LAKELAND, Fla. -- James McCann enters his third full Major League season earning a well-deserved reputation as one of the better young defensive catchers in the American League, reflected when he became a Gold Glove finalist last year. He knows what he needs to do to take the next step.
McCann, 26, spent his offseason making his body frame smaller. He will spend Spring Training trying to make his pitchers' strike zone bigger.
"The big thing, similar to last year, was keeping my mobility and my flexibility," he said. "That paid great dividends for me last year. And continue to improve on my receiving."
Like his manager, Brad Ausmus, McCann is a believer in the value of pitch framing -- or pitch presentation, as some like to put it. He's also a believer in the value of metrics, of which there is more available.
The value metrics show McCann improved as a pitch framer last year. According to Baseball Prospectus, McCann went from one of the worst presenters in the league -- negative-16.6 Framing Runs in 2015 -- to a net-positive 0.1 last year.
The pitch-to-pitch data from Statcast™ shows not only the improvement, but where around the strike zone he's better at drawing calls.
"You just kind of look at pitches you may have struggled with getting calls for strikes," McCann said. "For me last year, I was very good on the pitch that was up in the zone, borderline up, and I was average on the ball down. So that's something I really focused on this offseason: What do I do differently than other catchers that get the low pitch called? How can I take that into my game while getting the same pitches up in the zone?"
Indeed, the Statcast™ heat map shows a fair number of pitches around the upper reaches of the strike zone as called, while the same strike rates don't reach the lower edges of the zone. The same goes for pitches that register in the strike zone and are called balls. Just 3.1 percent of the pitches McCann received in the upper third of the strike zone were called balls, according to Statcast™, fourth-best among the 27 Major League catchers who received at least 1,000 pitches last season. His ball rate in the bottom third of the zone, by contrast, was 5.8 percent, fifth-worst out of 27. It's somewhat surprising, considering the offseason discussion around Major League Baseball about possibly raising the strike zone to the top of the knees because so many low strikes were being called.
Heat map of close pitches called balls shows what McCann was saying: He wants to improve at getting calls on low end of strike zone. pic.twitter.com/kCAcS6w3wO
The tricky part is translating the data into a physical adjustment, either when McCann prepares to receive a pitch or as it pops his mitt. He's reading the data, but his strike calls are coming from a human being.
"It's all about presentation, what the umpire sees," McCann said. "I think there's a few things that I can adjust to possibly get some more strike calls."
If he can find an adjustment, he'll have plenty of opportunity to make it a routine this spring. Between bullpen sessions, live batting practice, Spring Training games and extra work, McCann will not only catch more than a thousand pitches, he'll have a camera on him for many of them.
Alex Avila knows the work it entails. He didn't start catching until he was in college, so he had to work at it.
"When I started catching, I wasn't great at it at all, because I wasn't used to catching balls moving at that velocity," Avila said. "It took me a few years to feel comfortable when I first started catching. I would study catchers that I felt were pretty good receivers, see how they would set up, see where their glove was when the ball was in mid-flight.
"A lot of times as a catcher, you don't want to just hold the glove there. You want to be able to relax so you can have time to react to the ball. I'd watch catchers that I thought were good, see how they did that, and really tried to mimic that. Basically, it's just ball after ball out of the machine, catching and catching to feel comfortable and get that muscle memory."
McCann, too, said he's studying catchers around the league. The two leaders in Framing Runs last year were Giants All-Star Buster Posey (27.6) and the Dodgers' Yasmani Grandal (26.7).
Avila (minus-6.8 last year) has been in negative territory the last three seasons, but he knows a thing or two about how to present pitches to coerce calls.
"You kind of want to keep the ball in a cone in front of your body, where you're setting up on the plate," Avila said, "and how you set up on the plate also creates an angle for the umpire to look at it. Usually now, the umpires are always on the inside behind us because they want to keep away from getting hit. I would love it if they were in the middle of the plate, so they could see the whole plate, but they're trying to protect themselves. But because of that, the catcher is able to manipulate the angles, manipulate how the umpire sees the ball coming in at times."
The difference is big, not only for the catcher, but for the pitcher delivering to him.
"I think it's kind of an acquired feel," Matt Boyd said. "You see you start to get it, and then you start to hit that. It's that chemistry. You start to think, 'I can hit that consistently, because he's working back there to get it for me.' Maybe that's a pitch you go to a little more.
"The more you can expand the zone, every little inch of it that's available, it always helps."
Jason Beck has covered the Tigers for MLB.com since 2002. Read Beck's Blog, follow him on Twitter @beckjason and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.