TORONTO – As the season progressed and Danny Jansen’s offensive struggles worsened, Charlie Montoyo and his coaching staff would often point out the other ways he contributes to the Toronto Blue Jays.
He handles the pitching staff daily, takes a beating behind the plate and keeps opposing runners in check. Just wait for the offence, Montoyo said. It’ll come.
At times, the apparent confidence of the coaching staff seemed misplaced. As recently as June 25 – that’s last Tuesday – Jansen had a .498 OPS, worse than every hitter in baseball with as many plate appearances as him. If a breakout was coming, it was hard to foresee.
And yet here we are. Jansen has since homered in five of his last seven games, including two in the Blue Jays’ 8-7 loss to Boston on Thursday. During that span, he has raised his season OPS to .652, renewing optimism that he can fulfill his potential as a catcher who produces at the plate.
“The way he’s hitting the last couple of days, you have no idea how happy that makes me,” Montoyo said. “Because I have so much respect for this kid.”
Early last month when Jansen and Cavan Biggio were both struggling offensively, Montoyo approached the two rookies and urged them to act as leaders on a young Blue Jays team. Even though he wasn’t hitting, Jansen had impressed his manager with his attitude.
“The whole time he was struggling, whenever we’d win a game he was the happiest guy, giving high fives,” Montoyo said. “Not everybody’s like that. In baseball, you have some selfish people … I have a lot of respect for that kid, so I’m happy he’s swinging the bat better.”
Lately, it’s all been coming together for Jansen, who added a double to go along with his first career multi-homer game. Just as impressively, he hasn’t struck out in his 10 games and now owns MLB’s longest active streak without a whiff.
“Even the outs he makes, he misses the ball by just a little,” Montoyo said. “We knew he was going to hit, but I didn’t know he was going to hit bombs like that.”
While the offensive production’s easiest to see, Jansen has contributed meaningfully from behind the plate, too. According to catcher framing metrics at Baseball Prospectus, he ranks sixth in baseball at pitch framing. His throwing has also improved. After preventing just five of 33 stolen base attempts last year (15 per cent), he has prevented 11 of 35 in 2019 (31 per cent).
“The priority’s still defence,” Jansen said. “It’s a craft I want to master.”
All told, you have the makings of a catcher who contributes on both sides of the ball – the kind of player the Blue Jays hoped Jansen would become as he rose through the minors. It’s taken longer than expected to get to this point, and more ups and downs surely await the 24-year-old, but this hot streak counts as a relief for all involved.
“I’m trying to stay level-headed,” Jansen said. “I’m riding an extreme high right now. I want to stay coasting, stay riding that wave and stay true to myself. Keep putting in the work.”
“With the struggles I went through, I know how easy it is to go into a struggle,” he continued. “Just try to ride it.”
Thanks to the likes of Jansen, Biggio and Lourdes Gurriel Jr. the Blue Jays are hitting far better in recent weeks. Still, their pitching staff remains a work in progress with Marcus Stroman’s status in doubt entering the final weekend before the all-star break.
Stroman had been scheduled to pitch Thursday, but lingering soreness on the left side of his chest prompted the Blue Jays to push his start back. In lieu of Stroman, the Blue Jays recalled Thomas Pannone to provide bulk innings behind opener Derek Law.
The strategy worked until the sixth inning when the Red Sox chased Pannone from the game with a six-run outburst. Later, pinch-hitter Marco Hernandez hit a decisive homer against Ken Giles, who was pitching in three straight games for the first time since 2016.
If the Blue Jays need a fresh arm for the weekend, Pannone looks like a leading candidate to be optioned, just as Sean Reid-Foley and Jacob Waguespack were earlier in the week. A reliever such as Jordan Romano could give Montoyo flexibility entering the weekend.
As for Stroman, he could still pitch Saturday or Sunday if he feels better physically. Otherwise, Aaron Sanchez, Clayton Richard and Trent Thornton will close out the first half for the Blue Jays and what was initially described as a cramp will end up sidelining Stroman longer than anticipated.
“I guess it turned out to be a little worse than that,” Montoyo said.
For now, more patience and more uncertainty. That’s nothing new for the Blue Jays’ pitching staff, though. At least now the guy doing the catching is delivering on his promise at the plate. As long as this keeps up, his manager will have reason to keep smiling.
“Every time I come in and slap hands with Charlie, he’s got a big smile on his face,” Jansen said. “I know Charlie has a lot of faith in me. I’m so grateful for the opportunity I’ve been given every day, even when I was struggling.
“It makes me happy seeing Charlie happy, since he trusted me and had faith in me and now I’m finally contributing.”