Throughout the season, the Toronto Blue Jays have slowly introduced the next generation of players to their fans. Injuries at the major league level and good performances in the minors have led to various promotions; Teoscar Hernández, Lourdes Gurriel Jr., Dwight Smith Jr. and Ryan Borucki saw time with the club before August, but one player lingered behind.
It took an oblique injury to infielder Yangervis Solarte to finally solve this problem. On August 12th, catcher Danny Jansen was finally promoted to the major league club.
Many fans, experts and media wondered why arguably the third best Blue Jays prospect took so long to be promoted to the majors, despite hitting .275/.390/.473 at AAA. Even after hitting a home run in the Futures Game, a moment that he described felt like he “was running on a cloud around the bases tying to look for his parents in the crowd,” Jansen still didn’t get the call. It was an injury that finally opened the door.
Strong MLB Catchers
First, Jansen was blocked at the major leagues by the catching tandem of Luke Maile and Russell Martin. A duo that Blue Jays manager John Gibbons implied was his best since returning to Toronto in 2013. “We’re lucky here with Luke and Russell, two really good defensive players. It makes a huge difference to our pitching staff,” he said. “Some teams that I’ve had here had a more offensive player back there that struggles with the defence. I mean it hurts you.”
Maile (12th) and Martin (15th) are two of the best “pitch framers” in the majors. This is based on the stat CSAA (Called Strikes Above Average), a measure used to indicate how many called strikes the player in question creates for his team.
Another area they are both strong is a key role for the catcher:pitch calling, where catchers help the pitcher navigate through an opposing lineup. Gibbons considers this “the number one job of that guy behind the plate (defence). He’s running the game with the pitching staff. You take what kind of offence you can get but I don’t think everyone thinks that way.”
Another former catcher with the same perspective as Gibbons is current Blue Jays studio analyst, Joe Siddall. “As a former catcher I still think defence is first and foremost. That’s why they signed Russell and he is great at it (2nd highest defensive WAR),” said the former Detroit Tiger backstop. “I look at Luke Maile right now he’s a back up. I have a lot of conversations with him because I think I really relate to him. He takes a lot of pride in his role. That’s his strength and what he does really well.”
Two strong proven major league catchers were needed on a team with aspirations to contend. Even after the Blue Jays season appeared to be lost, Maile and Martin were crucial in working with the young pitchers being promoted to the team. But an injury to an infielder and Martin’s positional flexibility finally opened the door for Jansen.
High Volumes of Information and Data
We are in an era of an abundance of data and information that can be a challenge and overwhelming for a young catcher. Siddall commented on seeing college players and some major league catchers recording information on wrist bands to use in game action. He even referenced most notably, David Ross from the 2016 World Series.
“I just feel sometimes now that we’ve made the game so robotic. That catchers are not using their own intuition and their own baseball intellect by watching the game as a catcher reading swings.” Martin discussed a similar concept last spring with BP Toronto.
This increase in the amount of information and analytics can almost become an overload to a young catcher. Gibbons empathized with young catchers saying “you end up confusing yourself more because it used to be simple back when I was playing. Nowadays everything is so advanced that you know every weakness. You are tracking guys all season long; where you can go to certain times. I mean that’s all good to know, but if your pitcher on that particular night can’t do that or he was off. You still have to adjust.”
Maile has come to a better understanding of how to best use the information at his disposal. “If you start using it in a way that might be detrimental to your pitcher’s best pitch, it might hurt you. But for me as soon as I get things that I believe in and I feel good about it I pretty much just stop listening,” he said.
“I like to just go over a few notes. I am a big believer in seeing how they are swinging in the last five or ten games. I might look at the video about a guy I’m not totally familiar with, but it just kind of knowing what you like to look for and what you believe in”
For a younger catcher it is preparation that is important. They need to be ready for the magnitude of information they will be given in the majors. Unlike other positions on the team it can be very daunting. The key is balancing that information with the willingness to adjust as the game dictates.
“I’m a huge believer in get your game plan and have an idea what you want to do. But in baseball it is not always going to go according to plan,” said Maile. “I’m a big believer in reading swings; just kind of seeing how the field game is going.”
Rookie Jansen, during an interview in Buffalo, indicated he is aware of the challenge saying he would need to “understand the way they call it and all the information that they have” when he comes to the majors, but that he was “ready for it.”
Developing Mentorship Plan
In the fall of 2014, the Blue Jays signed Russell Martin to a five year – 82 million dollar deal. He was key to the two playoff runs with his plus defense and solid bat. “I think when Russ is behind the plate what he did those last two playoff years the Jays, that’s why they signed Russell. Whatever he did after that was gravy, but it cost a lot of money,” said Sportsnet broadcaster Siddall.
“Russ every year whatever team he was on goes to the playoffs, very few guys can say that.” said Gibbons “He’s got that something extra.”
Over the past two years, many fans and critics have focussed on Martin’s decline in his superior defence and offensive production. But what people can’t deny is his ability to handle the pain and grind of the position.
“You watch Russ Martin back there take foul tips. They get him good. He just kind off shakes them off — it’s a pride thing. Other catchers take the same ball and they’re down there rolling around,” said a laughing Gibbons. “So right here I know that guys don’t want to be back there. Russ you know brings it. That’s what makes him that much better than most of them.”
When asked to list two way catchers, Siddall was quick to include a younger Martin. “Russ Martin and maybe he’s a bad example because he later in his career now. But there’s a guy that really did it from both sides and took a lot of pride.”
The 35-year-old’s mentality, experience, and success offer incredible value for a team with a rookie catcher. With the quick learning curve of a major league catcher, Martin can help Jansen with that transition.
“As coaches we could give perspective on the game, but it is better to get it from the actual guy that goes through this with this kid. He was in that guy’s shoes at one time. It can make a world of difference,” said Gibbons.
Maile over the last two years has had the opportunity to work closely with Martin. Often they will sit down with the pitchers and pitching coach, Pete Walker, to open a series and go over matchups or specific players. For example, if there is a really glaring stat, such as “a guy is hitting .800 on 1-1 sliders from right-handers,” Maile says that is the type of information he wants to know.
Also through informal conversations with Martin, it has helped both veteran catchers gain a better understanding of how to attack hitters. Maile continued:
“It depends on how glaring it really is, if something’s really a big deal. For instance, a pitcher has been throwing a split finger and it’s his fourth pitch historically. But all of a sudden it’s really nasty. Russ, if he’s had more experiences with it and keeps on having success he might come up and say ‘Hey by the way that ‘split finger is really electric lately, if you get a chance make sure you throw it.'”
It is these invaluable conversations and opportunities for mentorship that the Blue Jays front office are counting on — hoping they will make the transition from minors to majors smooth for Wisconsin native, Jansen.
“To have the privilege just to pick their brain. Sitting by Russ on the bench and to try and learn as much as I can from him cause he has been around the game so long. He has been in every scenario,” said Jansen.
It took a long time for the Blue Jays best catching prospect to get the call. The reason is a lot of things needed to be in place. An opening for him to play regularly, a maturity and willingness for him to be ready for the challenges of the role, and an opportunity for mentorship and development at the big league level.
“They need to learn the pitchers. They have got to figure out what each pitcher likes to do in certain situations. What they are capable of doing in certain situations. You know you’re under the microscope — you’re handling the ball more than anybody,” said Gibbons. “All eyes are on you and you learn different techniques. You got to learn from certain umpires and a heck of a lot more than people realize. It is more than just being out there playing.”
Jansen takes a lot of pride in what’s going on behind the plate, he likes to call it “the chess match of the game.”
The game has begun, let the maturation and development at the big leagues commence.