By IAN WILSON
During a season in which Danny Jansen realized his dream of playing Major League Baseball (MLB), it was Giancarlo Stanton who provided the “pinch me” moments for the Toronto Blue Jays catcher.
In the bottom of the first inning on Aug. 18, 2018, the 6-foot-6 pinstriped Bronx beast stepped into the batter’s box at Yankee Stadium and gave Jansen his first game-action look at the chiseled outfielder’s 245-pound frame.
Jansen and fellow rookie starting pitcher Sean Reid-Foley got the better of Stanton during that at bat, watching him strike out swinging.
But in the fourth inning, Stanton sent a fastball 412 feet away from home plate and over the centre-field wall. It was Reid-Foley’s second start for the Jays and Jansen’s fourth game with the big club. Welcome to the major leagues.
The high-powered offence of the Yankees took it to Toronto that game, leading New York to an 11-6 victory, but Jansen also showed what he could do on the big stage. The Appleton, Wisconsin product drove in a run, scored another and his 2-for-4 day at the plate included a double off of Luis Severino.
During a recent stop in Calgary, Jansen admitted that series in New York left him slightly starstruck.
“When I was catching at Yankee Stadium I remember it was the fifth inning, middle of the inning, and our guys are warming up or whatever, and I thought ‘I’m at Yankee Stadium right now, pretty cool,'” said Jansen. “But after that you realize it’s just baseball. You just carry on with your business and it starts to become normal.”
DREAM MLB DEBUT
Jansen’s 31-game audition with Toronto last year was quietly impressive. And while his numbers weren’t necessarily eye-popping, they showed a player who was not at all out of place. The 16th-round pick in the 2013 draft posted a batting average of .247 and an on-base percentage (OBP) of .347. Of his 20 hits, three were home runs and six were doubles. In addition, he scored 12 runs and produced eight runs batted in (RBI).
“It’s a thing every kid dreams of and it’s still almost surreal,” Jansen told Alberta Dugout Stories.
“That month and a half went by pretty quick. Your life changes. You’re playing in front of 45,000 fans instead of 5,000, at most. I played with Russell Martin, who I grew up watching and idolizing and I’m playing with him. It was really, really cool going to Boston and Fenway, playing in Toronto and just having that platform of thousands of kids coming up to you and asking for autographs.”
Prior to his arrival at Rogers Centre, Jansen put together a solid season with the Triple-A Buffalo Bisons. The 23-year-old punched out 12 home runs, contributed 58 RBI, scored 45 runs and put up a .390 OBP during 88 games.
His 2018 campaign showed enough that the Blue Jays were comfortable in dealing away Martin to the Dodgers, leaving Jansen atop the catching depth chart ahead of Luke Maile and Reese McGuire.
THE SEASON AHEAD
Even before Toronto moved out their mentoring backstop, Jansen was looking ahead to a big season in 2019.
“There’s obviously a little bit of pressure but … it’s how you put it on yourself, so this off-season and going into the season I’ve thought about that a little bit and it’s just like, why am I going to put pressure on myself? I’m just going to be myself and that’s what got me there,” said Jansen during a break at a recent Strive Baseball Program camp.
“I’m not putting any pressure on myself, really. I’m just trying to be myself and just keep doing what I’m doing so hopefully that takes me where I want to be.”
Shane Dawson, a 2012 draft pick of the Jays and a former teammate of Jansen’s in the minor leagues, expects a lengthy and productive MLB career for his fellow Strive Baseball coach.
“I think what people should expect out of Danny Jansen is somebody who controls the pitchers very well. He’s a very smart guy. He really understands the game behind the dish and he’s willing to put his body on the line behind the dish. I would say all the pitchers really like him in the organization. I know everyone that I played with that was a pitcher loved throwing to Danny because they knew that he was willing to put his life on the line for the game and for them,” said Dawson, a product of Drayton Valley and a Prairie Baseball Academy (PBA) alumnus.
“I think he’s a workhorse and a really good defensive catcher, still making leaps and bounds defensively, and he’s an above-average hitter. If you can get .270 out of a catcher with 15 to 20 home runs, which is what I see him doing every year in the big leagues, that guy is going to stick around for a while, especially being a great clubhouse guy.”
Looking ahead to this season for the rebuilding Blue Jays, Jansen said fans of Canada’s only MLB team have plenty to be excited about, even if expectations have dropped since their last post-season appearance in 2016.
Although Jansen is not making any assumptions about his spot on the roster, the 6-foot-2, 215-pound catcher is confident in the youth movement that is ascending the minor-league ranks for the Jays.
“It’s exciting for me, just because I played with a lot of these guys and I know what kind of guys they are, what they bring to the table, not just off the field but on the field, as well, and we’re looking to build a real strong core of leaders and that passion, that drive and accountability,” said Jansen, who hit a two-run home run in the 2018 All-Star Futures Game, playing alongside Blue Jay prospect Bo Bichette for Team USA.
“It’s definitely going to be a fun up and coming year. I’m just hoping I’m a part of it. I’m doing everything I can to be.”
The bespectacled backstop also spoke glowingly of Bichette (son of former Edmonton Trapper and MLB slugger Dante Bichette) and top prospect Vlad Guerrero Jr.
“The hype is real, man. I haven’t played with Bo much but obviously I’ve seen him play spring ball and I know what kind of player he is. He’s a freak. He’s so good and good in the clubhouse,” said Jansen.
“Vladdy, it’s the same way. I’ve never seen a 19-year-old with that kind of eye. In Triple-A he was hitting third and I was hitting behind him and I’m getting to the plate with a man on base every time …. He’s got such good plate discipline. That’s what sets him apart, I think, from a lot of people and he’s a hard worker, too, which is huge.”
The career path for Dawson, meanwhile, is not as clear.
The 25-year-old left-hander played for the independent league Winnipeg Goldeyes last year after parting ways with the Blue Jays organization. He pitched well, going 3-1 with a 3.38 earned run average (ERA) while striking out 16 batters over 24 innings. Unfortunately, injuries limited Dawson to just five starts.
“I had two injuries. The front of my shoulder started barking a little bit, so I took a month off to figure that out and then my first start back, on one of my last pitches, I felt a tug in my rib cage underneath my shoulder blades and I pulled a muscle in my rib cage. Two injuries on the year and that’s kind of it for a season,” Dawson told Alberta Dugout Stories.
“I still have passion for the game. I wish I could still play. My body is just not really working with me right now …. We’ll see. It all depends on how my body feels. Right now, my shoulder’s still pretty cranky, but hopefully I can get back into the gym with some of the guys we have running the strength and conditioning and maybe give me a tryout or something here in February. But, you know, if my body won’t cooperate I’m not going to end up putting myself in a wheelchair by forty.”
Following his season in Winnipeg, Dawson was moving from Edmonton to Calgary and was looking for work. A conversation with Andrew MacLean, of Prep Baseball Report (PBR) Alberta, introduced him to the newly-formed Strive Baseball Program, where MacLean also serves as a coach.
“We found a pretty good group of guys to start this up with. We have a good core of 12 to 15 kids that really wanted to get better and really wanted to learn, so we got the ball rolling and once I got my feet wet with the Calgary baseball community I really wanted to put this together,” said Dawson of the Calgary baseball clinic at the Coyote Den, which was held in early January.
“It went well, I think. We’re probably going to try to make this an annual event where we get a couple big leaguers from Toronto to come here and really experience Calgary and Alberta and get these kids some exposure.”
PAYING IT FORWARD
The opportunity to pass along what he’s learned during his professional career to aspiring baseball players was also a draw for Dawson.
“I really enjoy it. I feel like I relate to kids pretty well. I’m a pretty young soul and I’m only 25,” said the former Vancouver Canadian.
“I really like trying to help people get better and I feel like I have a wealth of knowledge …. I like watching kids have fun with the game and getting better and really find themselves in the game of baseball and seeing their confidence rise.”
The trip west for Jansen provided a few firsts for the catcher. It was his first trip to Calgary, as well as Alberta, and his first time serving as a baseball camp instructor.
“It kind of reminded me of Wisconsin a little bit,” said Jansen, who toured Calgary Tower and Banff during his visit.
“During winter you have to be indoors and you have to make due with what you’ve got. It starts with that passion that you develop when you have limited resources.”
Added Jansen: “It kind of reminded me of when I was younger and had a chance to meet somebody who I would look up to, and I’m not saying I’m somebody that they would look up to or anything, it’s just kind of cool to be in the driver’s seat and have that platform to help kids out and just talk to them and inspire them.”
Receiving instruction from a Major League Baseball player was a dream come true for many of the 10- to 18-year-old youths who attended the Calgary camp.
Some may have even left pinching themselves.