Learning process ramps up for McCann
BRADENTON, Fla. -- The long feeling-out process between pitcher and catcher began in earnest on Wednesday for Yankees right-hander Ivan Nova and his new catcher, Brian McCann.
It was the first time Nova threw in a game to McCann, who signed a five-year, $85 million free-agent contract this past offseason and who just turned 30. And one by one, McCann will do the same with Yankees pitchers, from the veteran CC Sabathia to the heralded Masahiro Tanaka to new closer David Robertson.
First impressions were positive.
"[McCann] is great. He gives me a nice, low target," said Nova, who threw the first 36 pitches of 2014 for his club, as the Yanks opened the Grapefruit League season with a 6-5 loss to the Pirates at McKechnie Field. "I told him, 'For the first time, you give me the sign, and I'm going to throw it to you.' The way he called the game, I really liked it."
McCann is not a novice. He came to New York after nine seasons in Atlanta, where he built an impressive resume: seven selections to the National League All-Star team -- including the MVP hardware for the 2010 game at Angel Stadium -- and five Silver Sluggers.
McCann is a .277 hitter with a .991 fielding percentage, and he has thrown out 24 percent of would-be basestealers.
McCann is also well liked by his peers. He has been consistently voted as an All-Star by the players, which is all anyone needs to know about how much respect he generated around the Senior Circuit.
Despite all this, McCann is soft-spoken. There's no braggadocio at all. When told of Nova's remarks, McCann said that he is new on a team, with a new staff, and has to earn their respect.
"I hope my background generated some [respect], but that takes time," McCann said. "I've got to show them what I'm about, and that all takes time. This is Day 1 of a long Spring Training, which is really good for me and the pitchers to get some work in."
McCann's new life with the Yankees started well, as he singled home Jacoby Ellsbury in the first inning. In the bottom of the frame, Nova was a little erratic, walking Martin, and when the count went to 3-0 on reigning NL MVP Award winner Andrew McCutchen, McCann went to the mound to have a little chat with his pitcher.
"I was just trying to slow him down," McCann said. "He was pulling his four-seamer a little bit. I just wanted to get him [to pitch] down in the zone."
"I was getting a little bit too quick," Nova added. "He just wanted me to slow down, take it easy."
Nova wound up throwing a pair of strikes before McCutchen singled, but he struck out Pedro Alvarez with runners on first and second and ultimately pitched out of the inning without allowing a run.
Those are small gains, and nothing can replace experience.
Asked if he understands how to handle a pitcher by looking at videos or with a touch of sensory perception, McCann said, "Just catching for quite a while now, understanding what works and what doesn't. I've caught [1,046] games. The name of this game is to stay ahead and dictate counts. When he's got that two-seamer working, he's going to get a lot of ground balls."
McCann did spend the offseason looking at videos of Yanks pitchers after the signing became official on Dec. 3. He picked up arm angles and tendencies, how a hurler pitches with runners on base or behind in the count. Since camp opened earlier this month, McCann has caught them in bullpen sessions and has begun to understand how each physically approaches his job.
But nothing replaces the experience of working together in a game, beginning with Nova on Wednesday.
"Nothing can simulate a game," McCann said. "Nothing can simulate when there's a guy on third base or there are bases loaded with none out and you have to get that double play. Nothing can really simulate that. Game speed, game action is the only thing that can really get you ready for what you need to do."
There's also the stature of the pitcher. Nova, at 27, is still trying to find his way. He has pitched in parts of four seasons for the Yankees. He dealt with injuries and regressed in 2013, and even had to return to the Minors before showing flashes of his former brilliance during the second half.
Nova is working to find himself, and even with manager Joe Girardi designating him this spring as a member of the rotation, he doesn't feel secure.
"I don't have nothing, man," Nova said. "Nothing yet."
Enter the steadying hand of McCann.
"We have eight weeks together now to figure it all out," McCann said. "To figure out what he likes to do in what situations, what makes him tick, what makes him throw strikes. We have plenty of time to get that ironed out, but for Day 1, I think, it was a good start."
Barry M. Bloom is national reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. Follow @boomskie on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.