James McCann remembers everything about the pitchers he has caught. He remembers details of games long forgotten by others, but not by him. He caught 24 innings for the Detroit Tigers in September 2014, his first month in the major leagues, and worked with five pitchers who would pitch in an All-Star Game — David Price, Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander, future All-Star Robbie Ray and one-time Orioles All-Star Jim Johnson. He can tell you everything about those games.
McCann’s memory isn’t infallible. “I can’t remember the lyrics of songs. I can’t remember movie quotes,” he said.
That first month in the major leagues ended with McCann watching Delmon Young’s double in Game 2 of the American League Division Series at Camden Yards and being amazed at how loud his now home ballpark was. He remembers that Alex Avila, the Tigers’ starting catcher, suffered a concussion in Game 3 at Comerica Park, and if Detroit had won that game, McCann would have been activated for Game 4.
McCann, 32, is with his fourth team. After four seasons with the Tigers, they non-tendered him, and he had an All-Star year with the Chicago White Sox in 2019. After 2020, he signed with the New York Mets, who traded him to the Orioles last December.
In his fascinating career, McCann has caught 22 All-Stars and two no-hitters — Lucas Giolito’s in 2019 and a combined five-pitcher effort with the Mets last season.
Now, he’s the backup to Adley Rutschman, and he’s eager to share his experience.
“It’s going to take a couple of years before you learn the league,” he said. “All the data’s great, but it takes getting burned a couple of times where ‘I’m not getting burned by that guy again.’
“I remember Alex Avila was the veteran catcher when I got called up and he told me he didn’t feel he knew the league until like year three or year four because now you have a basis of games to recall back and how you’ve had success and how you haven’t had success.”
McCann wasn’t like Rutschman when he came to the major leagues. He was a second-round pick, not the overall top selection. Rutschman was there to turn a franchise around. McCann was there to watch and learn.
“On top of the All-Star type pitchers that I was catching literally every time I took the field, we were in the middle of a playoff race,” McCann said. “The intensity and the importance of each and every pitch, what was at stake with each pitch, it helped shape my future as far as getting to learn from those guys, understand how in big moments, they’re going to attack guys and pitching to their strengths and not getting beaten by their third or fourth pitches. The amount that I learned in the first month of the big leagues was incredible.”
He recently shared his memories of catching some of the most memorable pitchers of his career.
“I vividly remember my second start. We were in Kansas City. I was catching Verlander. It was a part of Verlander’s career, where he was having some ups-and-downs, some injuries. We’re going over the lineup. I don’t know the hitters. I’ve done my homework, but I never faced them in a game. We get to Billy Butler, and he said, ‘Whatever you put down, I’m going to throw.’
“I remember thinking, ‘Whatever you put down I’m going to throw?’ OK, so we finish the meeting and Verlander leaves and the pitching coach was Jeff Jones. He said, ‘He can’t get Billy Butler out, so good luck.’
“I think Billy Butler went [0-for-2] that night, and we won. I guess that made a good impression on JV.
“The talent. He’s at the elite of elite level with stuff, but below all that, he’s as competitive as they come. He works hard. He has a routine that he sticks to. He doesn’t miss a beat. If he’s supposed to go on the mound at 3 o’clock, he’s on the mound at 3 o’clock. If he’s supposed to be in the weight room, he’s in the weight room.
“I haven’t seen his post-start routine in a couple of years now, but he’ll run stairs. How many pitchers do you see out running stadium [stairs] anymore? That’s just his whole career. Beyond the talent, he’s a freak when it comes to rituals and doing things the same way every time, and he knows what he’s found success with and he sticks to it.”
“Very similar to Verlander. Talent is undeniable. Everyone knows that. Stuff is what it is. It’s some of the best in the game. He has a routine. He sticks to it.
“One thing you see with a lot of young pitchers, they’re searching for who they are in the big leagues because they bounce from this to this to that to that and searching for where they find that honey hole … This is where I need to be. Those have found it and they haven’t lost it and they stay in that area.
“I remember back before I even made my debut, him sitting with me in the dugout during spring training and talking about pitch sequencing. On days I’m not playing, especially in spring training, you know as a Double-A player, you’re not going to play every game, how you can learn watching
“Other guys pitch and hearing him talk about why I throw this pitch here and see how the hitter took that pitch, now we’ll go with that pitch.
“That’s a big learning experience to see how someone who knows what they’re doing like Scherzer. He’s a guy who obviously has that talent. He also knows the game. He’s not just outstuffing the hitters. He’s outthinking the hitters.
“He outstuffs hitters. Don’t get me wrong. He’s outthinking hitters. He thinks baseball. I’d sit with him and learn a lot about pitch sequencing and how to call a game. He probably doesn’t remember it. It was five minutes of his time. Just listening to a guy like that talk, I took a lot away from that.
“When I was with the Mets, I have seven-plus years in the big leagues, there’s a little more back-and-forth, a little more ‘this is what I’m seeing.’ From him, listening to what I had to say just because he respected that I’d been around that I was seeing a different angle than he was. We got along. When you’ve got a guy like that, you serve his needs and you try to add in whenever you can. A guy like Scherzer, a guy like Verlander, they have their ways. You get on their page.”
“He’s a little bit different than Verlander and Scherzer. His routine physically was elite. His bullpens were some of the best bullpens I’ve ever seen. He had a specific number of pitches he was going to throw and if he missed his spot, it didn’t count as a pitch, he’s got to make that pitch again. The little things you see from the guys that are at the top of the game you don’t see from guys who aren’t at that level. Where he was different, he didn’t want to do a lot of pregame talking. He wanted to do more in-game talking. He was a big believer that if he had full conviction in his pitches and he executed the pitch that was called then he would have success, and that’s how he pitched. He would shake and based on what he saw from hitters, just different, not in a bad way, but just different. He was more about in-game adjustments than pregame planning.”
“He’s on a different level than any of those guys just in the sense that he is opposite of all of them. He’s very laid back. He’s very fun loving, wants to joke on the days he starts where these other guys’ start day: ‘Lock in, put my headphones on, don’t talk to me. I’m getting ready to go to battle.’
“He’s the opposite. He wants to joke. He wants to laugh. That’s how he deals with nerves. I’ve yet to come across a pitcher that has his ability, his body awareness is different than all of them. He knows when his release point is off a little bit. He knows when his mechanics are off a little bit. He doesn’t need to go watch video. He can feel it. His arsenal is ridiculous, but him being able to make adjustments so quickly is impressive.”
Jim Johnson (McCann’s major league debut)
“I had caught him a little bit In Triple-A that year. He had signed a minor league deal, and I caught him a little bit in Triple-A. That took the nerves off a little bit because I knew who I was catching. Jim was always good to me. We were winning, and he tossed me the ball after the game. Usually the guy that closes out the game keeps the ball, but he gave it to me. ‘You need this more than I do.’ It’s somewhere at home. I don’t know where it is, but I got it authenticated.”
“He’s as intense as they come. I caught him in ’21. I joked with him, ‘If I was a young catcher, I’d think you were yelling at me.’ He’s just intense. He does have a neat story. Rise to the big leagues, then he did the independent ball circuit. Made his way back. I faced him in Triple-A when he was a reliever trying to make it back with the Red Sox. He’s a guy similar to K-Rod. He had to make adjustments physically. He had to make adjustments mentally, and here he is pitching at 43, oldest guy in the big leagues, and he’s still doing it at a high level.”
“That was pretty cool for me because the Angels won the World Series in 2002. I was 12. I grew up rooting for the Angels. I was a fan of K-Rod. I remember him coming up throwing absolute fuel. He was 19 at the time, an absolute phenom that was blowing major league hitters away.
“Fast forward, I’m catching in the big leagues, and hearing him talk about his adjustment from being that young kid that could blow it by hitters to now being a crafty veteran that wasn’t able to blow heaters by guys anymore. Hearing him talk about just the mental adjustments, the physical adjustments, how much it took to really re-create himself. I think that in itself makes his Hall of Fame case even more impressive because he wasn’t the same guy from Day 1 to Day whatever. He had to make adjustments to survive.”
“He’s one of those when you saw him warming up, you knew the game was over. As dominant as I’ve seen from a closer. Not only from a sense that our team knew the game was over. You could sense that the other team knew that it was over, too. He’s just a two-pitch mix, a fastball and slider. He’s worth every penny he got in the offseason. He’s legit.”
Kyle Gibson on McCann
“We played a lot of time in the [AL] Central together, and playing against him, you always knew the kind of catcher he was, and one thing that really good catchers do, they learn from the pitchers that they catch. There’s only so many different types of pitchers, right? We’re all a little different here, but if you go from team to team, you’re going to have a similar type player to all of us.
“As he learned from Scherzer and Verlander and Price, I think that just gave him a real understanding of how a different pitcher’s stuff can play in the big leagues and how he can tell me … that type of experience really helps him go through a lineup and then he’s seen a lot of these impact hitters around the game up close and personal. That gives him a different level of experience as well. He’s seen how these guys’ stuff has played against these type of hitters on a consistent basis.
“Hearing the different nuances of how he would go from starter to reliever and navigate a game, it’s experience you get only being back there and catching how many thousands of games he’s caught.”
McCann on Gibson
“It’s actually neat to hear him talk about how he wants to pitch because I have an idea of how he’s pitched me in my career. If I was facing Kyle Gibson today, I wouldn’t even watch video. I know exactly what he’s got. I know what he’s trying to do to me. I may watch his last start just to see if he did anything different to right-handed hitters. I have enough experience with him that I feel like I know what he tries to do.
“Hearing him talk about, ‘Early in the count, I don’t want to do this,’ I feel like he has done that to me, but then I go back and look and then he hasn’t. Seeing where my scouring report as a hitter lines up with his scouting report for himself, it’s pretty neat to compare notes. It also helps knowing how he likes to pitch. It makes it a little easier to call a game.”