Throughout Danny Jansen’s rise to the majors he was often tagged with the “bat-first catcher” label. The back-handed compliment spoke to his production at the plate in the minors, and expressed skepticism about his work behind it.
For the vast majority of his MLB career it just hasn’t fit, but for nearly a year now our understanding of Jansen has evolved. The fact that the 27-year-old has found his way as an MLB hitter isn’t too surprising considering his minor-league track record and underlying skills, but the magnitude of what he’s done recently is nothing short of shocking.
Since returning from an IL stint on August 31, 2021, Jansen has an OPS of 1.127 — powered by the highest slugging percentage (.762) of any of the 357 hitters with at least 100 plate appearances during that time.
Despite the fact that we’re talking about a small sample (115 PA) that spans multiple years and a mid-2022 trip to the IL, that’s still an outrageous power spike. If anything, the fact that it hasn’t been one heater, but rather a form that Jansen has had to find on multiple occasions, arguably makes it more impressive.
To be clear, Jansen isn’t showing us his new normal. Babe Ruth is the all-time SLG leader at .690, and only eight of the 15,880 qualified hitter seasons since 1871 have resulted in a SLG over .762.
He can’t continue at this rate, but the ceiling he’s demonstrating is still noteworthy.
That’s especially true considering his position. In an attempt to provide some context, we looked at the best 38-game stretch of every current starting catcher’s career by wRC+ (to better account for changing offensive environments) to see how they stack up against Jansen’s current run.
In his last 38 games the Toronto Blue Jays backstop has a 204 wRC+ (if we’re going to keep doing Ruth comparisons, his career number is 197). Of the 29 other starting catchers in the league — according to FanGraphs’ Roster Resource, with a few adjustments to include injured catchers and exclude those with fewer than 38 career games — only one has produced a better stretch of this length than Jansen.
Between June 19 and September 28 last season Yasmani Grandal hit .375/.475/.715, good for a 216 wRC+. No one else is over 200, and the average is 162.3. Being in a club with just the second-best offensive catcher of his generation (behind Buster Posey) isn’t a bad place to be for Jansen.
While the Grandal comparison is promising, a right-handed hitter finding inexplicable power in his late twenties unavoidably evokes a different name in a Blue Jays context: José Bautista.
That may seem absurd on the surface, but the basic story with Bautista is that he had a stretch at the end of the 2009 season (his 125 PA in September) when he tapped into a new level of power and hit far more home runs ( 10) than he had in the rest of the season combined (3).
Not only does that sound similar to what we’ve seen with Jansen, there are also stylistic parallels.
Bautista’s breakout was driven by putting an emphasis on being ready for fastballs, and getting the ball in the air — plus an unapologetic focus on pulling the ball.
Pre-September 2009 Breakout
Post-September 2009 Breakout
Because some of Bautista’s career pre-dates PITCHf/x, we can’t be confident about his numbers vs. fastballs prior to his breakout, but he feels safe to say he wasn’t slugging .550 against hard pitches before he found his groove — and the 205 home runs he hit against them after September 1, 2009 speak for themselves.
In Jansen’s recent performance, you can find many of the same elements that helped Bautista break out.
This is probably a good time to take a quick backpedal. Bautista sustained his improvements for nearly a decade and became one of the best hitters of his era. His career may have earned him a Hall of Fame induction if he’d found his way sooner. Jansen, on the other hand, has been mashed for a time period spanning less than one quarter of a season.
Projecting him to replicate Bautista’s trajectory would be going out on the ledge of all ledges considering the singularity of the six-time all-star’s journey. What the catcher is doing at the moment is moreso in the style of Bautista than likely to have the same outcome.
Even so, Jansen’s current production is so far removed from anything he’s done before that it’s demolishing our priors about what he can be as a hitter. He entered his current hot stretch with a career .202/.290/.364 line (good for a 76 wRC+) with his greatest MLB achievement being a 2019 Gold Glove nomination. Basically, he’d been a younger Martin Maldonado with some good Triple-A stats.
It’s unclear exactly how far his bat goes from here, but it feels safe to assume he’s not going to draw that comparison again. Even if we’re witnessing the best Jansen has to offer, it’s been eye-opening enough to suggest the “bat-first catcher” epithet may be his to claim once again — this time without the defensive questions.