Mark Cunningham/Detroit Tigers

State of the Hogs: Changing World of James McCann

James McCann's world is on the upswing, but the second-year Detroit Tigers catcher may be facing an expensive dinner bill soon. The former Razorback star has seen a lot of change in the last few months.

So much has changed for James McCann in the last 14 months. It’s amazing actually how much, but one thing that has not changed is the way McCann handles his business or where he wants to spend his winter.

McCann, 25, is now the starting catcher for the Detroit Tigers, one of the best organizations in major league baseball. All he did last summer as a rookie was beat out the general manager’s son, a former all-star.

It’s been a whirlwind of changes, including his marriage in December 2014. But when McCann sat down with a reporter in the Arkansas baseball indoor facility in the middle of January, everything seemed the same. I asked how that can be?

“I think the main thing, I just try to focus on what is at hand, stay in the moment,” McCann said. “Whatever I’m doing, that’s the most important thing.

“For example, if I’m with (wife) Jessica, I’m totally focused on her, not thinking about catching Justin Verlander. A lot has changed, but I think staying in the moment is very important. I don’t look back and don’t look ahead.

“Staying in the moment can lead to bad decisions at times. But it’s worked for me. In baseball, you can’t worry about an 0-for-4 day or an 0-for-15 stretch. You just have to maintain focus on what you are doing at that moment.”

If it’s the winter, all of those moments are going to be spent in Fayetteville. There are warmer places, but he bought a home not far from Baum Stadium where he spent three all-star years catching for the Razorbacks. Detroit drafted him in the second round. The Santa Barbara, Calif., product wasn’t heading back to the west coast.

“Part of it is this facility,” McCann said, as he sat in the Fowler Center where he’d just completed a morning workout with Zack Cox, Brian Anderson, Colby Suggs, Jalen Beeks and Dominic Ficociello. “And the other part is the workout partners. Zack and I have been doing this for the last three winters and it’s a good group here.

“Zack and I try to get here at 6 a.m. We are done with the baseball part by 9, then start our lifting.”

That’s another area that brings him back to Fayetteville. UA strength coach Mike Strouhal writes him workout schedules.

“I’m doing a lot of the same things now that I did when I played here, the same workouts from Mike,” McCann said. “I do his workouts during the season. I believe in him.”

So do the Tigers. The message his coaches there gave McCann when the season was over was simple.

“They just said, come back in shape,” McCann said.

The obvious lack of other instruction on how to do it was clearly a message that they liked what he’s done in the offseason since becoming a pro.

The Tigers list McCann as 6-2, 210. He’s more like 235 now and generally plays at 220. There were times in his minor league career that it did dip to 210. He has a reputation of losing weight during the season. That doesn’t seem to be an issue any more.

“If you lose weight in the big leagues, it’s your own fault,” McCann said. “The food is out of this world. They have anything you want. Just ask for it. We fly in our own plane, all seats are first class. You get what you want to eat.

“I’ve always had trouble holding weight. I try to get to spring training at 235, knowing you will probably lose to 225 by the start of the season. The trainers fix me protein shakes every day. I come in after a game during the season, a protein shake is sitting in my locker. Both Ian Kinsler and I have that problem and we get a lot of shakes. I was at 220 when the season ended.”

There are jokes about that going around the clubhouse. The funniest came after the annual spring training dinner hosted by the starting catcher. Last year, it was Alex Avila, now with the Chicago White Sox. McCann assumes he’ll host it this spring.

“The returning catcher takes the young catchers to dinner,” McCann said. “I’m not sure, but I think it will be my turn this year. I asked Alex last year about the bill, around $2,000. We were talking the next morning about what all we each had and someone asked about the drinks. Jobba Chamberlain said, ‘I bet McCann had a protein shake.’ I didn’t.”

It will be his turn. He earned the spot with superb play as a rookie. An outstanding defensive catcher with a superb arm, McCann perhaps surprised by hitting .264 with seven homers and 41 RBIs in 114 starts. He was above .270 for most of the season.

McCann had plenty of highlights both offensively and behind the plate. He made lots of dazzling plays on defense from throwing out the game’s best base stealers to making sliding catches in front of the dugout or diving against the screen. He made Sports Center over and over, including with an inside the park homer for his first as a big leaguer. There was also a massive shot against former UA pitcher Drew Smyly, now with Tampa Bay.

The starting job was his after Avila went on the disabled list with a knee injury. When Avila returned in the middle of the summer, McCann was playing too good. Avila got on the field as a first baseman in relief of injured star Miguel Cabrera, but hardly ever as a catcher.

McCann beat out veteran Bryan Holaday for the backup job in spring training, but didn’t figure to get in many games. Avila hits lefty, so McCann might have played against lefty pitching.

“Alex was a veteran and was going to play four or five days a week,” McCann said. “I thought I might get in 40 to 50 games. I ended up getting over 400 at bats and I was probably going to get 75 to 100. But my motto is control what you can and don’t worry about things out of your hands. It will derail your thoughts. Focus on the task at present. And that’s what I did.”

Things changed in the season’s second week when Avila went on the DL.

“The day it happened it was Mother’s Day weekend, the lineup was already made and I wasn’t in it,” McCann said. “I didn’t know he was going on the DL. I was in the outfield shagging flies in batting practice.”

Manager Brad Ausmus came to the top step in the dugout waving a ball at McCann. He tossed it and McCann picked it up. He was about to throw it in to the pitcher’s mound when Ausmus waved again and pointed for him to look closer at the baseball. Aumus had printed, “You are catching tonight.”

McCann and Ausmus have built a special relationship in a short time. Ausmus was an all-star and Gold Glove catcher during an 18-year major league career. He was a star with the Dodgers when McCann was growing up nearby.

“It’s pretty cool,” McCann said. “He was a guy I watched growing up.”

It was really cool the way McCann found out he made the Tigers in spring training. Holaday was sent to the minor league camp earlier in the day, but McCann didn’t know.

“Brad came up to me in the dugout and shook my hand and said congratulations,” McCann said. “I’m excited to play for him. We have a lot of trust in each other.”

It was early in the season that Ausmus sat down with McCann and showed him how to prepare a scouting report.

“We were in Boston,” McCann said. “He showed me and then he had me do them. You get the computer reports and I’d make a report and he’d make one and we compare notes with every little detail. He taught me exactly which numbers and the spray reports that were important.”

It was shortly thereafter that McCann called games that had two pitchers take no-hitters deep into games. Verlander’s no-hit bid went into the ninth.

“I think that was the turning point as far as understanding hitters,” McCann said. “There is an unbelievable amount of data available. You just have to know what you are looking for and how to find it. You have so much tape. For instance, you can watch Verlander against every hitter that you are going to face.”

Offensively, McCann said some might think he beat offensive expectations.

“I had secret expectations,” he said. “I know a lot of people have told me as a rookie I was at a big disadvantage because I didn’t know the pitchers. In the minor leagues, you know the pitchers. They are mostly moving up each year with you and you’ve seen them.

“So there is a learning period when you get to the big leagues. That’s why I think there is a lot left in the tank.”

The key is to keep making adjustments and understanding the changing approach by pitchers.

“When I was called up in 2014, I remember standing next to Torii Hunter at the batting cage,” McCann said. “He asked me who we were playing. It was the Twins.”

That wasn’t the answer Hunter wanted.

“He turned me around and said, ‘No, it’s those guys right there, the advanced scouts,’ and then he explained it to me,” McCann said. “He told me the game is much bigger than the team in the other dugout.

“Torii explained that the advanced scouts are going to tell the next team what is getting you out and that’s all you will get until you figure it out. They don’t have that in the minor leagues or in college. It takes them a couple of games to figure you out. But they have it to start every series at this level.

“He said that he learned to play games with the scouts. The game may be over and he’ll swing late on purpose on a 2-2 fast ball. The next time, he knows that’s what he’s going to get and he hammers it down the line.”

McCann was one of the few bright spots for the injury-riddled Tigers. They finished the season at 74-87, last in the American League Central, 20 games back of Kansas City.

“I’d say the season was a blast, but that’s not really right,” McCann said. “When you are in the minor leagues, personal success is a big deal. But in the major leagues, that’s not true. You can have a bad game and if the team wins, that’s all that matters. Personal success should be pushed to the side.”

That’s the way it was in college at Arkansas. It was about winning, something that looked to be difficult for the Hogs last year. McCann followed closely on the Internet.

“When they were 15-15, I told my wife that one of two things was going to happen,” McCann said. “I’d read the recaps and it looked bad. But I told her they might end up in Omaha. I said they are either going in the tank and won’t even make a regional, or this is going to make them tougher. That’s what happened. It made them better.”

It was fun for McCann in the clubhouse when the Hogs made their run. Then Detroit pitcher David Price, a former Vanderbilt star, flew them both to Omaha for the CWS.

“It’s interesting the fraternity that exists with the SEC players and not just on your own club,” McCann said. “When I’m catching and someone I know comes to the plate, I’ll say something like here comes another one of our SEC guys. We played together in college and in the Cape Cod League.

“The bond that SEC guys have in the big leagues is different than any other conference. The guys from Texas don’t like the guys from Oklahoma. And, it’s the other way around, too.”

McCann is excited to be heading to camp soon. It starts for pitchers and catchers the day after the Super Bowl.

“I am thankful for everything,” he said. “There were some great moments last year and a lot of them were when I walked out into a new stadium. I’d look up and around and the sun would be shining in over the roof. Beautiful. No fans in the stands. I’d just stop and say a prayer of thanks. I was doing what I prayed I’d be doing as a youngster. God is great.”

McCann said the famous stadiums were everything imagined.

“St. Louis stood out,” he said. “That was early in the year and the fans are so good there, so knowledgeable. We won two of three so that may be one reason it stands out. They were all very good, close games.

“Then, it was also great in Fenway, Wrigley and Yankee Stadium. I really liked Pittsburgh, too.

“It was just amazing. We’d be in batting practice the first day you would get to those parks. You’d think, ‘My gosh, I’m in the big leagues.’ Those are the moments that stand out.”

As James McCann said, it’s great to stay in the moment. It sounds like he did.


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