After a rough start to the season, could things finally be turning around for Blue Jays’ catcher, Danny Jansen
Danny Jansen can hit. Last season, he was one of the AAA International League’s most effective offensive producers, posting the second-highest wRC+ (146) among batters with 300+ plate appearances (in spite of being more than three years younger than the average IL hitter). After his promotion to the majors, Jansen kept hitting, producing a solid 115 wRC+ and .331 xwOBA. In their 2019 prospect list, Fangraphs gave Jansen’s hit tool a present value of 50, indicating that they viewed him as a MLB-average hitter right now.
However, being a good hitter is icing on the cake for a major league catcher. Of primary importance is being a good catcher—effectively calling a game, receiving, framing and blocking the ball, throwing out runners and countless other responsibilities. Improving these important skills has been Jansen’s primary focus in 2019. Measuring these contributions statistically remains a work in progress, but there is some empirical evidence that Jansen is excelling as a catcher—his 4.1 framing runs above average (FRM) rank fourth in the majors.
While there’s no way to be certain that Jansen’s focus on his catching has hurt his hitting, it can be said for certain that Jansen had a rough start to the season—through the end of April, he posted a 42 wRC+. While he maintained a solid walk rate (9.3%), he was striking out at an uncharacteristically high rate (28%), his power was very limited (.061 ISO) and he wasn’t turning many of his balls in play into hits (.261 BABIP). A bit of bad luck was involved, as Statcast has his expected ISO for April at .075 and his expected BABIP at .312, suggesting that his contact was deserving of a few more base hits than he got.
For the most part, May has been a much improved month at the plate for Jansen. He’s continued to walk at a solid rate (8.3%), has effectively cut down on his strikeouts (22.9%) and he’s also hit for more power (.140 ISO). He’s put the ball in the air more than he did in April, lowering his monthly groundball rate from 52.2% to 37.5%. This has helped him increase his monthly barrel rate from a paltry 1.3% in April to an above-average 6.3% in May.
On the other hand, his BABIP has managed to fall even further (.200), which has limited his overall production for the month (56 wRC+). However, that 56 wRC+ does not accurately represent the contact he has generated in May. While his ISO has improved compared to April, it still appears to be depressed by bad luck, given his strong .188 xISO. Similarly, while his BABIP has fallen month-to-month, his xBABIP has actually increased quite a bit (.358 in May). All told, Jansen has produced a .356 xwOBA over the month of May, well above the MLB average (.322).
Clearly, his above-average xwOBA does not jibe with his 56 wRC+ (or his .257 wOBA). Indeed, the gap between Jansen’s xwOBA and wOBA (.099) is among the largest in the majors this month—among 266 batters with 40+ PA in May, Jansen owns the sixth-largest xwOBA-wOBA. This strongly suggests that Jansen has had one hell of an unlucky May. Statcast has highlights for many plays, including all seven of Jansen’s well-hit balls that went for outs this month—he has the 26th-highest well hit out rate (14.6%) this month (min. 40 PA).
The key takeaway is that he’s been doing a lot more things right at the plate in May. His walk and strikeout rates have each been almost exactly league-average. While we expect Jansen to produce even better plate discipline in the future, league-average is fine at this very early stage of his career. Bad batted ball luck seems to be the main reason why his solid May performance hasn’t shone through in his top-line stats, because he is making a lot of good contact. If he can keep up this current performance and get some fairer luck, his top-line stats should eventually look like those of the quality hitter Danny Jansen is.
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I’m an economics professor in the GTA whose lifelong love for the Jays was reignited by that magical August of 2015 and the amazing moments since.