In an effort to find to bring a new angle to the routine nature of season previews, this year New English D will be running a season preview series based on the team’s nine most pivotal players. We’ll be calling the series “2016 Bellwethers,” and will break down the players currently on the roster whose 2016 direction will indicate where the Tigers are heading this year. Keep in mind this is not a series about the most important Tigers, but rather the Tigers with the widest range of possible outcomes. You won’t see Miguel Cabrera featured, for example, because of his steady dominance of the league. Enjoy. #9: Daniel Norris | #8: Justin Wilson | #7: Mark Lowe |#6: Jose Iglesias | #5: Francisco Rodriguez
James McCann is one of the more pivotal members of the 2016 Tigers because we’ve seen flashes of an above average major leaguer within him but the sum total of his contributions so far have been below average. You shouldn’t write off a promising young player because of mediocre performance in his first 500 PA, but those first 500 PA offer a window into the questions we’ve had about McCann all along. Is he built to be a full-time major league catcher or does his future hold years as a backup or the weak side of a platoon?
McCann had an 85 wRC+ in 2015, which puts him 17th among catchers who had a total of 300 or more PA last year. Catchers on average hit around 85-86 wRC+ last year, so his bat is firmly in the average tier. He’s not a front line offensive catcher, but no one expected him to give Buster Posey a run for his money.
McCann walked less than 4% of the time and struck out around 21% of the time, below average and around average respectively. His .122 ISO and .325 BABIP are numbers you’d be happy to see again, but ideally with a little more in terms of on-base ability. A larger red flag was his 149 wRC+ to 64 wRC+ platoon split, especially when he faced righties about three times as often as lefties last year.
No one should argue that a 400 PA sample is enough to demonstrate one’s true platoon split, but it’s not a good sign that he was so vulnerable to right-handed pitching. The split will likely regress in the future, but it’s not terribly common to see someone display a platoon split of this nature over the course of a season without having a bit of a deficiency against same side pitchers, even if the deficiency is less severe than it appeared.
Another big concern is that McCann hit much worse as the season wore on (104 wRC+ to 67 wRC+ from the first half to the second half) and his monthly wRC+ marks were 88-98-80-152-36-76. Again, it’s a small sample, but after the break he was much less effective than he was before the break.
All of these offensive issues circle back to a single question. Is McCann’s 2015 a reflection of his ability going forward or was his offense hampered by the herculean task of learning to be a full-time, everyday catcher in the majors? It’s a tricky thing to parse because if you told me two years ago that McCann was going to settle in as an 85-90 wRC+ guy, that wouldn’t have been a shock. But we saw flashes of something more early last year. Was that slightly better performance a sign of things to come and he simply wore down as the year went on…or did he regress toward his mean as the year went on and the league learned his weaknesses?
This is the central question for McCann’s bat in 2016. Is he an unimpressive hitting catcher with a vulnerability to righties or did he just appear that way last season because the weight of his first season as a major league catcher simply took its toll late in the season? Time will tell.
But there’s another really important aspect to the McCann bellwether, and that’s his framing. If you recall, McCann rated as one of the worse framing catchers in 2015, costing the team somewhere between one and two wins of value with his inability to get borderline strike calls.
As I wrote last year, I’m not terribly concerned about one season of bad framing metrics for a rookie catcher, but it is something you have to monitor. McCann didn’t have a reputation as a poor framer in the minors, although he wasn’t known for being great either. The data supports that idea, but minor league data is also more limiting. If you look at it from a “did-he-get-calls” perspective without knowing exactly where the pitchers were located, McCann appeared to be an adequate receiver in the minors, but when he graduated to the show and we put him under the PITCHf/x microscope, he started to look quite bad.
Mark Simon tweeted this handy graphic just the other day:
McCann seems capable of keeping high strikes in the zone and balls that come to his right, but pitches to his left (i.e., inside to righties and outside to lefties) seem to give him trouble along with low pitches in general. As I noted in the piece last summer, there are plenty of reasons a young catcher might struggle with framing without being a bad framer, but it would be hard to argue he didn’t struggle.
So another huge question for McCann this year will be if he can improve his receiving. We know he’s got a strong throwing arm and can manage the running game, but getting strikes for the pitching staff is his most important job and failing to come through in this department will wash away his positive contributions elsewhere.
Fortunately, while Brad Ausmus often causes more problems than he solves, this one is right up his alley. In fact, Ausmus was probably one of the better pitch framers in baseball history. If the front office was able to communicate to Ausmus that McCann needed help and Ausmus is an able teacher, there’s reason to be hopeful. We’ve seen in other cases that framing is a teachable skill.
McCann has Saltalamacchia to watch his back this year, but while Salty can bail him out against tough right-handed pitchers, he can’t do anything to help defensively. The Tigers can cover McCann if his offensive questions turn out to be more systemic than they are growing pains, but the defense is a very big deal. I’m nowhere near ready to give up on the 25-year-old backstop, but the Tigers are going to be in a very close race in the Central and every run they give away is going to matter.
McCann gave away 15 to 20 runs with his framing last year, according to the models. If he can get that number into the -5 to -10 range, it will go a long way toward helping the team compete. They can live with the 2015 version of his bat, but they can’t live with the 2015 version of his bat if they also get the 2015 version of his glove.