Blue Jays prospect Danny Jansen had a breakout year in 2017 at the plate at every level. He started the year in A-advanced Dunedin before promotions to double-A New Hampshire and triple-A Buffalo. He hit .323/.400/.484 in 424 plate appearance across the three levels walking 41 times while striking out 40, quite an improvement over his 2016 numbers.
I caught up with 22-year-old catcher and his manager Bobby Meacham back in August during a trip down to Buffalo (when it was much warmer).
“Can you hit .500 in any league?” Bobby Meacham asked his young catcher in the dugout after Danny Jansen hit the eventual game-winning home run off of the foul pole. Pinging the foul pole was something Jansen had never done before in any level of play.
Even after his big swing, Jansen wasn’t sure that he had hit it out. Standing at the plate he whispered to himself (possibly hoping the ball would hear), “please, stop hooking!” Including this one, Jansen totalled 10 homers in 2017 with some observers thinking that he still as room to grow his power game.
Jansen had a paltry .218/.316/.269 line in an injury-marred 2016 but was given a chance to go to the Arizona Fall League to get him a some more reps at, and behind, the plate. He made up his mind there that his goal for 2017 would be to stay healthy all season and play 100 games—something that had eluded him since 2013. (He ended up playing 104 games.)
“It was amazing—it was once of the favourite experiences I’ve had in baseball. I’m grateful of the opportunity when they sent me there,” Jansen recalled, “Baseball is all about learning. You see these pitchers—not only on our team—but the people [we’re] facing [are the] top-of-the-line guys. Just going there and working with guys like that and still learning how to call a game and reading swings and facing some good arms, getting an approach and [sticking] with it.”
For a self-described learner like Jansen, the opportunity to spend time with, and to face, top prospects from all the organizations was invaluable as it let him just observe how the other guys work, their daily routines, and their approach to the game.
One thing he figured out in the fall was that he had started to think a lot about hitting mechanics after his first pro season. Up at bat he would obsess over where his hands were and what they were doing. After games, he would go on YouTube to watch other players’ swings and try to emulate those.
Maybe that was a little too much. So going into 2017 he told himself to worry less about hitting mechanics, but instead focus more on seeing the ball, developing an approach, and sticking with it through the ups and the downs.
“I just said [to myself] that I would do what my hands do and just see the ball and just compete.”
In the month that they spent together in triple-A, Meacham became a big fan of Jansen at the plate. He noted that that coming into spring training with a brand new approach and sticking with it is not easy, especially for a 22-year-old.
“It’s great to see his approach at the plate, it’s so solid. Of course, we’ll take his home runs too,” Meacham said. “He gets his foot down early and stays on the fastball. [When] the guy throws 95, he gets his foot down a little early and if the fastball is over the plate he swings at it. When they throw something else he tries try to foul it off until they throw something over the plate.
“It sounds easy, we know that it works, [all the other players] know it works, but to actually let your mind do that, it’s tough. Staying focused has been the key to him continuing to have a successful year.”
And as for seeing the ball better, Jansen picked up a pair of prescription glasses before the fall league that made him look somewhat like a cross between Brett Lawrie and Brett Cecil. (Jansen chuckled at the resemblance when I showed him the tweet).
“I never had any kind of prescription [glasses] before so when I found out I had astigmatism I tried contacts but I couldn’t do it—couldn’t get them in or out. When I was younger I could never get things like eye drops in my eyes. They were toric lenses so they turn your eyes and they say that you can blink for 20 minutes to try to get focused.”
As a non-athlete I don’t usually get to say I understand a player’s experience, but as an astigmatic spectacle-wearer, I fully empathized with Jansen when he spoke about his little phobia. (Toric lenses are not easy to use either; you have to look for faint little lines on the lenses that have to align a certain way or things would be blurry.)
Wearing glasses behind his catcher’s mask has not been easy—he had to learn how to breathe in different ways to stop it from getting too foggy on humid days.
For Jansen, his true craft is being a good defensive catcher, a good game caller, and someone who can make his pitchers feel comfortable. Jansen credits some of the good teachers he’s had in the Blue Jays organization for developing that part of his game.
Ken Huckaby, a former catcher who is now the organization’s catching coordinator, was Jansen’s manager both in Lansing (2015) and Dunedin (2016) was one that Jansen wanted to highlight.
“I owe a lot to him because he bears down on making me better and challenging me when I come in after the inning and we talk. The only way you learn is by making mistakes and he allowed me to make mistakes and we would talk about it. I learned a lot from him.”
Canadian and former pitcher Vince Horsman, the Fisher Cats’ pitching coach, also taught Jansen a lot about pitch calling by giving him a pitcher’s point of view. The two of them spent a lot of time together when they both were at the Arizona Fall League.
Jansen wanted to make sure I understood that these two weren’t the only ones who helped—he has taken something away from each pitching coach he’s had and each pitcher he had caught. He loves getting feedback from different players that he’s met on his way up the ladder.
“My main focus [now] is to be better at pitch calling and helping my pitcher get through whatever obstacle is in front of him. That is what I really take pride in,” Jansen added.
“[In triple-A] these guys have so much experience. I kind of pick their brains before their start and we go over what they like to do. Like [pitcher Brett] Oberholtzer: He doesn’t throw the hardest but he’s crafty. I want to be on the same page as him and we have lately. It makes the game fun when you’re doing the pitch calling and the chess game of it. It’s been a fun ride!”
Meacham is not blind to how much his catcher loves to learn and appreciates his level of maturity.
“He’s always talking with pitchers, talking about different things, about different thought processes. Not only ‘what do you want to do?’, but ‘this is what I see and this is what I think we should do.’”
Meacham believes that the constant dialogue helps Jansen build respect even though he is a young catcher at an advanced level. The Bisons’ pitchers appreciate knowing that their catcher is really watching and thinking about the game all the time.
Jansen won’t hit .500 in the major leagues, but remains devoted to studying the game and improving his play, he might just get a callup and try to prove me wrong.
Danny Jansen’s performance (and Rule 5 qualification) earned him a spot on the 40-man roster this offseason and solidified his position as a top prospect in the system. Jansen will be joining a number of other prospects at the Buffalo Bisons’ Hot Stove Prospect Showcase on Wednesday and the Blue Jays’ Winter Fest on Saturday. You can read more about Jansen and the other Jays prospects in Keegan Matheson’s e-book “Top 50 Toronto Blue Jays Prospects” available via Amazon.