John Jaso has been a pleasant surprise for Tampa Bay. A left-handed-hitting catcher who was taken in the 12th round of the 2003 draft, the 26-year-old Jaso came into the season with just 10 big-league at bats and expectations of a return trip to Triple-A Durham. Instead, the cerebral backstop has established himself as a mainstay in the Rays’ lineup. One of the most-disciplined hitters on Joe Maddon‘s squad, the California-born-and-raised Jaso went into the All-Star break hitting .274 with a team-best .393 OBP.
David Laurila: How would you describe yourself beyond the playing field?
John Jaso: I think that the best way to describe me is being from the West Coast and having grown up in a liberal attitude. I love life and I love being outdoors.
DL: Fernando Perez suggested that I talk to you. Why do you think that was?
JJ: Fernando and I have been together for a long time. We always lived together during the season, and we first played together in 2004, so we’ve gotten to know each other pretty well. We get into some big debates and discussions; we talk about a lot of things, both on-the-field stuff and off-the-field stuff—a lot of interesting subjects. He’s opinionated and I’m opinionated as well.
DL: Can you give any examples of what you've talked about?
JJ: Well, the things that come to mind first probably aren’t kosher to put into print, but going to play winter ball, and our different views on that, would be one. We’ll also get into religion and theology, and that kind of stuff. Those are two examples.
DL: What were your winter ball experiences like?
JJ: They were great. Fernando and I went to Venezuela at the same time; we went to Caracas, and we had a good time. We got to see a little bit of the country, too, not just play baseball. We went out into the towns and to some of the beaches and other parts of Venezuela; we went up into the mountains. It was a good experience beyond just playing baseball—getting to see what the environment, and life, is like down there.
DL: You were both out of your element in Venezuela, although Fernando would have blended into the crowd fairly well. Did you feel especially out of place?
JJ: And he speaks a little bit of Spanish, too. But it wasn’t too bad, because I had traveled down to Mexico plenty of times. I used to live near San Diego and would go across the border into Tijuana, so I never really feel out of place in a different country. I kind of like that experience, to be honest.
DL: I understand that you enjoy camping.
JJ: Yes, I grew up camping. My dad always took me and my brothers, and my sister, backpacking in the Trinity Alps, in California. This past off-season, I drove back across the country, back home to California, and I stopped off at a couple of national parks and camped there. I also camped a couple of times on the side of the road; I would maybe find a spot by a lake, and spend some time there on my own. Some of the places I saw were Bryce Canyon and Zion [National Park] in Utah, and the Painted Desert, in Arizona. Those were all pretty cool.
DL: When you’re camping, do you find yourself thinking about baseball, or is your mind usually elsewhere?
JJ: I’m thinking about everything but, mostly. Like this past year, when I went on my camping trip, it was a good mechanism to clear my mind of the season, which had been a long and strenuous one. It was a way to be on my own and to, at least temporarily, get away from the questions I was going to get asked when I got home. After a long season it was going to be, “How was this?” and “What do you think about that?” It was a good escape before I went home.
DL: Do players get more of that, from friends and family, than most people realize?
JJ: I think so, but everybody means well and it kind of comes with the territory. You’re being asked questions and finding yourself repeating the same answers over and over, but you have to understand that you’re doing something that has an impact on people’s lives. Maybe you get a little frustrated with it at times, but when that happens you have kind of take a step back and count it as a blessing. Like I said, everybody means well.
DL: Fernando suggested that I ask you about “the merit of respect in the game.”
JJ: Was he talking about players getting respect from other players? That’s a pretty controversial one for me, and we’ve talked about that before. Basically, I think that a lot of people tend to look at somebody and let the game define the person, and you can get carried away in that. We’ve grown up playing baseball, and watching big-leaguers play, and they’re on this high level—they’re like idols out on the field. You grow up with that attitude, and then when you’re here, you kind of find yourself letting the game define who the person is. I try to stay away from that and let life define who the person is.
I think that’s what Fernando meant. A guy that hits 35 home runs is going to get more respect, and it’s hard for me to look at things that way. For me, it’s more of the decisions that a person makes in life that are going to really get that respect. I think it’s important for people to realize that even if you play well out on the field, you still have to be a human being. You have to share on the same level as anybody else.
DL: You came into the season with two career hits at the big-league level. Do you think you were viewed as “just a minor leaguer“?
JJ: I don’t think so—not so much. Coming in, I was 2-for-10, or something like that, so maybe I was looked at, a little bit, as a minor leaguer by some people—it’s possible. But work and attitude out on the field have probably helped me gain some of that respect.
DL: Are you looked at much differently now that you’re playing regularly and spending a lot of time hitting leadoff?
JJ: I think that I’m looked at as being more a part of the team. I was up here in 2008, but I was just hanging back in the shadows and maybe getting in there for the last two innings of a game, or something like that. I was a guy who had gotten a September call-up, but now I’m playing on more of an everyday basis, so I’m looked at as more a part of the team and somebody who can make an impact.
DL: Why are you being used as the leadoff hitter?
JJ: I think that it has to do with my on-base percentage, being able to work counts, and having the best at-bats that I can. I know that it’s not because of my speed and ability to steal a base. Mostly, it’s my ability to work the count and being able to hit in two-strike counts, and those kinds of things.
DL: Do you feel fortunate to be on a team willing to hit their catcher in the leadoff position?
JJ: Yeah, it is kind of fortunate in that sense, because I could just as easily be put down in the eight hole and stuck there for the full year. Having a manager that thinks a little bit outside of the box has probably been to my benefit a little bit—moving me up in the order—so I can say that I’ve hit leadoff. It makes me somewhat unique, so I guess you could say that I’m a little bit lucky in that sense.
DL: A lot of players say that they never look at their stats and are only concerned with wins and losses. You’re obviously aware of your on-base percentage, so how much truth is there to that?
JJ: I think that a lot of that does happen, but it’s very hard because we’re all human and our eyes will casually glance over at the stat sheet every once in a while. But, as a catcher, if I go 0-for-4, but we win that game, I do feel a whole lot better about myself. It’s especially true at my position, and I think that catchers have a real impact on wins and losses, because there is so much to deal with on every pitch of the game. For instance, if a home run is hit, you were part of the consideration that went into that pitch. I’m just one part of the team—I’m just one person—but as a catcher, I have an impact on what happens.