Danny Jansen is quietly having one of the best seasons of any player in minor league baseball. In 97 games split between three levels, the 22-year-old Toronto Blue Jays catching prospect is slashing .339/.414/.510 — and he’s not slowing down. In 52 plate appearances since being promoted to Triple-A Buffalo, he’s hit a Ruthian .455/.538/.795.
When Jansen appeared in my July 1 Notes column, Blue Jays farm director Gil Kim was quoted as saying the youngster is “really opening up some eyes,” and that he is “one of the most-improved players in the system.”
Jansen’s eyes are a big reason for that improvement. Four years after being drafted out of an Appleton, Wisconsin high school, in the 16th round, he’s receiving optometrical assistance.
“Last year, I realized that things weren’t as clear anymore, so after the season I went to the eye doctor,” explained Jansen. “He told me I had astigmatism, so I got a prescription and started wearing glasses last fall. I’m seeing everything so clear now, like a normal person with good eyes would.”
The former Appleton West Terror doesn’t wear contacts, which makes him the rare backstop who dons glasses behind his mask. He sees at least one advantage to that. “Dirt doesn’t get in my eyes,” Jansen explained with a knowing nod.
Vision hasn’t been his only above-the-neck improvement.
“My mindset is different,” Jansen told me. “I’ve stopped thinking about my mechanics. That’s a huge thing right there. I’d gotten in a trap the last few years where I tried to be somebody I wasn’t. This year I decided I was just going to be me, see the ball, and compete.”
It has been said that a baseball looks like a beachball to a hitter who is hot, and while Jansen didn’t make any such observation, the 15 for 28 streak he was on when we spoke on Wednesday suggests that it probably does. As for the numbers themselves, does he ever blink his eyes to make sure he’s not dreaming?
“Yeah, it’s definitely different,” admitted Jansen. “I’ve never really had this kind of success before. I’m confident right now, but really, I’m just trying to be level-headed, and trying to get better.”
How do members of a starting staff approach their between-outings bullpen sessions? It varies pitcher to pitcher, and in Aaron Nola’s case, it includes more than simply getting his work in. While it’s not necessarily his main focus, he has his next opponent in mind.
“I think it’s smart to have an idea of guys you’ll be facing when you’re throwing your bullpen,” the Phillies ace told me earlier this season. “I’ll visualize. For instance, if they’ve got more lefties in their lineup, I’ll somewhat base my bullpen off of that. Maybe it’s specific lefties. I’ll get a pitching coach in the batter’s box and have him closer to the plate, or farther from the plate.”
Nola told me that he’ll work on expected pitch sequences to specific hitters in his pens, although he does so fully aware that could change come game day. Depending on feel, game situations, or how hitters are reacting, all of that could go out the window.
For much that reason, routine maintenance remains part of the plan.
“I do work on my command, usually going off of my last outing,” said Nola. “Say my breaking ball wasn’t where I needed it to be, or maybe it was my fastball — maybe it wasn’t good inside to a lefty, or inside to a righty. Regardless of who (the next opponent is), I’ll make sure to work on that.”
In September 2015, we ran an interview titled Cody Allen: A Cleveland Closer’s Weird Year. This season is equally strange. The 28-year-old righty has six losses and his highest ERA since 2012, but his FIP is better than it was last year. So are his strikeout and walk rates. Ditto his hard-contact rate. Conversely, his BABiP — a veritable yo-yo over the past several seasons — has bounced back up.
Allen was pragmatic when I asked him about having yet another statistically-strange season.
“The game has a way of evening itself out,” observed Allen. “I think my exit velocity is actually down compared to years past, but at the same time, I’ve given up as many lasers right at people as Ive had soft-hit shots drop. All you can do is try to make pitches, and from there it’s just baseball.”
Connor McGuiness is in his first season as a pitching coach in the Dodgers system, and he arrived via the college scene. The 27-year-old joined the low-A Great Lakes Loons after serving in that role at Emory, and at Catholic University of America.
“I originally reached out to Jeremy Zoll, who is the assistant to Gabe Kapler,” explained McGuiness. “He was actually my catcher growing up, but I didn’t think this was even within the realm of possibility. Before I knew it, I was on a long phone call with Gabe Kapler. He liked what I had to say, and the interview process kind of kicked off from there. Here I am.”
McGuiness obviously has a lot to offer, but he was humble — and studious in bearing— when I asked if he has a specific expertise that impressed the Dodgers’ front office.
“I want to be open and admit that I don’t know anything yet,” McGuiness told me. “I have gathered a lot of information, and I had a lot of success at the college level, developing guys, whether in ball manipulation, weighted-ball program, increasing velocities, and whatnot. But to me it’s just an ongoing process.
“I wouldn’t cookie-cut myself into one niche. I’d never want to do that, because once you become closed-minded, you’re done. I want to continue learning from (pitching coordinators) like Brandon Gomes, Donnie Alexander, Bobby Cuellar… my goodness, I get to hang with Charlie Hough now. This is a dream come true.”
When I chatted with Orioles outfielder Trey Mancini on Friday, he told me he’s had “a gold mine of resources” in his rookie season. Among the people he cited is Baltimore broadcaster — and pitching legend — Jim Palmer.
“He knows the game as well as anybody I’ve been around,” Mancini told me. “A lot of times he touches on his train of thought as a pitcher, and when it comes to knowing what a pitcher might be thinking, Jim is as good as it gets.”
Changeups were a discussion point when Mancini was struggling against the pitch earlier this year, but interestingly, how to approach the high fastball — a staple during Palmer’s Hall of Fame career — hasn’t been addressed. That might be about to change. “I think I should ask him about that next,” mused Mancini.
There are pitchers and there are throwers, and Don Cooper doesn’t mince words when it comes to the difference between the two. He has little use for the latter.
“Big League hitters can hit fastballs,” stated the White Sox pitching coach, who has no aversion to age-old adages when they’re applicable. “That’s the first prerequisite for a hitter to come up here — he has to be able to hit a fastball — and the first prerequisite for a pitcher is that he’s got to be able to throw strikes. If you can’t throw it over, what good are you? You aren’t any good to anybody.”
What if the majority of pitchers began throwing as hard as Aroldis Chapman? Could hitters adjust and handle that kind of heat?
“If it’s not located, yeah,” said Cooper. “If pitchers aren’t ahead in the count, and if they don’t have something to go along with it… I mean, if you just keep throwing the same (bleeping) pitch in the same (bleeping) spot, I don’t care how hard it is. There will be a few guys you can eliminate, because they can’t keep up with that kind of velocity, but the good hitters will hit it — and there are a lot of good hitters.”
Lee Stange was an original Twin. The veteran of 10 big league seasons debuted in 1961, the franchise’s first year in Minnesota after six decades as the Washington Senators. I recently caught up with the now-80-year-old righty and got his thoughts on a few of his former Twins teammates.
Stange told me that Jim Kaat had “outstanding stuff” and that his ball “really moved.” He referred to the lefty out of Zeeland, Michigan as “a big, strong kid,” adding that “he was probably the best centerfielder I ever saw in batting practice. He caught everything, and he loved it.” The latter shouldn’t comes as a huge surprise to those who know that Kaat was awarded 16 pitcher Gold Gloves in his 25-year career.
Stange said Camilo Pascual threw his curveball from different angles, and that it “was probably the best in the game at that time.” He claimed to have once seen a hitter swinging straight down at one of Pascual’s 12-to-6 offerings, trying to foul it off on a two-strike count. Playing catch with the Cuban curveball artist, Stange could “actually hear the ball spin — you could hear the rotation of the ball as it came toward you.”
According to Stange, Bob Allison wasn’t someone you wanted bearing down on you. The three-time All-Star was not only a slugger — Allison swatted 256 home runs and had a 127 adjusted OPS — he took no prisoners on the base paths.
“He was strong, and he could run well for a big man,” said Stange. “He was about 230 (pounds), and probably the hardest slider into second base of anybody in baseball. Of course, he couldn’t do that now. It’s against the rules. Baseball is getting kind of like girls’ softball.”
On Monday, 22-year-old Cincinnati Reds outfield prospect Jose Siri became the first Midwest League player in 35 years to hit 20 home runs and steal 40 bases in a season. Siri plays for the low-A Dayton Dragons.
Baltimore’s Chris Davis homered on Friday for his 1,000th career hit. The Orioles slugger has 467 extra-base hits, including 262 long balls.
Baltimore’s Trey Mancini is 10 for 22 with two doubles, a triple, two home runs, and 10 RBI in six career games at Fenway Park.
Miami’s Giancarlo Stanton has nine multi-homer games this season, the most in the majors. He is the first player with nine multi-homer games since Jose Bautista in 2010. The last player with 10 was Albert Pujols in 2009
For the first time in franchise history, three Colorado Rockies rookies — Kyle Freeland, German Marquez, Antonio Senzatela — have recorded 10 or more wins. The last team to have three or more rookie pitchers record at least 10 wins in a season was the 2006 Florida Marlins (Josh Johnson, Scott Olsen, Ricky Nolasco, Anibal Sanchez).
Through July 5, the Seattle Mariners were 1-5 in extra-inning games. Since that time they are 5-0.
Since joining the Washington Nationals, Daniel Murphy is 49-for-125 (.392) versus the New York Mets. Per the Elias Sports Bureau, no active player has a higher batting average against his former team (minimum 100 at bats). Matt Holliday is hitting .378 versus the Rockies.
The Chicago Cubs have tied a major league record with four 20-homer seasons by players in their age 25 or younger season (Javier Báez, Kris Bryant, Willson Contreras, Kyle Schwarber). The 2007 Milwaukee Brewers and 1979 Montreal Expos also had four.
Atlanta’s Brandon Phillips has played 21 games at third base this month, his only appearances at the position in 16 big league seasons.
The Philadelphia Phillies have had 13 different players make their MLB debut this season. With an average age of 26.2, the Phillies are currently the youngest team in either league.
The Arizona Diamondbacks are building a new culture under new leadership, and according to Torey Lovullo, intangibles are a part of it. While many may pooh-pooh the human element, the first-year skipper certainly isn’t among them. Camaraderie was the first thing he cited when I asked what stands out about his seemingly playoff-bound ball club.
When he told me the cohesive atmosphere has helped his team win, I asked him to elaborate.
“Being a nice guy doesn’t necessarily help you get that base hit,” responded Lovullo. “Being a nice guy doesn’t necessarily help you make that big pitch. What it helps do is develop trust. If you have a tough moment, your team is going to back you. They’ll make you understand that you didn’t fail alone — you failed together. And when you get that big hit, you’re not going to celebrate alone, you’re going to celebrate together. It makes you feel there’s a bigger importance than the self. Feeling like you’re a part of something bigger, something more special, can help you do some spectacular things.”
One year after going 63-93, the resurgent D-Backs are 71-58 and leading the National League wild card race.
Buck Showalter took offense at my suggesting that baseball’s wild-card format is likely to reward mediocrity this year. The Orioles manager voiced his opinion after I pointed out that an American League team is in line for a post-season berth with a record barely over .500, and a negative run differential. (The AL’s second wild card is currently the Twins, who are 66-63 and have been outscored by 33 runs.)
“Somebody who is four or five games over .500 is not mediocre,” retorted Showalter. “Trust me. You’re talking about something you just haven’t been a part of. Trust me. If you’re over .500 in the big leagues, you’re not mediocre.”
With all due respect to Mr. Showalter, I disagree. Mediocre is defined as “of only ordinary or moderate quality; neither good nor bad.” Teams like this year’s Twins, Mariners, Royals, Angels, Rangers, Rays — and yes, Showalter’s Orioles — fit that description. They may all be in a pennant race, but by and large, their won-loss records aren’t exactly inspiring.
John Russell is 56 years old and in his sixth season as Showalter’s bench coach in Baltimore. His son, Steel Russell, is 27 years old and a coach with the Orioles’ Double-A affiliate, the Bowie Baysox. A few days ago, I asked the proud father if he could imagine them together on the same coaching staff.
“I’ve thought about it a little bit,” admitted the elder Russell. “But mostly I’m happy for him, and he’s happy, so wherever it takes him… if our paths cross at the same place, yeah, that would be kind of neat. I’d have to be his boss, though.”
LINKS YOU’LL LIKE
Is there positional anarchy in baseball? Russell Carleton explored the question at Baseball Prospectus.
Beyond the Box Score’s Mary Craig explored the myth of baseball’s depoliticalization, and she did so in informative detail.
RANDOM FACTS AND STATS
Harvey Haddix — famous for having a perfect game through 12 innings, in 1959, only to lose in the 13th — was known as “Kitten.” The erstwhile Pirates pitcher got his nickname after being compared to fellow southpaw Harry “The Cat” Brecheen.
On August 28, 1921, John Michaelson became the first — and only — person born in Finland to appear in a big league game. A native of Tivalkoski, Michaelson made a pair of pitching appearances for the Chicago White Sox.
On August 29, 1986, the California Angels scored eight runs in the bottom of the ninth inning to beat the Detroit Tigers 13-12. Dick Schofield’s two-out grand slam — his second hit of the inning — provided the walk-off win.
On August 31, 1950, Gil Hodges went 5 for 6 with four home runs — one each off of four different pitchers — and nine runs batted in as the Brooklyn Dodgers defeated the Boston Braves 19-3.
On September 1, 1906, Jack Coombs and Joe Harris threw complete games as the Philadelphia A’s beat the Boston Red Sox 4-1 in 24 innings. Harris, the losing pitcher in that contest, finished the season with a record of 3-21.
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.