Digging For Diamonds: Danny Jansen
Danny Jansen‘s draft stock seemed primed for a meteoric rise as he entered the 2013 season as the Appleton West Terrors’ starting catcher. At 6-3/225, Jansen is big, strong, physical, and had all the requisite skills to stick at catcher. Several teams had already been in touch with him prior to his senior season, and it appeared that Jansen was on his way to joining Mike Zunino, Blake Swihart, Yasmani Grandal, and other catchers recently drafted in the first round of June’s amateur draft. However, not three games into his senior season, Jansen’s wrist was struck by a foul ball, breaking his pisiform and causing many teams to back away from him leading into the 2013 draft. After the injury, Jansen said that was “when I really thought about college because a lot of teams went out the window and that was really stressful for me.” Fortunately for Jansen, the Toronto Blue Jays used the ninth pick of the 16th round to select Jansen and gave him a $100,000 signing bonus. “I’m grateful for it every single day,” he says. “I really wanted to play pro ball—college is always going to be there.” You have to really admire his passion for the game, as it can often be the difference maker between success and failure for a prospective Major League baseball player.
Jansen got off to a solid start to his career with Toronto. Upon signing, Jansen was sent to the GCL Blue Jays and was fifth among all minor leaguers with a 2.10 BB/K ratio in 140 plate appearances. He was likely still recovering from his wrist injury earlier that year, hence the .035 ISO, but because of his other-worldly plate discipline, he was still able to put up an above average wRC+ of 103 in his 114 at-bats that year. For the 2014 season, Jansen was sent to join the Bluefield Blue Jays of the Appalachian League for his first full year in pro ball. He maintained his stellar control of the strike zone, but more importantly, Jansen seemed fully recovered from his wrist injury, hitting .282/.390/.484 in 146 plate appearances. His 153 wRC+ that year was good for seventh in the league and was a performance worthy of nabbing the #19 spot on Kiley McDaniel’s Top Blue Jays Prospects list that offseason. However, the most important stat listed is the 146 in my opinion, as a knee injury limited Jansen’s playing time in his first full season. Jansen was a cold-weather HS catcher coming off a wrist injury; he cannot afford any more missed development time.
Somewhat surprisingly, the injury-shortened season was still impressive enough to nab Jansen a job in full season ball in 2015, catching every day for the Lansing Lugnuts of the Midwest League. Again, Jansen showed elite strike zone awareness, ranking in the league’s top ten in BB/K ratio. Also again, Jansen failed to eclipse the 160 at-bat plateau for the third straight season, this time breaking a bone in his left (non-throwing) hand in late May after posting a league-average wRC+. He came back in August, rehabbing for six games at his old stomping grounds in the GCL before re-joining his teammates for the final thirteen games of the season. He was obviously not himself, as his wRC+ was nearly chopped in half, but it was nice to see him return for almost twenty games to close out another lost season. Again, it would be easy just to sit out the rest of the season and rehab into the offseason, but Jansen is someone who wants to play at every opportunity he can get.
Just like the previous offseason, Jansen’s 2015 hand injury was not enough to scare off the Blue Jays front office from promoting him up to the pitcher-friendly Florida State League where he would catch the Dunedin Blue Jays staff. Sure enough, the injury bug struck Jansen yet again as he missed over two months recovering from a broken hamate bone suffered on the same hand he broke the previous year. As you can imagine, he was not happy: “I really wanted a clean season, man,” he said. “This was the year where I really wanted to have that clean season and coming off spring training and getting an opportunity to go to the big league camp and all that stuff.” Jansen also did not hit well in what was his longest extended tenure yet; in over 200 plate attempts prior to the injury, Jansen hit only .218/.313/.271 and created weighted runs 22% below the league average rate. He was still young (21) for the level, but the injuries were beginning to pile up and effect his play. Even his renowned plate discipline started to wane as he faced the more advanced pitch sequencing in High-A ball. His prospect status was beginning to be called into question, and he needed a strong, healthy 2017 season to re-establish himself as a solid prospect and make up for much needed missed developmental time both as a catcher and as a hitter.
I am happy to be reporting that we are now nearly into July and Danny Boy of Illinois is not only alive and well, walking, not striking out, and hitting for power, but he has already been promoted and is succeeding in Double-A ball, a level that often gives prospects the most difficulty in terms of making adjustments as a hitter. Jansen currently sports the seventh highest wRC+ in all of affiliated minor league ball, behind only Bo Bichette (previously mentioned), Oswaldo Arcia (Reno/PCL product), Michael Chavis (mentioned here and here), Brett Cumberland (#43 dynasty catcher), Shed Long (yep), and Vince Fernandez, who is interesting and perhaps warrants a future article of his own, but like Arcia, has stats which are largely inflated by his favorable home park in Asheville. Jansen’s success thus far is no fluke, though. Not only is he hitting line drives at a career high rate (hence the higher BABIP), he has his usual double-digit walk-rate and corresponding low K-rate and is doing it against the most difficult competition he has faced as a professional; the average Double-A player is over two years older than Jansen, which is impressive for any catching prospect, let alone someone who has missed so much time due to various injuries as Jansen has these past four years.
Prior to this season, Jansen was being hailed a “defensive-first catcher“, and since the data surrounding catcher framing continues to dilute the offense of the position, a catching prospect hitting .321/.398/.494 as a 22 year-old in Double-A tends to obtain my attention as a fantasy player rather quickly. According to Jansen and the good folks at Baseball America, this year’s offensive explosion can simply be attributed to balancing his training between catching and hitting. Jansen admitted that he has not “devoted as much time to hitting as I’ve really needed to. You’ve got to find a balance. Maybe if you’re not in that day, get in there early and really focus that day on hitting. Catching is always the main focus, and then find time every day and then maybe more two days a week to really bear down on hitting.” I would also like to point out that Google image-searching his name yields a variety a results, most interestingly these two profile pictures: one with Jansen wearing glasses, and one without where he is noticeably squinting. I am curious as to when exactly he started wearing glasses and how his stats vary from when he wore them in games versus when he did not. There are also several pictures of this guy that come up when you look up Jansen, so apparently there is another Danny Jansen who happens to be a famous Dutch TV chef. Whoever he is, the guy is photogenic as hell, and he even looks better than the real Jansen when they try making the same poses. I wonder how good his bitterballen are.
For all we know, Jansen was a flukey wrist injury away from being a highly drafted catcher out of a cold weather high school. Despite battling serious injuries for three straight years, he has been promoted aggressively each offseason and is finally healthy for the first time in his professional career; now we are seeing what he can do at full strength.. Catching prospects are extremely fickle (TINSTAACP), but any time you are hailed for your defense behind the plate all offseason and then hit better than all but seven minor league players in the country in your first taste of Double-A pitching, you are going to start flying up prospect lists. Now is the time to act before we and the other major publications begin releasing midseason prospect lists! Health is a wonderful thing (just ask this guy), so it is nice to see previously unlucky players like Jansen and Pham finally get their chance to show what they are capable of when good luck in the health department is on their sides. Given the uncertainty surrounding the position for the team after the 2019 season (I would not be holding out any hope for Max Pentecost or Reese McGuire becoming a startable catcher), you have to really like Jansen’s chances of being handed the keys to the job starting in 2020. Although that may seem in the distant horizon to some, the savvy dynasty owner should look to pounce on this opportunity before he begins seeing his non-TDG-reading leaguemates in his rear-view mirror sooner rather than later.