Frisco, Texas —— Shane McCain shouldn’t be here.
It’s not just that he was an undrafted free agent in 2014, a senior sign out of Troy University who took the pennies and peanuts offered by the Texas Rangers to start a tenuous professional career as the last man out of the bullpen.
It’s more that, well, McCain was prepared to call his own bluff and head to law school that fall right up until the Rangers rescued him from an ill-advised pre-draft boast.
“I was a good college pitcher, so I was optimistic about the draft even though I didn’t have the radar gun on my side, and I had a couple arm surgeries,” McCain remembered about his days at Troy in an interview with Baseball Census. “But I had been told I was going to be drafted in a relatively high round. I even told my agent and my dad, ‘I’m not going to play professional baseball if I don’t get drafted. I’m going to go to law school.’ And as I’m watching the draft, expecting to be drafted, nobody called my name. In my mind, I was like, ‘well, that’s it. I guess I have to go to law school now.’”
“When the Rangers called and offered me a deal, I think I was so angry that I couldn’t say no,” he continued. “I was like ‘I’m going to go, and I’m going to play my ass off, and I’m going to show them that I should have been drafted.’”
It’s not uncommon for undrafted free agents to play with a chip on their shoulder. Everybody is more or less equal and must ultimately prove themselves between the lines, but it’s no secret that undrafted guys command less attention and are given fewer, more irregular opportunities than their bonus baby peers. Pitching this summer in Double-A Frisco, Shane McCain is far overshadowed by big-time pitching prospects who have come through with the Texas Rangers, including Ariel Jurado, Collin Wiles, Yohander Mendez, Pedro Payano, and Connor Sadzeck.
What is unusual about McCain’s path—besides his law school close call—is his controlled, um, aggression on the mound. And yeah—maybe that’s a nicer way of saying even though his fastball will barely flirt with 90 mph, he’s trying to shove it up your ass like he were a flame-throwing can’t-miss first round draft pick.
“Being undrafted is a huge deal for me, and now I think it was the best thing that could have happened,” McCain offered. “I focus now on not taking this game for granted, because I’m not supposed to be here. So I don’t play with any fear, and I love playing chip on my shoulder.”
He paused, and chuckled.
“I throw upper 80s, and I love trying to throw it past guys,” he continued, the smile still on his face. “I don’t care where you came from. I don’t care how much money you got paid. I just want the ball in my hand. And that’s the good thing about this game, you’ve got to stand in the box and try to hit me.”
There’s no question things have been difficult at times this summer as Shane McCain has adjusted to Double-A. After a stellar season in 2016 in a pitcher’s nightmare situation at High Desert, the lefty is likely trying to attack hitters too much rather than dot the corners and work off the plate. It’s resulted in a lot of strikes (30 strikeouts against just 7 walks in 37.0 innings pitched in 2017), but also a lot of hits (49, including seven home runs, in 27 relief appearances entering Monday).
These are the growing pains of Double-A, and doubly so for a guy who doesn’t have premium velocity and must learn to really pitch at this level. But McCain didn’t line up law school for nothing: he’s smart enough to understand what’s going on and how to fix it.
“To be honest, I need to get back to pitching,” he said, acknowledging a previous conversation he and I had a season ago about the importance of attacking hitters in High Desert’s brutal conditions. “I’ve been doing a good job of attacking hitters and throwing a lot of strikes [in Frisco], but I’ve thrown too many over the plate and I’ve learned that they can make you pay for that. But I like the way I’m pitching, and I know that if I keep throwing the ball fearlessly, over the course of a season it’ll work out.”
Shane McCain doesn’t just talk a big game about his high-80s fastball, either. Talk to Texas Rangers catcher Jose Trevino, who has caught the lefty over the last three seasons, and there’s something to the undrafted free agent’s sneaky power pitches despite what the radar gun may say.
“Shane has got some legit stuff, man,” Trevino marveled. “He’s not one of those overpowering guys, but the way he gets swings and misses, it’s almost like he throws upper 90s. It’s weird. Maybe it’s spin rate or something like that, but he’s got good enough stuff to play. He can definitely go out there and let his stuff play in this league.”
“And now for him, it’s just about getting those first guys out right when he needs to [coming out of the bullpen],” Trevino continued. “When he comes in, he has to get those guys out immediately. He’s a guy who really has to trust his stuff, and when he does, he can get those guys out consistently.”
Eventually, the Texas Rangers ought to slot McCain into a left-handed specialist role, as it’s his most viable path forward to the big leagues. It’s also the perfect spot for an undrafted free agent with a chip on his shoulder: organizations pay millions to their rotation members, the closer, maybe the set-up man. But when they really need that one big matchup out, they’ll turn to the unknown specialist who isn’t afraid of failure or anything else.
McCain’s mentality and work ethic are perfectly suited for that call; now it’s a matter of adjusting the outcomes to match the process.
“I’ve gotten a lot better at pre-game work, and before every game I’ll take some time and listen to music,” the lefty explained. “It’s not like I’m getting fired up for the game, but I’m mentally getting ready to come out to the field and I know that I shouldn’t take this opportunity for granted. I think about the people who brought me here, and the reason I’m here, and in turn, that makes me appreciate it when I get between the lines.”
“Even after bad outings lately, I’ll look back and say, you know, I was throwing the ball the way that I wanted,” McCain continued. “I got two strikes on all these hitters. But then I’d leave one over the plate, and I can’t do that. But I can’t be upset about it. I just have to keep grinding.”
And grind, he shall. As overused as the word may be, it’s apt for Shane McCain in his station with the Texas Rangers, because what he’s doing in Double-A right now—long relief here, mop-up work there, the occasional match-up hitter when needed—isn’t pretty or consistent, but it’s necessary. It requires no ego, a little emotion, a lot of perseverance, and yeah, a big chip on his shoulder.
Good thing he didn’t go to law school.
“I changed my number to 49 this year because my dad passed a year ago, and this was the year he was born,” McCain offered. “But it also reminds me of where I am. Forty-nine is a bad number that nobody wants, right? It reminds me that I’m a nobody, and that’s the way I want to play every day. I want to play every day with my dad, and I want to play like I’m a nobody.”
“I definitely think about it when I’m facing hitters,” he continued. “These guys are all supposed to be something. I’m not supposed to even be here. When I went to the Arizona Fall League [in 2016], those were the biggest prospects in the game, and I wasn’t supposed to be there, but I was a little extra locked in there. I knew, ‘OK, you have to show up there, this is a big test.’ And I threw really well there. I used that chip to my advantage.”
McCain paused, clearly thinking about something.
“You know, you may have just helped me with something,” he said to me, smiling as if having a sudden realization. “Maybe I need to get back to that.”
Some photography of Shane McCain provided courtesy of the Frisco RoughRiders.