State of the Hogs: James McCann turned out well

By: Clay Henry
Published: Thursday, January 26, 2017
Detroit Tigers' James McCann during a baseball game against the Los Angeles Angels Friday, Aug. 26, 2016, in Detroit. (AP Photo/Duane Burleson)
Detroit Tigers' James McCann during a baseball game against the Los Angeles Angels Friday, Aug. 26, 2016, in Detroit. (AP Photo/Duane Burleson)

— Sometime this weekend, James McCann will head to the deer woods one last time before spring training. It will be a special time, his favorite place for the offseason.

“Going duck or deer hunting, that's the most fun I have in the offseason,” said McCann, the third-year catcher for the Detroit Tigers. “It's my time to reflect on where I'm at, my peaceful time to think. There are no distractions of the world in my head.”

Really, the deer woods are his solo times. He'll take wife Jessica along for some duck hunts, but it's clear that the cold is not for her.

“Jessica's ideal place is the beach,” McCann said. “For me, it's to get in the woods, alone, where I can talk to God and evaluate where I'm headed.”

McCann is headed for good things, whether it's this year as the starting catcher for the Tigers, or down the road, possibly some day as an MLB manager. He's that talented and that smart.

Some of my favorite times each winter are a duck hunt to Steel Wings near Carlisle arranged by mutual friend Wayne Reed. James has brought Jessica along the last couple of years. She's an able hunter, although she needs an adjustment on what will keep her feet warm in waders.

It's the only time I've seen something close to McCann that is short of perfect preparation. Jessica will have some wool socks next duck season, guaranteed.

McCann is prepared for his trip to Lakeland, Fla., for spring training. He'll leave next week, two weeks ahead of the actual reporting date for catchers and pitchers in the Tigers system.

Detroit Tigers' James McCann bats against the New York Mets during an interleague baseball game Friday, Aug. 5, 2016, in Detroit. (AP Photo/Duane Burleson)

“Reporting date is the 14th, but we've got some nice new facilities and a large group of us decided to go early and get some early bullpens, hit with our coaches and get acclimated to the weather," he said.

It has been unseasonable warm there. McCann wants to get adjusted.

“It's 84 to 85 and that's not normal,” he said, not to mention the usual high humidity in South Florida.

“You need to get used to that," McCann said. "Then, you head north for opening day (in Detroit) and it may be 34 degrees. Because you've come from Florida, it will feel colder than that.”

McCann grew up in Southern California, but he makes his winter home in Fayetteville after falling in love with the Ozarks and its people during his three years with the Razorbacks. His brother Michael is a manager with the UA baseball team and lives in their Fayetteville home, too.

McCann has spent the offseason working out with several former Razorbacks at Baum Stadium, including minor-leaguers Zack Cox, DJ Baxendale, Jalen Beeks, Brian Anderson and others.

“For some, this is a week where you have to get things organized to leave behind, but he's watching it for us, so that's not as big of a deal,” McCann said. “Still, you have to go through your stuff for what's going to Florida, what's going to Detroit. We are doing that now.”

There's not a lot of physical preparation left. McCann looks strong and perfect for the long months of handling the duties as one of the major league's best catchers. He finished second to Kansas City's Salvador Perez in the 2016 American League Golden Glove voting.

One of McCann's goals is to dethrone Perez, although that's easier said than done. Their stats are similar, but a perennial winner usually has to slip for someone to take their Gold Glove spot.

“That's a very prestigious award, one of my dreams,” McCann said. “At the end of the day, I know I'm Gold Glove caliber, whether or not I receive it or I don't. Hopefully, that happens one day.”

McCann was second in percentage of base stealers caught at 45 percent last season. Perez, who has won the last four Gold Gloves, led at 48 percent. McCann led the league in strikeout, throw-out double plays with nine.

“Those are good numbers, but you have to look at a lot of things that let them happen,” he said. “It's related to the way a catcher works with our staff.”

McCann's time between when he catches the ball and it arrives at second (POP) is one of the league's best with an average of 1.9 seconds. He routinely hits 1.7.

“That's good, but the key is what our pitchers do,” he said. “Their time to the plate is what matters, and the way they break up the rhythm of the base runner with their delivery or pick-off moves.

“It's all a timing matter for the base stealers. Our pitchers do great. If they are less than 1.4 to the plate, I have a chance and they give me that.”

It comes back to what is emphasized in the dugout. Detroit manager Brad Ausmus is a former catcher.

“He gets it,” McCann said. “It's what we do as a team between pitcher and catcher. You don't have to be 1.1 to the plate if you change the rhythm. If you do the same thing every time as a pitcher, the delivery can be timed. That's what makes an average base runner great. When I'm throwing out runners, credit our pitchers.”

If McCann often sounds like a manager, it's because that's his dream after his playing career is done.

“Yeah, I really would like that,” he said. “I always try to think along with managers. I'm watching managers interact with players, on our team as well as the other teams. What are they doing different? What would I do differently?

Detroit Tigers' James McCann in the dugout before a baseball game against the Los Angeles Angels Friday, Aug. 26, 2016, in Detroit. (AP Photo/Duane Burleson)

“What I see is that there is talent everywhere in the big leagues. It's about what you get out of them.”

Clearly, catchers are in a position to become good managers. Baseball history is full of former catchers managing in the big leagues.

“They have to know every position and they have to become psychologist in the way they handle pitchers," McCann said. "I spend about half my time thinking like a psychologist.

“Some guys you have to chew out. Some others, you baby them, pat them on the back. You have to know how to treat players differently to get the best results. I work hard to learn what each needs.”

Despite a relatively short time in MLB, McCann has already grown into a leadership position. That's only natural. He's been a captain at most levels. That may seem strange that the Tigers are looking to him in a leadership role, but McCann seems ready.

“I've been told by others in the club house to step forward, older players, some of them future Hall of Famers,” McCann said. “I've been told to bring out my personality more. It is me.

“You might think it would be tough to lead stars like Justin Verlander, Ian Kinsler Miguel Cabrera or Justin Upton, but those are some of the guys who say they need that from me. They look for me to bring the energy. It's what I do, and in my position at catcher, it's natural.

“The catcher should be the general on the field. It also needs to translate off the field. It's how a team is built in a lot of cases and it is for us.”

There is much respect for the way McCann carries himself. That's always been the case. He was a leader as true freshman at Arkansas, catching in the College World Series in 2009 when he beat out a senior. He was a true scholar-athlete and a dominant player. The Tigers took him at the top of the second round and he made a quick rise to the big leagues.

Off the field, McCann's discipline is obvious. He's conscious of nutrition. There were jokes in the Tigers' clubhouse about the number of protein shakes he consumed in the season. Others were probably looking for a beer.

That came up after last year's catcher's dinner at the start of spring training, a ritual with the Tigers. The veteran takes out all of the catchers in the system and picks up the tab. It can be expensive.

“I thought I was going to get the tab last year since I was the starter,” McCann said. “But Jarrod Saltalamacchia picked it up.”

Saltalamacchia, a 10-year veteran, has career earnings of $29 million. He figured he could afford the tab better than McCann, coming off his rookie year with a salary of $507,000.

“He said he'd do it,” McCann said. “I figure I'll end up with it this year.”

It could be that Alex Avila snaps it up. He returns to the Tigers, replacing Saltalamacchia, as McCann's backup. He makes $2 million, while McCann is at $519,000.

There is generally a funny conversation in the clubhouse the morning after the catcher's dinner.

“The thing gets expensive because of the alcohol,” McCann said. “But I don't drink alcohol. The pitchers ask about who had what, but they always say, 'We just want to know how many protein shakes McCann had?' I get a lot of jokes about the shakes.

“I think there are three things that are important in preparation to play each day as far as the physical aspect. Number one is nutrition. What fuel do you give your body? Then, it's hydration. The last part, what do you do in the weight room? I think what you do lifting in April and May keeps you strong in August and September.”

McCann's thoughts on alcohol are simple.

“I don't drink any alcohol,” he said. “It's poison to an athlete's body.

“You don't put cheap gas into a Ferrari. You put in the best gas. I take pride in how I treat my body.”

McCann hopes it's a healthy body for 2017. It wasn't last year. He suffered an ankle sprain in the fourth game came after a spectacular spring when it appeared his offense had caught up to his defense.

Detroit Tigers' James McCann looks skyward at home plate after his grand slam during the first inning of a baseball game against the Houston Astros, Sunday, July 31, 2016, in Detroit. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

“I hit .330 with four or five home runs in the spring,” he said. “It was a phenomenal spring, the best I'd hit. I was locked in. I'd worked on getting power to all fields. Two of the home runs were pulls, two were opposite. I hit with power. I was driving the ball the other way with much more authority. It was what I worked on in the offseason and I saw it translate.

“But when I came back, I didn't have my legs. Every day it was something different, another adjustment. Finally, in the middle of June I got rid of the leg kick.

“I'm going into 2017 with a simpler approach. I think I'll be more consistent.”

Probably, McCann came back too soon from the ankle injury. He was supposed to be out six to eight weeks. He was back behind the plate in four weeks.

“Maybe it was (ambitious),” he said. “The thought process was to get back behind the plate as soon as I could catch nine innings and that the bat would come around eventually. It proved to me that to compete at the big league level, you have to be 100 percent.”

After hitting .264 in 114 games as a rookie in 2015, he dipped to .221 in 105. He did see his home run totals rise from seven to 12. Some modest success in the second half of 2016 did at least get him over .200 by end of the season.

The goal for this season is to continue to develop as one of the best defensive players in the game.

“I've proven I can be a big league catcher if not one of the best,” he said. “I've shown glimpses of being able to hit. Now I want to become a force in the lineup.”

The Tigers are excited about the 2017 season. Most of the team returns after finishing second to Cleveland, the American League champion. They'll also have to contend with 2015 World Series champs Kansas City in the same division.

“One thing you have to do in the spring, is get to know your team,” McCann said. “We are ahead of that because most of our team is back. We've got some new guys in the bullpen, but it's pretty much the same group every where else.”

McCann is comfortable with Avila back in the catcher rotation. They were together in 2015 when injuries to Avila opened the door for McCann to take the job. Avila bats left-handed, so it's a complementary fit along side the right-handed McCann.

“Alex and I are a lot alike, on and off the field,” McCann said. “We have a great working relationship. We carry ourselves similar. Our goal is to be the best catching duo in the big leagues. I think we can be that. He's a great teammate. I'm excited to get him back.”

It's a big year for McCann. He's signed to the Tigers for four more years, but he'll be eligible for arbitration ahead of the 2018 season. That's when the big money kicks in, if he can maintain progress as their starting catcher.

Jessica, a perfect match with James, will be along for the ride. She travels on most trips.

Detroit Tigers' James McCann celebrates his three-run home run off Minnesota Twins pitcher Hector Santiago in the sixth inning of a baseball game Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2016, in Minneapolis. The Tigers beat the twins 8-1. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)

“She's been to all of the American League parks except Boston and most National League parks,” he said. “Some wives don't travel, but Ian Kinsler and Wally Joyner (Detroit batting coach) told us she should travel as long as possible.

“We want to have kids some days, and the travel ends when that happens. But for now, they tell us to enjoy it and see everything.”

They'll head to Florida together next week. It's exciting, but there are nervous thoughts, too.

“You get anxious this time of year,” he said. “Where are you now compared to last year this time in your preparation?

“You always have mixed feelings in January. You are excited about the season, but you question what happened in the offseason. It goes by quicker every year.”

The answers all seem good.

“I'm strong and I've maintained a good weight, 230,” he said. “In 2014, I got to 240. I thought I needed it to finish at 220 at the end of the season. I've proven I can maintain weight now. So I don't want to be that big. I thought it slowed me down.

“I've learned some things about my body. Strong is strong. What you also have to make sure to do is maintain flexibility and quickness.”

McCann hopes he has a reminder for the season about the fun waiting for him in the offseason.

“I'd like to kill a doe this weekend, make it all into jerky, and have a piece every day of the season,” McCann said. “It will remind me that hunting season is just around the corner.”

Then it's off to Florida where Jessica will not need any wool socks.

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