with really good defense and pitcher-leading abilities. Pairing him with the younger, higher upside of McCann could be a nice mix, especially if the lower work load helps Avila stay healthy and more productive.

McCann has don some really exciting things in his early days as a Tiger, and while I don’t think we should overdo the expectations, he does appear to be ready for a sizable big league role. My sincere apologies to AL base stealers.


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