By Alexis Brudnicki
Canadian Baseball Network
DUNEDIN, Florida – Danny Jansen is raking.
Often talked about as a defensive specialist, the Toronto Blue Jays catching prospect has found his bat in a big way this season, leading the Florida State League in hitting in his second stint with the Dunedin Blue Jays.
Between injuries and struggles over the last several seasons – since he was selected in the 16th round of the 2013 draft out of Appleton West High School in Wisconsin – the 22-year-old felt as though he had gotten away from what made him successful in the first place, and is now returning to form.
“Defence has always been a huge part for me,” Jansen said. “I’ve never been dissatisfied with the title of being a defensive catcher. That’s great. It’s really important to me. But I need to produce. I know I’m capable of swinging the bat well, it’s just been kind of a struggle the last two years, coming to the park, thinking about a new stance, and thinking about something that’s not me.
“This year I said I was just going to do what got me here. Just be simple and be smooth, and see the ball and not worry about it too much. So it’s been awesome, and hopefully I can keep riding this wave as long as I can.”
Currently tearing the cover off the ball in Dunedin, hitting .394/.439/.577 with five home runs, four doubles and 14 RBI in 26 games, Jansen has well surpassed the career digits he’s put up, batting .257/.350/.371 with 16 homers, 34 doubles and 104 RBI in 210 games over pieces of five seasons.
“I’m having so much more fun this year,” he said. “This is a great group of guys. Last year, the guys were awesome, the staff was awesome, and this year it’s the same. They’re fun guys and hard workers, and you come in here every day and everybody is being professional and having a blast in the clubhouse. Then the lights come on and we’re ready to go. I’m relaxed at the plate, I’m not thinking, I’m just seeing the ball. And it’s awesome.”
A big factor in the success that Jansen has found is that he is literally able to see the ball now, where he might not have been well-equipped to do so before.
“That’s a huge part,” Jansen said. “I remember last year in spring training I was trying to read the scoreboard and I thought maybe it’s because I’m tired, I can’t read that. I couldn’t read it. Then the whole season I kept thinking I was tired for some stupid reason. It’s because I didn’t want to believe I needed glasses.
“Finally, I went home right after the season and I went to get my eyes checked. It turns out I’ve got astigmatism and I can’t wear contacts, and I’ve never been good at putting anything in my eyes. My mom used to pin me down to put eyedrops in, I could never do it on my own. So I finally got glasses. Then I went to Arizona and I had success [in the prospect-laden Arizona Fall League], so I stick with the glasses now.”
Jansen’s prescription was a -0.75, indicating nearsightedness and a struggle with seeing things far away. The backstop doesn’t believe his vision was terrible before, but he can certainly see much clearer with his glasses, and might be adjusting to wearing them so much that his sight is worsening without them.
“It’s a big-time change,” Jansen said. “Now, I feel like my eyes are getting a little bit worse, because if I take them off I remember, that wasn’t blurry last year. I’m adjusting to wearing them, so it makes a huge difference now. If I didn’t have glasses right now, it would just be a big, fuzzy object coming at me, and I would just be swinging.”
Jansen is hoping to make the most of his newfound ability to see the ball this year by staying on the field for an entire season. Sidelined every year, the 6-foot-2, 225-pound catcher is hoping this one is different.
Just before the draft four years ago, he was knocked out of his senior season at Appleton West in the Terrors’ third game taking a foul tip off of his pisiform – the bone between the palm and the wrist – landing him on the shelf for two months. He returned for playoffs, with a cast on, to finish high school on the field. When he joined the professional ranks, he got into 36 games with the Gulf Coast League Blue Jays.
In 2014, on the second day of August, he stepped on home plate and busted his knee while playing for the Bluefield Blue Jays, tearing his meniscus and partially tearing his ACL. He played 38 games in the Appalachian League that season.
Returning the following year, Jansen broke his left hand with the Lansing Lugnuts, hit by a bat while catching. Last season, he broke the hamate bone in the same wrist while with the Dunedin Blue Jays, and had to have surgery to remove it. Between his two years with full-season teams, he got into 110 games.
“It’s definitely gotten tougher,” Jansen said. “It’s been such a main goal for me just to stay healthy for a whole year. I haven’t even played a full season, it’s always been injuries. So last year in 2016, it was something that’s so small like a hamate bone that just randomly pops, but it took a while to heal.
“I don’t want to say it’s devastating but when I first heard that I needed surgery to remove it, I thought about it and can I play on this every day and grind through it? It was a pretty good pain so I thought I can get the surgery, I can be in a good place, in my head, but when I found out, there were some tears. Because I want a full season. It means so much to me.”
Despite not being able to stay on the field, there has been no shortage of evolution in Jansen’s game, something Dunedin manager John Schneider noticed right away when he reunited with his catcher after almost four years.
“I had him when he was a baby in the GCL and to see where he is now compared to there is tremendous,” Schneider said. “He’s an under-the-radar dude but if he can continue to have the same approach and have his presence behind the plate, that’s something that’s so valuable being a catcher, when you can combine those things. He has defensive awareness and then if he can keep hitting too, he’s doing really well.”
After spending time in rookie ball together with Schneider helping Jansen’s physical game, with duck walks and throwing a football around to adjust his arm path, in Dunedin the two have progressed and moved onto more aspects of the mental side of the game.
“We all viewed him as the prototypical catcher,” Schneider said. “The sturdy, durable, catcher, catch, block, throw, but he’s really made some adjustments swinging and he’s leading the league in hitting. He’s that under-the-radar dude who people just assume is going to be good, and then he’s really taken his game to the next level.
“Now we’re working on catcher things like reading hitters’ swings and trying to take some more advanced stuff into his game right now at the A ball level, and he’s just like a sponge.”
Aside from staying healthy, being confident in his game-calling skills and handling the pitching staff are top priorities for Jansen, who is excited about what he’s been able to learn and implement so far.
“Working with Schneider every day, and all the random times, and talking to him during games, I’ve definitely been developing and evolving,” he said. “I’ve gotten bigger, I’ve gotten more flexible, I’ve gotten stronger, and I’ve been able to block more. It’s been great.
“Working on game-calling, the base of it is reading guys’ swings. It’s all about the next pitch. If I throw something here, and then I see what he does – if he dives, or he doesn’t look comfortable at all, maybe I do it again, or I change it up and do something else, mixing up different pitches. It’s a huge part, like a chess game. That’s what makes it really fun, when you can get all the blocking, throwing, catching, receiving to where it’s fine-tuning, then you can go into this chess game. It gets actually really fun. I’m still learning and trying to get better every day, but it’s a blast.”
When the pitchers are throwing well, Jansen couldn’t enjoy his job more. But with the pressure he has instilled in his own game, he tends to get down on himself when his hurlers don’t find success.
“Some guys really trust me, and that’s what I want,” he said. “And if something happens, if someone gets shelled one game, I take it hard because I feel like it’s all my fault. I know that’s baseball and sometimes pitches aren’t executed, but I do take it hard on myself. I feel some games I’ve failed. I could have made some better calls and if I did, maybe we’d have a better outcome. Maybe not, but it’s always in the back of your head.”
Learning that there are always going to be high points and low points throughout every baseball season, each challenge presented to Jansen at the plate and behind the dish has made him a better player, and he hopes that continues as he keeps working his way up the ladder.
“My struggles in the past years have made me stronger,” Jansen said. “I know what it’s like to start off 0-for-18. I did it in 2015, and it’s not fun. It’s a dark hole. So the struggles have made me stronger, because I know it’s going to happen.
“You can’t ride this highway forever. It’s going to happen. There’s going to be a month where I struggle. Maybe even more, maybe less. I know what it’s like, so I’m not going to press. That’s the thing about it, you can’t press, and I’m finally figuring it out.”