WASHINGTON — Long drives are a part of the gig for area scouts and in the spring of 2013, Wes Penick happily made the six-hour drive from his home in Des Moines, Iowa to Appleton, Wisc., to get a look at Danny Jansen. The Toronto Blue Jays bird dog had taken a liking to the senior catcher at Appleton West High School, impressed by the kid’s competitiveness and leadership as much as his physical abilities. In the lead-up to the draft that year, Penick was eager for a fresh look.
The weather, however, had other ideas and heavy rains left the field so muddy, the game that day was cancelled. Dave Gassner, the Terrors head coach who was a 24th-round draft pick by the Blue Jays in 2001, didn’t want the trip Penick and a couple of other scouts had made to go for naught, so he organized a quickie workout, getting Jansen to make some throws to the bases and take a few rounds of batting practice.
“The coach knew this might be the one chance that this kid gets,” recalls Penick. “And I remember a couple things about that: No. 1, his teammates went out to shag without any complaint, so you knew they all respected him and liked him. And No. 2, when he was done, Danny came right over to us, shook our hands, thanked us for coming and hoped we’d come back to see him. You’d like to think that always happens, but it doesn’t.”
In that brief showcase, Jansen made enough of an impression that not only did Penick make a point to come back as often as he could, he continued to follow the teenager even after a foul tip broke the pisiform, a pea-shaped bone where the hand meets the wrist, three games into the season. Jansen played only two more games that year, playoff contests with a makeshift brace on a wrist that had yet to fully heal, which only further convinced the scout to stump for the player.
The Blue Jays ended up choosing Jansen in the 16th round of the 2013 draft and the now 23-year-old is on the cusp of the big-leagues, being selected for both the triple-A all-star game and Sunday’s Futures Game, in which he hit a two-run homer for the U.S. Team in a 10-6 win over the World Team.
“I didn’t know much about scouts but I’d like to think I was raised the right way and when someone travels to see you and it’s an honour to work out in front of them, you’ve got to go shake your hands and meet them. I was grateful they all came out,” Jansen said of that workout in the rain. “I always thank Wes every time I get a chance to, just saying the reason I’m here right now is because of you taking a chance.”
The expectation is Jansen will soon become the second player drafted by Penick to reach the majors — left-hander Matt Dermody is the other — by September, at the latest. An earlier arrival is unlikely with both Russell Martin and Luke Maile on the roster, but the Blue Jays have received some interest in Martin ahead of the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline.
Whether that translates into anything more than chatter is another matter, as the $20 million Martin is owed next year is a major hurdle for any deal, and an acquiring team would obviously want the Blue Jays to help pay that down.
Either way, Jansen continues to push at triple-A Buffalo, where he is batting .286/.409/.482 with 35 walks against 35 strikeouts in 270 plate appearances over 65 games. Just as critically, he’s continued to develop his work behind the plate, focusing on better footwork to become more efficient in his throwing.
“A lot of that is to do with the cheat, as I call it, the way I would turn with left knee to get momentum going instead of just catching it, turn, make it really blocky, get something going, be fluid,” explained Jansen. “For some reason I didn’t do it before, but when I get the ball going, I become a thrower, just throw it, let it go. Accuracy comes with that, just trusting it, just trusting your body.”
His receiving and blocking have long been considered strengths — one of the things that attracted Penick to him was the belief that his six-foot-two, 225-pound frame could handle the rigours of catching — and both those elements continue to develop at Buffalo, too.
“Everybody always wants to move up, but you’ve got to steal Joel Embiid’s ‘Trust the Process’ — it takes a lot of development, it really does,” said Jansen. “I can say for myself as an example, I’ve spent a lot of time struggling and trying to get better, spiralling down and up, and finally something clicks. So there shouldn’t be a rush for anybody to be going up and down. You can’t control that. You’ve got to play.”
Jansen began his career with a better understanding of pro ball than most as his family for years hosted players on the single-A Wisconsin Timber Rattlers, which had been a Seattle Mariners affiliate but is now in the Milwaukee Brewers system.
Among their guests over the years was Baltimore Orioles centre-fielder Adam Jones back in 2004.
“I would have been nine at the time and I was always the little kid who was asking for a bat. I asked for everything from him, and I don’t think he hated me, but he was annoyed at me, of course,” said Jansen. “He finally gave me a bat right before he left, and my brother (who is seven years older) broke it. We joke about it to this day. He was our only superstar but we’ve had a lot of good people come around.”
Even though he didn’t fully appreciate it at the time, Jansen now realizes that “always having baseball around me 24-seven gave me a big taste of it.” That element was another piece of the puzzle in Penick’s evaluation, since the rigours of minor-league life wouldn’t deliver him an initial shock to the system.
“There were many games where I was the only scout watching him and that’s a little unnerving, like, am I seeing what I think I’m seeing? Most of the games I go to there are multiple scouts,” said Penick. “But he just showed you something in every game and the makeup, his family situation, the fact that they had been a host family, and ultimately, Danny was willing to bet on himself.”
The tipping point for the Blue Jays may have come when Jansen played in his high-school team’s playoff games despite his injury. Determined to not be on the sidelines, he cut through the protective brace his wrist was in to give his hand enough mobility to receive pitches in the mid 80s.
Each pitch hurt, “but it would have hurt more if I didn’t play,” he said.
Jansen remembers hitting a double in his first game back. Afterwards, Penick approached him and parents Kathy and Steve, and asked when he had received medical clearance to play.
“He kind of looked at his parents and looked at me and said, ‘Yeah, they haven’t yet,’” said Penick. “He wanted to play in the playoffs for his team and even though he wasn’t receiving as well as he had the past, he could have very easily just said, ‘Hey, I can’t play, I’m not going to play.’ But he put his team first and that’s kind of been a theme for him.”
Said Jansen: “Senior year, I’m not going out not playing. I might have told them I was cleared, but whatever, I played through it.”
The time he missed recovering from injury played into the Blue Jays’ hands, as by the time he had returned to action, most teams were already deep into their draft meetings. Bascially, he slipped through the cracks and because of his early looks at Jansen, Penick was able to get Jansen up on the Blue Jays’ board.
Jansen had been considering following high-school teammate Nathan Disch to Jacksonville for college ball, but instead took a $100,000 offer to sign with the Blue Jays.
“I thought it was going to go down the toilet,” Jansen said of his thoughts as the draft approached. “I didn’t think anyone was going to take me.”
While an injury helped Jansen end up with the Blue Jays, a series of misfortunes also stalled the beginning of his professional career. He had an ACL sprain and meniscus tear in his left knee in 2014; an opponent’s swing broke his left hand in 2015; he had surgery on the hamate bone in his left hand in 2016.
Each time Jansen returned, he tried to make up for lost time at the plate by watching video of successful big-league hitters and picking elements in the box from them in pursuit of instant production.
“When you’re thinking like that at the plate you’re already lost,” he said. When Jansen arrived at spring training ahead of his breakout 2017, he decided that he was going to be himself as a hitter, and stop thinking about trying to mimic others.
The other change, one that he implemented at the Arizona Fall League after the 2016 season, was playing in the glasses prescribed to him earlier that year but that he was initially reluctant to use.
“Who wants to be a baseball player with glasses?” he said. “It was such — ironic — an eyeopener. Just being able to see clear, probably 70 per cent (of the gains at the plate) is that.”
Left-hander Ryan Borucki, recently promoted to the Blue Jays but a teammate of Jansen’s at each level along the way, remembers the catcher struggling to see the scoreboard as far back as high-A. That’s why when asked the biggest difference he sees in his friend at the plate now, he says with a grin, “First off, he can see.”
“Obviously the glasses helped,” continued Borucki. “But I knew from rookie ball. As a high-school player going into the GCL it’s a hard league to hit in because you’re facing somebody different, and he only struck out 10 times (in 140 plate appearances). That’s a really hard thing to do. So he has unbelievable hand-eye coordination. He finds a barrel almost every at-bat.”
At the Futures Game, Jansen once again found a barrel in his second at-bat, hammering a middle away changeup from Twins lefty Lewis Thorpe over the wall in left field, a two-run drive that tied the contest 3-3.
Not a bad highlight for five innings of work, another step for the teenager who became a “gut-feel guy” for a scout that helped bring him to the Blue Jays.
“It’s crazy to think that it’s already my sixth season,” said Jansen. “When I first came in I set my head down and was like, ‘Wow, here we go.’ I was a kid who never did laundry in my life beforehand, never went to college beforehand, never left mom and dad for very long, so I’m doing that. Now, all the strides I’ve made as a player, I was never a flexible kid, I was always super raw, thought I knew a lot of stuff but really didn’t. It feels light years away, but it’s an amazing feeling.”