A number of years ago, Boston sports-TV anchor Bob Lobel used to say of former Red Sox players excelling for other teams, “Why can’t we get players like that?” Similar words are currently being uttered in Detroit, in regard to James McCann. In his first season with the Chicago White Sox, the 29-year-old catcher is slashing a robust .320/.378/.519, and he’s already gone deep nine times.
McCann wasn’t nearly that good with the stick in his four-plus years with the Tigers. When he signed with the ChiSox in December — a bargain-basement one-year deal for $2.5M, no less — he was a .240/.288/.366 career hitter. How did he suddenly morph into an offensive force?
“Honestly, the biggest thing for me this year is that I’m trying to be the best James McCann,” is how the Tigers castoff explained it prior to a recent game at Fenway Park. “I’m staying within myself and not trying to do too much. I’m taking my base hits the other way — I’m taking my singles — and not trying to hit the impossible six-run homer.”
The breaking-out backstop trained with Rangers infielder Logan Forsythe over the offseason — both live just south of Nashville — and as McCann pointed out, each has played with some great hitters over the course of their careers. Not that attempting to emulate one’s more-talented peers is always the best idea.
“Often times, I would find myself trying to load like Miggy, or trying to hit like JD [Martinez],” he admitted. “You can’t be those guys. Those are once-in-a-generation hitters. You can take things from them, but at the end of the day you’ve got to do what works for you.”
For McCann, that means letting the ball travel and using the big part of the field. His spray chart shows that he’s doing the latter especially well, and while his BABiP is an unsustainable .404, the approach is certainly working. His soft-contact rate is a career-low 12%.
While McCann stressed the not-trying-to-do-too-much side of his improvement, there have been mechanical adjustments as well. He’s widened his stance, which he feels helps him use his hands more — specifically, hands that are now starting closer to the trigger position. And while it may not seem apparent on the surface, the mental and physical adjustments are interconnected.
“Opening up my stance and allowing my hands to work more is helping me stay within myself,” explained McCann. “Sometimes when you’re trying to do too much, your body gets in the way. Your swing becomes a very body-swing. That can’t work for me. I need to be short-and-compact. That’s the best James McCann.”
Much to the chagrin of Detroit fans, a James McCann the Tigers never had.
When I first interviewed Texas Rangers play-by-play voice Eric Nadel, our conversation centered on the use of advanced stats in the broadcast booth. That was in 2010, and it’s safe to say that a lot has changed since then. Stats that go beyond the traditional are now a part of the baseball vernacular for the well-informed fan.
With that in mind, I recently asked the veteran broadcaster how much that usage has changed for him over the past nine years.
“I now use OPS pretty regularly,” answered Nadel. “The first time I use it in a game, I still say, ‘That’s on-base plus slugging.’ And I’ll always reference what league average is, or I’ll at least say ’He’s 100 points over the league average’ — some reference to show whether the number is good or bad. If I say ‘.900,’ how many players are .900 or over? I think that a big chunk of our listeners still need clarification on that.”
Nadel will cite WAR, but only rarely. His reasoning is that the majority of listeners “don’t understand how it’s computed.” He doesn’t cite BABiP at all, albeit for a somewhat different reason.
“I don’t believe in the stat,” explained Nadel. “I don’t feel that BABiP is mostly indicative of luck; I think it’s more a reflection of how hard you hit the ball. I do talk about exit velocity. That’s one we use quite a bit. And we’ll refer to spin rate, but without using the numbers. Managers will pull pitchers because of it. If a pitcher gets lifted in the sixth inning, I might say, ‘It could be because his spin rate has gone down,’ or ‘They know that after 90 pitches his spin rate has been going down.’”
Given his reputation for thorough pre-game prep, it’s safe to say that Nadel has queried the Rangers’ brain trust on that very subject. Smart questions are part of his M.O. As for what he hears from listeners, let’s just say they’re not clamoring for a Statcast broadcast. The number of times he’s been asked why he doesn’t use advanced stats more frequently is… zero.
“I would say it’s never happened,” Nadel informed me. “I don’t think the majority of the audience, particularly in Texas, is all that tuned in to it. I’m very accessible. People can get me on Twitter. They can get me on InstaGram. I’m easy to find by email. And nobody ever asks about that.”
RANDOM HITTER-PITCHER MATCHUPS
SABR 49, which took place in San Diego over the past four days, included an Umpires Panel. The featured speakers were 35-year-MLB-umpire Gerry Davis, and former MLB Vice President of Umpiring Mike Port. That latter led off, and one of his initial comments rang especially true: “Anybody can do it,” he said, “until you try it.”
In other words, the job — especially at the highest level — is anything but easy. The phrase “kill the umpire” is nearly as old as the game itself.
According to Davis, he and his brethren understand the mentality of people who shout such words.
“I’m a big football fan,” the veteran arbiter told a packed conference room on Saturday. ”I’m a big Green Bay Packers fan; all right? And trust me, there are a lot of referees whose calls go against my Packers. I’m very much aware of that.”
Replay review was predictably a primary topic in the panel discussion. As fate would have it, Davis had worked Friday night’s Padres-Cardinals game — one in which four calls made by first-base umpire Vic Carapazza were overturned. Davis could feel his colleague’s pain.
“I have to be honest; if that had been me, you’d be talking me off the ledge,” said Davis. “It’s a hide-the-razor-blades kind of thing, because there’s no question we take a lot of pride in what we do.”
Again, the job isn’t easy. I was in the Petco Park press box on Friday, so not only did I see the plays live, I saw multiple replays on a TV screen. All were bang-bang, and one or two were akin to coin flips. Which leads to a question Davis fielded from a member of the audience: If the replay-review folks in New York can’t make a definitive decision within 45 seconds, should the call stand?
“We have to decide in a split second, and when we go to replay, they’re looking at it in slow motion and stop-action,” answered Davis. “One of the things that has evolved out of replay is how it’s used in situations it wasn’t really intended for. When a guy slides in and is safe, and he pops up [an inch or two] off the base… I don’t think that was really the intent of replay. The intent was for the egregious error. Those occur. We’re human, so it’s going to happen. But that’s the one, not the strings of a glove [contacting the baserunner]. But the horse is out of the barn already, as far as that is concerned. I don’t see that changing.”
And again, some calls are akin to coin flips.
“We had a supervisor once write on this report that there was a close call at second,” said Davis. “I looked at that play 22 times, and couldn’t tell. In my judgement, he got it right. At the very least, he didn’t get it wrong.”
When he wrote about Emilio Pagan earlier in the week, my colleague Jake Mailhot made mention of the fact that the Tampa Bay Rays have always been flexible with their reliever usage. That has certainly been the case this season. Diego Castillo currently has seven saves, while Jose Alvarado has six, Pagan four, and Jalen Beeks and Hunter Wood one each.
The innings the quintet have appeared in stand out even more. Here is the breakdown for the three with multiple save totals:
Alvarado: Seventh (2), eighth (12), ninth (12), extras (4).
Castillo: Fifth (2), sixth (2), seventh (7), eighth (10) ninth (15), extras (4).
Pagan: Third (1), fifth (3), sixth (7), seventh (9), eighth (8), ninth (9), extras (1).
Following Pagan’s third save, which came a full two months ago, I asked Kevin Cash if the former college and minor-leaguer closer would be getting more of those opportunities. His response focused more on leverage than who gets the ball in the ninth.
“It probably does,” said the Tampa manager. “I don’t know if it’s going to turn out all the way like that, but you and I have talked about this before. Sometimes there are games lost in the sixth and seventh innings. I don’t quite understand why you would avoid holding those guys out. We’ll continue to do that.”
The San Diego Chicken is probably the most-famous mascot in baseball history. He began appearing at Padres games in the 1970s, and while the team was mostly terrible, the Chicken was anything but. The fans loved him, and so did Randy Jones, who was part of the Player Panel at SABR 49.
“The chicken kept me sane,” the southpaw said. “I mean, I didn’t want to watch that crap — we weren’t playing all that well — but here comes the chicken on roller skates, or something. Hilarious. The chicken was the best; I’m telling you right now. He had me in tears some days. Some of the antics he pulled, especially on a Sunday day game. You’d know when the chicken had too much beer. He’d get a little wild in stands. I loved that stuff.”
Along with his antics in the stands, the Chicken was outrageous on the field. Being a cultural icon within a ballpark allows for some liberties. Jones put it this way: “Where else can you hike your leg on an umpire and get away with it?”
Luis Castro, a 23-year-old first baseman in the Colorado Rockies system, leads the high-A California League with 18 home runs. The right-handed hitter out of Caja Seca, Venezuela is slashing .295/.423/.571 with the Lancaster JetHawks.
Luis Campusano, a 20-year-old catcher in the San Diego Padres system, is slashing .323/.394/.509 with the California League’s Lake Elsinore Storm. A second-round pick in 2017 out of a Georgia high school, Campusano is the Padres’ No. 22-rated prospect.
Alex Wells, a 22-year-old left-hander in the Baltimore Orioles system, has a 1.97 ERA in 12 starts for the Double-A Bowie Baysox. The Newcastle, Australia native has walked just 69 batters in 406 professional innings.
Dave Kubiak, a 29-year-old right-hander with the Somerset Patriots, leads the independent Atlantic League in wins (7), ERA (1.19) and strikeouts (71). A 36th-round pick by the Tampa Bay Rays in 2011, he last played affiliated ball in 2016.
Gianfranco Wawoe, a 24-year-old infielder with the Southern Illinois Miners, is leading the independent Frontier League with a .326 batting average. The Willemstad, Curacao native was in the Seattle Mariners system from 2011-2017.
The idea of a batter’s A-swing has been addressed in a handful of the “Talks Hitting” interviews I’ve done in recent months. Ryan McMahon isn’t among the players I’ve gone in-depth with, but I did ask the Colorado Rockies infielder if there are certain types of pitchers against whom it’s hard to consistently implement his A-swing.
“I’ve never really thought of that, but it’s a pretty good point,” answered McMahon. “There are different pitchers, and different angles they throw from, that might cause you to not get your A-swing off. You might have to go to a B approach, something where you’re getting your foot down. You might be on to something there.”
One of the more informative presentations I saw at SABR 49 on Friday was made by Retrosheet’s Mark Pankin. Titled “Baseball’s Most Confounding Rule,” it addressed the history of players batting out of order. The best of the anecdotes and explanations can’t be done justice within this space — they’re more involved than you might think — but I will share three nuts-and-bolts facts you may not know:
If a player bats out of order, the team in the field must bring it to the umpire’s attention. Neither the umpire, nor the official scorer, can do so.
If the team in the field points out the violation and chooses to have it enforced, the batter who was supposed to be at the plate is ruled out — not the batter who was hitting out of turn.
If the team batting out of turn realizes what is happening, and the team in the field hasn’t informed the umpire of the violation, they can replace the incorrect batter with the correct batter in the middle of the plate appearance. The correct batter inherits the balls-and-strikes count.
Sticking with SABR 49, Allison Levin had one of the convention’s more entertaining (pun intended) poster presentations. The Webster University professor researched the walk-up music of 1,853 MLB players from the 2017-2018 seasons, and parsed the results by age group and musical genre.
Hip-hop topped all five of the age groups — all by fairly significant margins — while Drake and Imagine Dragons were the most popular artists. Manny Machado (10) and Miguel Rojas (9) had the highest total of unique songs in the two-year period.
LINKS YOU’LL LIKE
At Forbes, longtime baseball scribe Barry Bloom wrote about how Callaway-style clashes with reporters were typical back in the day.
At The Sporting News, Jared Wyllys wrote about the challenges faced, both on and off the field, by MLB veterans who sign minor league deals.
DJ LeMahieu hasn’t withered outside of Coors, and according to Beyond The Boxscore’s Kenny Kelly, the reason might be that he’s always been great, and his former home venue made that impossible to appreciate.
Over at Baseball America, Ben Badler delved into why MLB teams are unhappy with the current international signing system.
RANDOM FACTS AND STATS
Joey Votto is 17 for 34 against the Cubs this season. He is 12 for 80 against Western Division teams.
On this date in 2000, the New York Mets scored 10 runs in the bottom of the eighth inning on their way to an 11-8 win over the Atlanta Braves. Mike Piazza capped the scoring with a three-run dinger.
On July 3, 2014, Zelous Wheeler made his MLB debut with the New York Yankees and recorded his first hit, a home run, off of Minnesota Twins righty Phil Hughes. Wheeler is now in his fifth season with NPB’s Rakuten Golden Eagles.
Rip Radcliff of the St. Louis Browns batted .342 with an AL-best 200 hits in 1940.
Makesiondon Kelkboom, an 18-year-old infielder from Leiden, Netherlands, plays for the Lake County Captains, Cleveland’s low-A affiliate.
Bun Troy, who pitched in one game for the Detroit Tigers in 1912, was born in Bad Wurzach, Germany. He was killed in action during World War I, at Petit Maujouym, France, at age 30.
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.