BUFFALO — Danny Jansen’s description of his season goes like this: “It’s been a whirlwind. It’s been crazy. It’s been a ride.”
It has been all of that. And the Buffalo Bisons’ catcher might even be understating things.
Jansen’s season, in a nutshell, has looked like this: A 16th round draft pick who began 2017 playing at high-A Dunedin, he has rocketed through the Blue Jays’ farm system and is now a step away from the big leagues after earning two promotions less than three months apart, an incredibly rare feat for a catcher.
Not only that, but the 22-year-old also has the hottest bat in the Bisons lineup. On Monday, the 6-foot-2, 225-lbs. kid from Appleton, Wisc., had himself a night: Jansen went 4-4 at the plate with two home runs, including the game-tying shot in the ninth, to propel the Bisons to a 6-3 win over Pawtucket.
And though it’s a small sample size, in 12 games with the triple-A club, Jansen has been on a tear at the plate. He leads the team in batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage with a .500/.591/.917 batting line.
“Great first impression,” says Bisons manager Bobby Meacham, grinning. “Everything he’s done so far, it’s been above and beyond what I ever expected.
“You almost want to go to everybody else, ‘Hey, do what he’s doing.’”
All told, Jansen has 10 home runs with a .341/.418/.516 slash line across three levels this year. There are a couple of reasons for his surge through the Blue Jays’ farm system. First off, he can see clearly, because he got glasses. Yes, you read that right. This is a (very toned down) Ricky “Wild Thing” Vaughn situation.
This season, for the first time, Jansen started wearing glasses both on and off the field. He noticed last year he couldn’t read a road sign that his then-roommate Chris Rowley had no problem seeing. Jansen found himself squinting a lot, and was having trouble with his vision, especially at night.
“I thought I was always tired,” Jansen says. “The first time I noticed was last spring, it was a night game. I didn’t want to believe I had bad eyes.”
This past off-season, he got those eyes checked out, and was told he has an astigmatism and needed glasses. “When I take ‘em off,” he says, sliding his dark-rimmed frames off his nose, “It’s like, wow. It’s kinda blurry.”
So, seeing the ball clearly has helped him in the batter’s box. “Absolutely,” Jansen says, laughing.
Not only can he see much better, but Jansen’s improved play is also on account of the fact he’s been healthy. He missed at least two months of action in each of the last two seasons due to separate injuries to his left hand and wrist.
Injuries are likely the same reason the Blue Jays managed to get him late in the 2013 draft. That season, he took a foul tip off his wrist just three games in, and he didn’t return until the playoffs in his draft-eligible year—and only because he jimmied the cast, so he could play.
“A lot of teams stopped talking to me, but the Blue Jays took the chance, and I’m grateful to my area scout and the organization for doing that,” Jansen says.
The big goal this year was to stay healthy. Now that he’s done that, Jansen has been working on his pitch-calling, and the defensive aspects of his game.
He became a catcher—just like his dad, Steve—at age nine, because Steve noticed his youngest son didn’t seem to get rattled by balls constantly hitting him behind the plate. Jansen admits you “have to be a little crazy” to take all those hits and bumps, but he loves the cerebral aspect of the position.
“I guess it’s the responsibility. I have to be a leader, have to be the captain. You’re in every single play, and I love that,” Jansen says. “Once you get the mechanics of receiving and throwing and blocking, then it becomes more sophisticated and you have to really think, ‘what’s a good pitch here?’ You’re looking at swings, you see a guy stepping across, you can do a lot of things.”
Meacham has been encouraged by how often he sees Jansen talking to the Bisons pitchers, and learning from some of the veterans in the lineup, as well as working with some of the younger arms. “All we wanted was somebody who can receive the ball and help these pitchers, help them throw strikes and help them feel comfortable,” the manager says. “He’s been doing that. And the offensive stuff’s a plus, for any catcher. That’s the icing on the cake.”
Staying healthy means Jansen has been able to get into a groove at the plate, and he’s taken a new approach there this year after struggling last season, when he found himself trying to emulate major-league swings.
“The last two years I was trying to be something I’m not,” he said. “This past off-season I said, ‘I’m gonna come into spring training and let my mechanics do what they want.’ I’m still trying to work on some things, but more in my lower half, and I’m letting my hands do what they want and try to see the ball as good as I can and just react, and it seems to be working.”
It does. In 10 of 12 games with the Bisons, Jansen has at least one hit. Sitting on a bench near the batting cages, just outside the third clubhouse he’s called home this season, Jansen shakes his head and laughs thinking about what the last few months have been like.
“I’m trying to have fun and not worry about where I’m playing, where I’m going,” he says. “I guess the rest is taking care of itself. It’s been a ride.”