McCann working to improve pitch framing

Catcher can bolster his already strong game with improvement in this area

April 11th, 2016

DETROIT -- James McCann has quickly built a case as one of the strongest defensive catchers in the game. One of the next steps for the resume is pitch framing.

It's an art the Tigers worked on with McCann and their other catchers in Spring Training. With the influx of data, it's an easy art to measure, though it still has room for improvement.

"It's easier to put numbers behind it," manager Brad Ausmus said Monday morning. "I think it's still a growing area in terms of teaching and developing."

While McCann, who exited Monday's 7-4 loss to the Pirates after colliding with John Jaso at first base in the fifth inning, rates strong in halting baserunners and blocking pitches, his pitch framing is a work in progress. According to Baseball Prospectus, his framing runs registered at minus-16.6, ahead of only Philadelphia's Carlos Ruiz. He ranks a little better when adjusted for other factors, moving ahead of Miami's young backstop, J.T. Realmuto.

ESPN Stats and Information ran a detailed heat map last month to show where pitchers garnered more or fewer called strikes than average with McCann behind the plate last year. The hot area sat at the upper part of the zone and beyond, especially up and in to left-handers. The cool zone resides around the outside corner to lefties, or low and inside to right-handers.

Part of this, of course, is a product of the pitching staff, and Tigers pitching ranked among the worst in the league last year. Even good Major League pitchers miss their spots a fair amount, sometimes by quite a bit. McCann's ratings could show some improvement automatically with the pitching moves Detroit made in the offseason.

McCann's likely to improve with more experience. The outside corner to left-handed hitters, and inner half to righties, is often an area of strength framingwise, according to former catcher Ausmus, because it involves less movement of the mitt.

Heat maps and metrics help measure the progress, but the improvement is mostly physical. It's about less movement, less sudden movement, and being able to corral the ball around the mitt.

"It generally seems like catchers who are adept at getting strikes called on pitches outside the zone, they catch the ball subtly, just outside the zone," Ausmus said.

Although replays should tell how well McCann is setting up pitches as the season goes along, the data won't be large enough to measure until late in the year or at season's end. Still, the fact that McCann is so good in other areas should portend well for progress. The skill set is there.

"I don't think you can turn an awful receiver into a great receiver," Ausmus said, "but you can turn an average receiver into an above-average receiver."