Inside the Detroit Tigers clubhouse, there is a void being felt on a daily basis from a player who last season batted .220.
Nobody could have predicted that James McCann would become JAMES MCCANN!! here in 2019, but what the White Sox gained by signing the 29-year-old catcher this winter has turned into a tremendous loss for their AL Central rivals, both on the field and in the clubhouse.
“We miss the heck out of him around here,” Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire said on the White Sox Talk Podcast about McCann, who was non-tendered after he set career lows in batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage in 2018.
Despite McCann’s offensive struggles, Gardenhire feels the void left by his former catcher so much, he used the word “miss” to describe McCann’s absence four times during the interview.
“We miss him. We miss him quite a bit,” Gardenhire said. “He didn’t have a great year offensively, but he meant so much more than the offense. What he did for us catching wise, and I’m sure what he’s doing for the White Sox. He’s a leader. He’s a born leader. Great personality, great person.”
When the White Sox scooped up McCann in December — he’s under team control through 2020 — they knew they’d get that leader in the clubhouse and a veteran who could help with their young pitchers. But even they weren’t expecting his eye-popping slash line of .319/.376/.514, which has led McCann to his very first All-Star Game next week in Cleveland.
“He was always great defensively behind the plate. The only thing he was lacking was hitting, and now he’s hitting this year. If he hits, this can happen every year,” Tigers pitcher Jordan Zimmerman said.
McCann admits that he did some soul-searching during the offseason that has unleashed the McCann we’re seeing today. He realized that he was putting too much pressure on himself trying to become a great hitter, when he just needed to be himself, the best version of himself. Once he accepted that reality, the weight he had been carrying on his shoulders lessened considerably, which has freed him up this season, making him a dangerous hitter every time he steps to the plate.
“I think he always knew that was his missing piece. It was just about making a few adjustments at the plate with his swing. Not strike out as much, put the ball in play. He’s doing that this year,” Zimmerman said.
How important was McCann to the Tigers? Here’s more from Gardenhire.
“You try to carry the load, and he was carrying the load,” Gardenhire said. “He didn’t understand what he was doing for us, but him catching almost every stinking day behind the plate was carrying a load that we could have never survived. We didn’t survive very well last year, but without him we would have been in a lot of trouble. He did better than he thinks he did for us, I can tell you that, and we miss him. The coaching staff really, really liked him.”
Ask White Sox pitchers about McCann’s preparation and they are amazed by his work ethic. While most of his teammates spend their time on flights playing cards or relaxing, McCann is on his iPad putting together scouting reports for the next series for every starting pitcher.
The Tigers know all about it.
“I’ve never seen a guy work as hard as him. He studies more than anybody I’ve ever seen,” Zimmerman said. “He studies non-stop on the flights. He’s doing his homework. As a pitcher, you’re doing your homework as well. You meet before the game and hope everything links up on the same page. Every time I took the mound it seemed like that was the case with James. We were always on the same page and kind of thinking the same thing.”
The Tigers' decision to let McCann go has certainly backfired in the short term. They chose to turn the reigns over to Grayson Greiner, who played only 30 games in 2018. It’s been a rough season so far for the 26-year-old backstop. He’s batting just .162 and is currently on the injured list with a back strain.
“We’re going with a young route. Greiner kind of was going to take over,” Gardenhire explained. “We tried to get (McCann) back here, but it came down to a lot of other different things. He’s having a great year. I’ve already sent him a text about the All-Star team. I think that’s as good as it gets. I’m really excited for him and his family.”
And so are the White Sox.