Let me just start by saying that I’ve always been a fan of the product of Appleton, WI. Taken in the 16th round in 2013, Jansen epitomized the approach to that annual harvest of talent under former GM Alex Anthopoulos and Scouting Director Blake Parker. Beyond the coveted projectable high school arm, the Blue Jays actively looked for players who were overlooked for various reasons. Maybe injury had scared teams off (in the case of Ryan Borucki), or a college commitment (Daniel Norris), or, in the case of Jansen, the Jays weren’t afraid to take a trip off the beaten path to find players in non-traditional baseball places. An injury his senior year of high school made Jansen even more of a low-profile prospect, but the Blue Jays felt they were getting a prospect who scored high in terms of tools and make up. Conversations with Jansen over the past four seasons have borne that out.
After a season in which he finally managed to stay healthy, Jansen hit his way through three levels, posting a .323/.400/.484 line in the process, and is on the cusp of a big league job.
A word about how more and more MLB teams are viewing the Catching position: teams are coming to understand that a Catcher’s value goes far beyond his batting average. The plethora of posters on various Blue Jays Facebook pages complaining about Russell Martin’s .221 average last year miss the below sea level portion of the iceberg that is Martin’s contribution to the team. From framing pitches, to blocking sliders thrown in the dirt intentionally in order to get a batter to chase, to working with umpires to get calls, to working with Pitchers to build a bond that can’t be found in any other sport, Catchers are the Field Generals of the action on a ball diamond. The decisions they make have an influence on every pitch thrown in an MLB game.
Only the catcher is positioned to see the entire field of play, including the hitter, and it is the catcher who triggers virtually every action by calling the pitches.1 The catcher makes calls based on a complex array of data that he processes in a split second. He must be aware of every aspect of the game at all times, particularly the perceived strengths and weaknesses, as well as preferences and desires, of the hitter (the opponent) and his own teammates. He must keep the score, the inning, and the number of outs in mind. He has to know what the count is2 and what the batter did the last time he was up to bat as well as in prior games. Is the pitcher’s curveball working today? Does the umpire have a loose or a tight strike zone? Does the batter dig in? Is his weight leaning forward or on his heels? Do the runners have large leads, and which way are they leaning? These perceptions, judgments, and decisions run through a catcher’s mind before he calls a pitch. Each decision is critical, because the outcome of the game could turn on any one. The complexity seems daunting. But, like a chess master — or a master of any other talent that involves an opponent and/or a team — catching relies on emotional intelligence and perspective taking, which depend on the thoughts and feelings that run through the medial prefrontal cortex hub.
That takes us far beyond whatever Martin did at the plate last year. With other positions, teams have to weigh whether or not they can carry a glove-first, below-league-average hitter, but that’s not necessarily the case with Catching. Certainly, the Blue Jays and Martin would have liked to have seen more offensive production from him last year, but his value to the team goes far beyond that, often in ways that are difficult to measure.
But as he enters the next-to-last-year on his contract, Martin, who turns 35 next month, is likely in his last months as a full-time backstop. Having appeared in only 91 games last year after averaging 133 in his first two seasons in Toronto, it’s not realistic to expect him to carry a heavy load any more. 120 games might be even a stretch to expect from him.
Which brings in Jansen.
Jansen experimented with sport glasses behind the plate in the Arizona Fall League in 2016, and he found that it helped him pick up pitches better behind the plate. As an added bonus, he was able to develop better pitch recognition, as he could detect spin much better than in his pre-glasses days.
Behind the plate, Jansen has drawn raves since his 2014 season, when he handled a Bluefield staff that included a young Borucki. Despite his size (6’2″), Jansen presents a nice low target, which is especially important for sinker ball Pitchers working down in the zone. Handling Pitchers, calling games, and blocking pitches have long been a strength – because of his size, lateral movement has been a minor issue, but Jansen has the athleticism and work ethic to overcome that.
Jansen is also familiar with the wave of minor league Pitchers who will soon be coming to Toronto, starting with Borucki, who told media at Winterfest this past weekend:
When you move up levels, there’s always that anxiety and you’re a little nervous. When you’ve got a guy back there, especially with Danny, having him in Double-A for my first start and Triple-A, you just have a sense of ease. You just feel comfortable.
Not only has Jansen caught Borucki throughout the minors, he’s also worked extensively with Sean Reid-Foley, T.J. Zeuch, and to a lesser extent, Thomas Pannone. As these youngsters reach the Majors, having a familiar face behind the plate would help ease their transition.
Ordinarily, incumbent backup Luke Maile might be considered to have the inside track on winning the job again this spring. However, his offence was beyond anemic last year (9.5% LD rate), and with the increased load Martin’s back up will have to shoulder this year, it would be hard for any team to carry that weak a bat, even at a premium defensive position.
Jansen could benefit from a season of Martin’s mentoring, and would probably learn more in a part-time role than he could in a full season of AAA. And while he would be hard-pressed to reproduce last year’s breakthrough numbers at the plate, he would bring some offence to the position, and he could also DH on occasion.
It’s been a long road for Jansen. Injuries ended his 2014 season prematurely, and severely curtailed his 2015 and 2016. Healthy for the first time last year, he reached MLB Pipeline’s Top 10 Catching Prospects list this year, checking in at #8. With Martin’s career perhaps starting to wind down, 2018 could represent an excellent chance for his potential successor to start to get some on-the-job training. He could split the load more evenly with Martin next year, and take over the reigns in 2020, when he would just be entering his prime at the age of 25.