DUNEDIN, Fla. — It wasn’t until months after that first game at Kauffman Stadium that Danny Jansen truly caught up with his new reality. He was lying in bed at home in Wisconsin one day last off-season when the realization struck: not only had he arrived in the big-leagues, he had succeeded there.
“Wow,” he said to himself. “I can’t believe that just happened.”
As debuts go, Jansen’s is hard to beat. He went two-for-three at the plate, threw out a would-be base stealer and guided Sean Reid-Foley through his first big-league start. Better still, his parents and grandmother were there watching in person along with his older brother Matthew, who brought his wife and two young sons.
“That’s what I look back on,” Jansen said recently. “I was able to share that moment with them. That’s the coolest thing.”
For Jansen, that night in Kansas City was just the beginning. He would appear in 31 games down the stretch, displacing Russell Martin as the team’s starter and catcher of the future. He hit three homers along the way while posting a .779 OPS — solid numbers for any rookie and more than respectable for a catcher.
Still, as the season came to an end, Jansen was tired. He played in 119 total games last year, and that’s not counting the six weeks of squatting catchers endure every spring.
“I’d never played into September,” Jansen said. “More so (than physically), mentally I was drained as well. Just getting used to everything.”
The grind of the season behind him, he finally had the chance to rest. It was then that Jansen started reflecting on the journey that began as a teenager in rookie ball in 2013. Most 16th-round selections don’t reach the big-leagues at all, but having arrived there, Jansen soon started working out in anticipation of an even greater challenge.
In January, the Blue Jays traded Martin to the Dodgers partly to create space for Jansen and fellow rookie Reese McGuire. While the Blue Jays say publicly that Jansen’s fighting for a job, everyone in camp knows he’s the favourite to start. With that opportunity comes the daily challenge of hitting and defending at the highest level.
Offensively, Jansen offers far more upside than most, thanks to a keen batting eye that helped him post minor-league on-base percentages of .400 in 2017 and .390 in 2018. It’s behind the plate that the Blue Jays want Jansen to make some adjustments.
Last year, when he first arrived in the majors, his catching stance was too wide. As Jansen said, “If you watch video of me blocking balls last year, I was in the damn near splits.” The setup allowed him to block balls comfortably, but controlling the running game was problematic.
“I’m big, I can drop down and block,” Jansen said. “But how am I going to throw out of that?”
Sure enough, opponents caught on and started challenging Jansen. Of the 33 baserunners who attempted steals against him last year, 28 were successful for an 85-per-cent success rate that’s well above the league average of 72 per cent.
With that in mind, major-league coach John Schneider approached Jansen with a couple of recommendations for 2019. Schneider, who managed Jansen at Class A Dunedin two years ago, suggested that he keep his feet closer together.
“Last year he got very wide, especially with runners on, so the overall goal is to get him a little bit more athletic. The analogy is if you’re going to guard someone in basketball, you’re not going to be like this,” Schneider said, widening his stance considerably as he spoke. “You’ll see him a little bit more narrow.”
Along with that narrower stance, Jansen has been working behind the scenes to build up arm strength ahead of the season. It’s a ‘big point of emphasis,’ according to Schneider, who says the 23-year-old has been throwing every day regardless of whether he’s in the lineup. When he does start, Jansen has been throwing to bases far more than usual.
Bottom line, the Blue Jays are hoping Jansen taps into his natural athleticism while being proactive with his throws.
“That’s the perfect way to put it,” Schneider said. “Be an athletic, aggressive player back there, who’s always in control of what’s going on on the mound. If you’re building a catcher, that’s what you want.”
For Jansen, the list of responsibilities extends well beyond receiving and throwing. He has to work on game calling and pitch sequencing with the assistance of the new catcher wristbands the Blue Jays are using under manager Charlie Montoyo. He has to build relationships with every last Blue Jays pitcher. And, let’s not forget, he has to hit.
If Jansen’s stressed by the workload, he doesn’t let on. After last year’s cameo, he knows that what got him here works.
“I just try to be the same me,” Jansen said. “That’s one of my goals. Be the same guy, the best me I can be.”