TORONTO – Late in the summer of 2019, the cumulative effect of relentless failure at the plate started getting to Hagen Danner. Drafted as a catcher in the second round by the Toronto Blue Jays a couple of years earlier, the Huntington Beach, Calif., native came out of the gates slow at low-A Lansing, buried himself during a six-hit, 24-strikeout May, recovered with a solid June but then cratered again immediately after.
As the 0-fers piled up, the game he loved stopped being fun, his anxieties spiked and he headed to the batter’s box hoping for a hit, rather than believing he was going to get one. A feeling that “hitting really isn’t what I was meant to be doing,” became stronger as the finish line neared.
“It threw me over the edge,” he says, “and I just really didn’t want to have to deal with all that anymore.”
Unlike other position players in a similar spot, Danner had shown enough on the mound during high school to make pitching a potential fallback option. And it’s during that period of tumult the 23-year-old right-handed reliever took the first steps toward the position switch that’s revitalized his career, recently landing him a coveted spot on the Blue Jays’ 40-man roster.
“Being a relief pitcher is just the best feeling ever,” says Danner, who went from striking out in 31.3 per cent of his plate appearances with Lansing to striking out 29.4 per cent of the batters he faced with high-A Vancouver this past season. “I’m not hoping to not fail anymore. That’s what my mind was getting me to as a hitter. Now, I’m sitting in the bullpen waiting for an opportunity, dying to get in the game. That, to me, is so much different.”
Danner’s recent showing at the Blue Jays’ fall instructional camp – when he sat 98-99 m.p.h. with his fastball and touched 100 for the first time – helped cement his spot on the 40-man roster, an indicator of near-term big-league potential. Perhaps more important than the velocity jump is that he spent time inside the Blue Jays’ pitching lab at the Dunedin complex and worked with staff there to develop a slider “that’s probably going to be my favourite pitch.”
Always believe… not even close to being done working https://t.co/C9qiIdo5Eq
— HagyD™ (@HagenDanner) November 19, 2021
This past season with the Canadians, his first in the pros as a pitcher, he posted a 2.02 ERA in 35.2 innings over 25 games, with 12 walks, 42 strikeouts and two homers allowed while mainly throwing his fastball and a “slider thing that wasn’t very good, honestly.”
“When I got to instructs, things really took off,” says Danner.
The relatively rapid turnaround in his trajectory wouldn’t have been possible without the heartache he endured during that difficult season in Lansing.
Danner had been a two-way prospect in high school, showing enough with a fastball that sat 92-94 and touched 96 to be ranked as the 26th best righty available in the 2017 draft by Baseball America. His bat, though, carried him up the draft board further, where the Blue Jays picked him 61st overall and gave him a $1.5 million bonus.
That didn’t make his entrance to pro ball smooth, as he posted a .455 OPS in 34 games of Gulf Coast League rookie-ball in 2017. He rebounded with a .841 OPS at rookie-ball Bluefield in 2018, but even amid the success there, the anxiety at the plate that would really impact him at Lansing began to set in.
That stress snowballed with the Lugnuts, when even the success of his one decent month was largely concentrated in a seven-game hit streak. He finished the year batting .170/.254/.369 with 12 homers in 80 games.
“All the failure, the thing you’re working so dang hard for and it’s just not coming to you, it didn’t work for me all season,” says Danner. “I was hitting a home run every few games, but that was my one hit. It wasn’t fun at all.”
Complicating things is that even when he was drafted as a catcher, he felt that he had more promise as a pitcher. As he struggled at the plate, he started thinking more and more about getting back up on the mound, but feared how the Blue Jays would react, so he kept quiet.
Back home that fall, he threw a few bullpens with his agent, Lenny Strelitz, and they were intrigued enough by how the ball was coming out that they decided to test things out in some live batting practice. Some of the most helpful feedback came from Nick Pratto, the highly touted Kansas City Royals prospect who happens to be Danner’s best friend.
“He was a real hitter up there seeing my stuff and telling me, ‘Hey, dude, this is where you need to be. This is going to play. This is what’s going to get you to the big-leagues,’” Danner recalls. “I was like, this is my best friend telling me this. He’s not just going to blow it up my butt, he’s going to tell me what he really thinks.”
At that point, Danner decided to make the switch, he and Strelitz talked it over with the Blue Jays and the club was fully supportive of the change.
Though he still did some hitting at spring training in 2020, his focus was on the mound and there were no regrets. Then came the pandemic shutdown, which ended up working in Danner’s favour. He returned home, focused on weight training and postural exercises former San Diego Padres reliever Jacob Nix put him onto as a way to better ready his body for pitching, and continued to build his arm strength for the grind to come.
Danner arrived at camp a full-go this year, was pleasantly surprised by the challenge assignment of advanced-A, and save for a lat strain that briefly sidelined him, showed impressive consistency for a pitching rookie.
“I loved it. I loved being in the competitive atmosphere, you’re the man on the hill, everybody’s watching you and the team’s on your back. I loved to get hitters out because I was getting out my entire career, you know?” he says with a laugh. “That helped me a lot, just having the fun aspect of competitiveness again. That was the most excited I’ve ever been in in my professional career so far.”
As the 40-man roster deadline approached Nov. 19, Danner wasn’t sure if the Blue Jays planned to add him and his mind played out all sorts of possibilities until Cory Popham, the club’s pitching development co-ordinator, called him with the news.
Now, his mind is locked in on more specific goals as he works through the off-season program the club provided.
“I want to help the big-league team next year,” says Danner. “I mean, we have the best lineup in baseball. The hitters are unbelievable to watch and they have a serious chance to win it next year and I just want to be up there so bad. Wherever they start me, it doesn’t matter to me. I’m just going to keep doing me, stay with my confidence and keep throwing the rock.”