Matt Jones is the online sports director for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A double graduate of the University of Arkansas, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America and National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association, and voter for the Heisman Trophy.
Best Hogs in pro baseball No. 8: McCann proving he still has it
Chicago White Sox's James McCann (33) celebrates in the dugout after he hit a two-run home run during the first inning of a baseball game against the Minnesota Twins on Friday, June 28, 2019, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Matt Marton)
FAYETTEVILLE — When the Chicago White Sox take the field later this month, it will mark the beginning of James McCann’s seventh season in Major League Baseball.
That kind of longevity is notable for any player, but especially for a catcher because of the physical toll of 100-plus games per year.
McCann, 30, seems to be getting better with age. By most statistical measures he is coming off the best year of his career, an All-Star campaign in his first season with the White Sox that included career-bests in batting average (.273), RBI (60), hits (120), home runs (18), doubles (26), on-base percentage (.328) and slugging (.460).
After receiving positive feedback from our series in April on the top professional football players from the University of Arkansas, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and WholeHogSports.com decided to repeat the project with professional baseball players. Over the next 10 days, we will present a list, in descending order, of the best Razorbacks to play in the professional ranks.
This list was compiled after consultation with media members and through research.
Defensively, McCann threw out 31 percent of base runners - five points below his career average, but four points above the MLB average in 2019.
His 118 games played last season tied his career high set the year before with the Detroit Tigers, but his wins above replacement (WAR) rose dramatically to 3.7, up from -0.8 from his last season in Detroit.
The Tigers released him following the 2018 season and the White Sox — who drafted him out of high school — signed him to a one-year, $2.5 million contract that winter. He re-signed with the White Sox last year for another season, but for $5.4 million.
“Getting the slap in the face of being released and saying, ‘You’re not good enough to be here anymore; we don’t want to pay you,’ it definitely lit a fire. There was already a fire there, but it lit it a little more,” McCann said. “I wanted to get back and prove to people what I could do.
“Going through being released and going through the down season, I kept wondering to myself and asking God: Why is this happening? What’s going on? What’s the motive behind this? Now I can look back and say…undoubtedly that was supposed to happen to get me to where I was last year and where I am today.”
McCann is No. 8 on the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette’s list of best former Razorbacks to play in MLB. He said he hopes to play several more years, which might push him further up the rankings down the road.
His professional success was foreshadowed during his years in Arkansas, where from 2009-11 he was one of the most consistent players in coach Dave Van Horn’s tenure. It isn’t uncommon today to hear Van Horn reference McCann when speaking about the right way to play the position.
McCann is best remembered for a 2011 game-winning home run to beat LSU in front of the Razorbacks’ largest home crowd ever at the time. He also was the team’s starting catcher as a freshman in 2009 when Arkansas was a national semifinalist at the College World Series.
The Tigers drafted him 76th overall in the second round of the 2011 draft. He was Detroit’s highest draft pick that year.
“He was a late bloomer and was playing third base when I started recruiting him,” Van Horn said. “I saw him catching a bullpen off to the side at the Area Code Games and I thought, ‘Man, this kid has got really good hands.’
“I always felt like James was going to be really good, but I didn’t know if he was going to hit a lot. He worked and worked and got stronger, just the makeup of his character, he’s one of my favorite players of all-time.”
Van Horn called McCann one of the best leaders he ever coached.
“You can’t outwork him,” Van Horn said. “He was a great student and he wasn’t doing the wrong things away from the field. He was a leader in his church, a leader in the clubhouse. The guys gravitated to him.”
That competitive drive was evident in McCann from an early age. As a kid, his father would tell him he wasn’t going to have any friends because he wanted to beat everyone all the time.
“That’s just something that was part of me and ingrained in me,” McCann said. “The work ethic was something that from a very early age my parents said, ‘If you want something, you’ve got to work for it.’ That’s how I’ve always lived my life.”
McCann broke into the majors as a September call-up in 2014 and was the Tigers’ primary starter for the next four seasons.
He had a breakout season in 2015 when he batted .264 with 30 extra-base hits and 40 RBI, and threw out 41 percent of base runners. Among his favorite career memories came that year. His first home run was inside the park, and he followed that with two game-winning home runs.
“The first three pitchers I caught were Cy Young Award winners,” McCann said, referencing Justin Verlander, David Price and Max Scherzer. “Being blessed to catch guys like that and see how they go about their routine, and learn from some of the best hitters in the game — guys like Miguel Cabrera, J.D. Martinez and Victor Martinez, or a savvy veteran like Ian Kinsler — that was a blessing that you can’t really describe to people who don’t understand the ins and outs of baseball.
"I learned by watching and seeing how they do things on a daily basis, and how they respond to failures and their successes. It’s stuff like that that is important. It’s tough for a young player to come up with guys not around like that who can show them the way.”
McCann’s resurgent 2019 season came with a former division rival. He was the Tigers’ primary starter for four seasons, but was released after he batted a career-worst .220 on a team that finished 34 games below .500.
“Going back to Detroit as a visitor, that was something that felt very strange,” McCann said.
The final year in Detroit was trying personally and professionally for McCann, whose twin sons were born prematurely in December 2017 and spent seven weeks at Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital in Nashville, Tenn. McCann and his wife, Jessica, moved from their offseason home in Fayetteville to the Nashville area shortly before the children were born.
Less than two weeks after his children came home, McCann showed up to spring training heavier than the year before.
“I’ll never blame a down year on my kids. I’ll never make that excuse,” McCann said. “But the fact of the matter is I came to spring training almost 15 pounds heavier than I had ever been in my career, and it was due in part to being in the hospital for two-plus months. I literally would work out and go straight to the hospital, so my nutrition was whatever I could pick up on the way to the hospital, and once I was at the hospital it was whatever the hospital was serving that day.
"The training was important — I got my hitting in, I got my workouts in — but beyond that the most important thing I was dealing with was being in the hospital with my boys.”
The added weight caused McCann not to move as well behind the plate. He experienced more aches and pains than he had in any other season.
Those struggles made last year all the more meaningful for McCann and those close to him.
“It was awesome because I was concerned about him,” Van Horn said. “But in typical James McCann fashion, when his back was against the wall he fought his way out. Coaches love him, teammates love him and they want him to succeed. He did.”
He made two key plays in the American League’s 4-3 victory at the All-Star Game in Cleveland. His single in the seventh inning moved Matt Chapman into scoring position, and Chapman eventually scored. In the eighth, McCann made a sliding catch on a popup by Mike Moustakas in foul ground that stranded two National League runners in scoring position.
“Getting to play in the All-Star Game, getting to be part of that week, but also the fact of where the previous 12 months had taken me, from getting released to signing on with the White Sox - it’s just one of those things that’s hard to describe,” McCann said. “God has a plan and that was just part of his plan, and it makes for a pretty special story.
“It’s been a dream come true. When I look back at my career at Arkansas, and even before I got to Arkansas, my goal was to make it to the major leagues, but it was always a dream. To get to live it out, words really can’t describe what it’s like to live out a childhood dream.”
Have a comment on this story? Join the discussion or start a new one on the Forums.