Mark Cunningham/Detroit Tigers

2016 Detroit Tigers Player Previews: Catcher James McCann

James McCann emerged from being the backup or time share option to starter Alex Avila to become the clear starter, so much so that the Tigers let Avila walk in the off-season. The Tigers are very optimistic about McCann’s all-around future, but McCann’s advanced numbers weren’t quite as encouraging.

2015 Year in Review


114 425 1.0 85 .264 .325 .338 .297 .387 3.8% 21.2% 0 / 1 0 8.0


While McCann made a brief cameo in 2014, for all intents and purposes, 2015 was his first year as a big leaguer, and overall, it was a solid debut campaign. McCann took over most-day catching duties from Avila by May, and never looked back, catching a majority of the team’s games in every month. Offensively, his overall profile looked acceptable for a first-year player, but hides the dramatic righty/lefty split he had. He posted a .916 OPS against lefties, with just a .609 OPS against right-handers. He did see a dropoff in production in the second half of the season, with just a 67 wRC+, but some of that was the result of facing more right-handed pitching.


Defensively, there’s plenty of debate around how good McCann was. On one hand, his defensive metrics were respectable, and he received praise from his pitching staff as well as manager Brad Ausmus for a lot of the intricacies that a catcher deals with behind the plate. On the other hand, his framing skills were derided as being among the worst in MLB by Baseball Prospectus, and their WARP projections result in the Tigers catching position being the worst position in baseball, which seems a gross exaggeration when you think about some of the players that take the field on a daily basis across all 30 clubs, but has data to back it up, and does point out his struggles in a key catcher measureable. It also begs another question; how much of the Tigers’ 2015 pitching struggles were due to McCann?


What neither side of the equation takes into account is McCann’s leadership, not just on the field, but in the clubhouse. He immediately gained respect from teammates and coaches, demanded effort from his fellow players (see the incident with Jose Iglesias as evidence), and after David Price was traded, Price took to Twitter and proclaimed that McCann was a future captain and praised his leadership. High unprompted praise from a Cy Young winner for a 24-year old rookie.




2016 Player Projections































While the two projections differ on how much McCann will play by nearly 100 plate appearances, they are remarkably similar on how he’ll perform offensively, within a few points on every stat. That’s not that unusual with only one year of experience. They also agree on overall contribution compared to wins over replacement, though they agree for different reasons. ZiPS sees McCann as a league average defender that gets 1.5 wins through offense and volume – Steamer sees an above average defender that gets to a slightly better rate in far fewer appearances.


Not included, but BP is still very down on McCann given his framing issues, with a -1.4 WARP, claiming his framing alone cost the Tigers 16 runs. However, the things that McCann has been praised for the most (game management) are very difficult to quantify, and thus might be overlooked in the projections.


The TigsTown Take


There are three things that one needs to focus on as McCann enters 2016 as the man behind the plate; 1) his ability to hit right-handers, 2) how well he can improve his framing skills, and 3) how important his leadership is with a pitching staff that will have at least a couple new starting pitchers and at least a few new relievers.


It’s hard to say how well he’ll hit right-handers – his splits against righties in the minor leagues weren’t great either, and across the board he was well below average. The upside of course is that with backup Jarrod Saltalamacchia as a switch-hitter, that can be mitigated somewhat. But when you usually face righties about 75% of the time, your starting catcher has to hit them. It’s not clear that McCann can.


His framing skills are an element that must improve, but is also something that can be improved upon, especially when you have the tutelage of a former All-Star catcher available. Here’s betting there’s a big jump in performance here.


Finally, McCann’s leadership. There are a number of new pitchers in the mix for the Tigers, which requires learning new repertoires, in addition to personalities. But there have been very few players that have come up in the Tigers system in recent years that are a student of the game as much as McCann. He’s intelligent, hard-working and wants to be a great baseball player. Even with his offensive limitations, it’s a good bet that his growth in the other areas will more than make up for it.





2016 Projections come from two different sources; ZiPS, and Steamer, both publicly available via and presented for information purposes only.  ZiPS projections come from Dan Szymborski, and Steamer from Steamer Projections, a trio of independent academic researchers. 

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