If there’s one thing I’ve learned in this job, when a repeated decision by a manager or coach doesn’t seem to make sense, there’s almost always a good explanation.
And that’s exactly the case when it comes to White Sox catcher James McCann not getting into manager Rick Renteria’s lineup more.
Through 23 games this season, McCann has only played in 11. After an All-Star season in 2019, McCann entered Monday slashing .343/.410/.610 in 39 plate appearances. Simply put, he’s been great.
Meanwhile, designated hitter Edwin Encarnación – who joined catcher Yasmani Grandal as offseason free agent acquisitions that pushed McCann to the bench – entered Monday slashing .149/.184/.277 in 13 games and 50 plate appearances.
The White Sox have the best catching duo in baseball but are getting astoundingly poor production from the designated hitter spot. Entering Monday, White Sox designated hitters had a combined slash line of .119/.176/.238 in 92 plate appearances this season.
So why isn’t this as simple as using McCann as the designated hitter and sitting Encarnación?
That’s exactly what I asked Renteria Monday afternoon. Not surprisingly, he was ready with a great, multi-layered answer.
“It's not complicated. You have an extremely experienced designated hitter who needs an opportunity to try to find his rhythm and his game because I think that once you see what he's able to bring to the table, he's pretty impactful,” Renteria said.
Surely, even at 37 years old, Encarnación can and will be better. He suffered a shoulder injury Aug. 4 that caused him to miss six games and likely contributed to the struggles. But how patient can the White Sox afford to be with only 37 games remaining? That’s where McCann’s (short) history as a designated hitter comes in.
“We did use James quite a bit if everybody remembers last year as a DH,” Renteria continued. “I don't want to tell you guys how to do your jobs, looking at the numbers at everything that goes on, I almost put him in a position where I exposed him and tiring him in using him at many different things. I think I want to make sure that he's as fresh as possible, (so) we're able to maximize what he's capable of doing.”
By now, you probably know that McCann’s second half in 2019 was not as impressive as his first half and if Renteria says fatigue was an issue, then there’s no reason to believe it wasn’t. But far more interesting to me are the “numbers” the manager was referring to. And in this case, I very much appreciated the advice on how to do my job, because it helped answer my question.
McCann as a catcher in 2019: 104 games, 428 plate appearances, .287/.342/.477. McCann as a designated hitter in 2019: 13 games, 48 plate appearances, .156/.208/.311.
That’s an OPS of .819 as a catcher vs .519 as a designated hitter.
Not surprisingly, McCann has yet to be used as the DH yet in 2020. All 10 of his starts have been at catcher and on days when both catchers have been in Renteria’s lineup, Grandal has been used as the designated hitter.
“I do have a challenge in that we have two tremendously good catchers, two tremendously good receivers and James is swinging the bat,” Renteria said. “He's gotten off to a nice start, he's swinging the bat very, very well. It is a challenge to try to balance using both of those guys. I know we have put Yazzy at the DH slot as well.”
Indeed, Grandal has been used as the designated hitter five times this season with one additional start at first base. Like McCann, he’s been better as a hitter when he’s in the field.
Grandal at catcher this year: 12 games, 51 plate appearances, .275/.412/.787. Grandal at DH: five games, 20 plate appearances, .118/.200/.176.
In his one game at first base, Grandal went 1-for-4 with an RBI double.
Thus, playing Grandal and McCann together hasn’t really solved their designated hitter problem. They simply need more production there.
“We'd like to see if we can get Encarnación going, because he's going to be a big part of who we are as we continue to try to battle through this abbreviated season,” Renteria said. “The playing time has a way of kind of taking care of itself, to be honest. I think we've had Mac in there quite a bit. It hasn't been that we've pushed him off to the side. He's had plenty of at-bats and plenty of game time."
Sure enough, Grandal ended up leaving Monday’s game with lower back stiffness and is day-to-day, per the team. That may lead to McCann getting in the lineup more as the catcher, but when it comes to the designated hitter spot, the White Sox simply need Encarnación to improve.