Brian McCann wants to be thought of as more than just one of the best-hitting catchers in the game. The Braves backstop also wants to be known for his defense. A National League All-Star in each of the past three years thanks to his productive bat-his career numbers are .300/.364/.503-McCann began this season several pounds lighter and with an increased emphasis on his defensive game. Already regarded as a solid handler of pitchers, the 25-year-old native of Athens, Georgia came into the year having thrown out only 20 percent of runners attempting to steal, a number that has improved to over 30 percent in the first three months of the 2009 campaign. McCann talked about his work on the defensive side of the ball, including communicating with a pitching staff, catching Tommy Hanson and Jair Jurrjens, and his desire to spend the rest of his career behind the plate.
David Laurila: How do you think you’re perceived around the game of baseball?
Brian McCann: Well, I hope that my teammates like me. Beyond that, I think I’m a guy who plays hard every day. That’s about it, really.
DL: You have a well-deserved reputation as being one of the best-hitting catchers in the game. Where are you at defensively right now?
BM: I’m getting better. I wouldn’t say that my defense is where it needs to be, but I feel that with the weight I’ve lost this past off-season-that has helped me out a lot behind the plate. It’s helped my agility, which helps me throw out runners, block balls, and things like that. Obviously, the quicker you are throwing the baseball to second base, the better off you’re going to be.
DL: Is that the biggest improvement you’ve made behind the plate?
BM: Absolutely. I think that when teams used to come in, they knew that they could run any time they wanted. Now, I think that teams are going to have to come in having to pick and choose when they’re going to go.
DL: Pitchers are often asked about their approach on the mound, but you rarely hear catchers asked about theirs. What is your approach behind the plate?
BM: For me, it all depends on what the pitcher has got that particular day. As a catcher, you have to make adjustments on the fly. That is something that is really important for a catcher: knowing what he has going that day. That will dictate how you’re going to call a game.
DL: What is your relationship with the pitching coach in that regard?
BM: I feel that we’re on the same page every single night. If I have a question, I ask him. He really knows his stuff. I mean, Roger McDowell has helped me out so much. He’s been here since my first full year in the big leagues, and he has helped me out a whole lot.
DL: How about with Bobby Cox?
BM: His philosophy is the same as Roger McDowell’s, and I think that’s why they get along so well. With them, you’re looking at two great baseball minds.
DL: I read an interview from spring training in which you said of Derek Lowe: “He’s sinker/cutter/breaking ball/changeup, so we’ll just work on rhythm, sequencing, and spots.” Can you elaborate on that?
BM: I don’t know if I said that, but I think, for Derek-he’s one of those guys that have been successful for all these years because he has one of the best sinkers in the game. When he can locate and pound the bottom of the zone with that pitch, it sets up his other pitches. So I think that Derek’s success comes from spotting his fastball.
DL: Can you compare and contrast John Smoltz and Tommy Hanson?
BM: Tommy has got everything to be a number-one starter in this league for a long, long time. And Smoltzy… what he’s done throughout his career is just remarkable. They’re similar pitchers, in that they’re both tall and both work down in the zone, and they both have electric fastballs. Still, I don’t think you can really compare the two yet. That would be a tough one on Tommy Hanson. It would be tough for anybody to be compared to John Smoltz after having just three starts in the big leagues. For me it’s too hard to say. I think I should kind of stay away from that [comparison].
DL: I recently talked to someone who worked with Smoltz in a rehab outing. He said that he could have almost caught him blindfolded because of how Smoltz always hit his glove.
BM: Yeah, Smoltzy doesn’t miss his target much. He also understands hitters and is going to use people’s aggressiveness against them. He’s just a very intelligent pitcher who knows what he’s doing out there.
DL: How would you describe Jair Jurrjens?
BM: J.J. has probably impressed me more than anybody that I’ve ever played with. I mean, to be as young as he is, and to be as talented, and to be as humble-he goes out there wanting to get better every single day. We all see that around the clubhouse and everybody respects him. What he’s done so far has just been remarkable. J.J. is really impressive.
DL: Jurrjens is from Curacao, while other members of the pitching staff hail from the Dominican Republic, Japan, and Australia. Has it been a challenge to work with such a multi-cultural group, not only in regard to language issues, but also in learning their varied personalities?
BM: That’s something where, just being around them in the clubhouse, you pick up on things. With certain guys, you can do this, and with certain guys you don’t want to do that. But yeah, the language thing… I mean, all of the pitchers understand English. All of the Latin pitchers speak English, and [Kenshin] Kawakami understands fastball, curveball, slider-the needed language to get through a conversation on the mound. So, I think it’s all about personalities, like the makeup the guys have. There are some guys you can talk to and get on, and there are guys where you need to back off and kind of pat them on the butt.
DL: You have great numbers at Great American Ballpark, which presumably means that you love to hit there. Are individual ballparks also a factor for you on the defensive side of the ball?
BM: Yeah, certain ones are. Just like Great American Ballpark, where you have to be… you can’t make mistakes. A popup is going to be a home run in that ballpark, so on 2-1 counts maybe you need to throw a few more off-speed pitches. In hitter’s counts you have to be a little more fine with your pitches, instead of just throwing one over for a strike. But everybody knows that in places like Cincinnati and Philadelphia-Coors Field is another-you’re probably going to give up more runs in those yards. Not all places are the same.
DL: Do you ever find yourself thinking like a catcher when you’re up to bat? For example, are you more tuned in to what the umpire’s strike zone has been that day?
BM: I try to watch film on the pitchers, and he’ll tell you what he’s going to do to you. It’s not so much the umpires. So, I feel that I think like a hitter up at bat, not like a catcher. I just try to be an intelligent hitter up there.
DL: You’ve recently said that it is important to you that you remain a catcher. Why is that?
BM: Because it’s my passion. It’s something where I don’t want to move positions because I feel that I can contribute. It’s my best position-behind the plate.
DL: From a statistical-analysis perspective, the same offensive numbers have more value from the catching position than they would from a first baseman or a corner outfielder. Does that factor into your thinking?
BM: You know, I don’t think so. If I got to play every day without the wear and tear on my body, as a catcher… you’re going to put up better numbers in a corner position. Catching is one of the toughest things to do. You’ve got to call a game, and at the same time, you’ve still got to hit. That’s why I think there’s a little more leeway with catchers if their averages aren’t as high-it’s because of the importance of the position.
DL: As I’m sure you know, a lot of managers are former catchers. Have you given any thought at all to the possibility of managing someday?
BM: You know, I would love to. It’s something that, down the road, I’d have to talk to my wife about, though. But yeah, I love the game of baseball, and if that’s something in my future, we’ll find out when I’m done playing the game.
DL: Do you ever sit on the bench and think to yourself, “If I were the manager, this is what I would do?”
BM: I think that everybody does. If you’re a baseball guy, you try to be in the game and see everything. And, here with the Braves, Bobby Cox is one of the best managers in the game. As a matter of fact, I think Bobby Cox is the best in the game. We’re lucky to play for him.