The Toronto Blue Jays are benefiting from a turn around in the fortunes of Danny Jansen
The last eight games have been the best stretch of Danny Jansen’s young career. On June 25th, against the Yankees, he hit a double, only his third extra-base hit of the month. In the seven games since, he’s hit another two doubles, as well as six dingers. He’s only walked once since the 25th, yet he has more walks than strikeouts over that time (because he hasn’t struck out).
All told, his 323 wRC+ is second in the majors over the last ten days (min. 20 PA), while his .724 ISO has been second-to-none. While some good luck is always necessary to produce power numbers that strong, Jansen’s underlying contact has been phenomenal—his .498 xISO ranks third in the majors over this stretch.
Now, eight great games does not mean that Jansen has finally broken out of his first half funk. Instead, what this run does reflect is the fact that Jansen’s luck has finally turned around and his results are starting to reflect his underlying performance.
The first month and a half of the 2019 season saw Jansen both struggle at the plate and deal with really bad batted ball luck. Through May 14th, Jansen could only muster a .280 xwOBA, which put him 24th among starting catchers (min. 75 PA). Too many strikeouts (26.9% K rate) and not enough good contact were his primary issues. To make matters worse, his results were far poorer than his performance—he owned the third largest gap between his xwOBA and wOBA among this group of catchers.
The next month saw Jansen make meaningful improvements at the plate—from May 16th to June 9th, Jansen produced an impressive .374 xwOBA, 7th-best among starting catchers (min. 40 PA). However, the bad luck continued, with Jansen owning the largest xwOBA-wOBA gap in this group of catchers.
The next couple weeks went quite poorly, a sort of worse version of the first month and a half. Jansen both struggled to produce good contact (.216 xwOBA, fourth-worst among catchers) and dealt with terrible luck (third-largest xwOBA-wOBA gap among catchers).
With that backdrop, one can better enjoy just how well Jansen has hit over the last ten days. Not only has he produced the second-best wRC+ over this stretch, he’s also produced the second-best xwOBA, an eye-popping .568. That’s not to say that his 323 wRC+ is remotely sustainable, but it does mean that he has earned every bit of it.
With half a season in the books, it’s instructive to look back at the lofty pre-season expectations we had for Jansen and compare them with the performance he’s produced.
One area that Jansen has clearly met expectations is his ability to take a walk—Steamer projected him to walk 9% of the time and he’s walked 8.9% of the time. On the other hand, while he was expected to keep a comfortably better-than-average strikeout rate (15.3%), his actual strikeout rate (20.4%) has come in just under the league average. That said, Jansen’s strikeout rate since April 27th has been a very solid 16%, highlighting the negative impact of his very early struggles (30.4% K rate through April 26th).
Jansen has definitely met expectations for his potential to hit for extra bases. Steamer projected him to maintain a .166 ISO this season. Not only has he managed to produce a nearly-there .163 ISO, his expected ISO has been an even better .178, reflecting his season-long struggles with batted ball luck.
The area in which he’s fallen most short of pre-season expectations has been his BABIP—while Steamer expected him to produce a .280 mark, he’s been limited to .228. That alone should highlight the extent to which bad luck has held his results back. However, the following point make this even clearer: his expected BABIP is .311! That is exactly league average in 2019.
Unsurprisingly, his xBABIP-BABIP gap is third-highest in the majors this season. Importantly, while the others in the top five—Kendrys Morales, Yonder Alonso, Justin Smoak and Mitch Moreland—each frequently face shifts and are among the very slowest runners in baseball, Jansen doesn’t and isn’t. This suggests that Jansen has been truly unlucky and should expect a much narrower xBABIP-BABIP gap going forward.
Overall, Steamer projected Jansen to produce a strong .330 wOBA. While he has fallen well short of that so far (.281 wOBA), there is strong evidence to suggest that bad luck can explain the entirety of that gap: Jansen has produced a .330 xwOBA this season.
Jansen himself suggested that his early season struggles were unsurprising, as he had been laser-focused on developing his catching skills. That focus certainly seems to be paying off for him—he is tied for fifth in Fangraphs’ defensive runs saved (5) and ranks sixth in Baseball Prospectus’ fielding runs above average (6.3).
Allow me to conclude this post with an exercise that is both highly speculative and highly illustrative. Danny Jansen has produced 1 fWAR this season, thanks to well below-average hitting and above-average defence at the most premium position. If, instead of producing a .281 wOBA, Jansen had produced a .330 mark (equal to his xwOBA), his 2019 performance would have been worth 1.9 fWAR. Rather than ranking 17th in overall production among catchers, he would be tied for sixth with Gary Sanchez.
While his results at the plate haven’t met expectations thus far, Jays fans should feel very confident that Danny Jansen is the Blue Jays’ Catcher of the Future we all thought he was three months ago.
*Featured Image Courtesy Of DaveMe Images. Prints Available For Purchase.
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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.