The 2019 season saw a record number of pitchers take the mound. That shouldn’t necessarily come as a surprise given the recent emphasis on bullpen production and the fact that nearly half the league was basically intent on punting the year before it even began, forgoing wins to pursue years of control and hitting the bargain bin for value deals, potential trade chips and reclamation projects. Count the Blue Jays among such teams.
Toronto went through a healthy amount of roster churn, especially on the mound, where they set a new franchise record with 39 pitchers used. The Blue Jays used 21 different starters this season, second in history to the 1915 Philadelphia Athletics team that used 24 starters in a 43-109 campaign.
They’re not alone, as the number of pitchers used across MLB has been on a steady climb over the last 10 years, culminating in this year’s record of 828. The last time we saw a year-to-year decrease in the number of pitchers used was from 2009 to 2010, where the total fell from 664 to 635. MLB first cracked the 600-pitcher threshold in 2000, and we’ve seen 11 new all-time marks set since then. This season, the league has averaged 27.6 pitchers per team – a massive increase on the 18.5 per team from 1998, the first year in the 30-team era. The Mariners established a new league record by using 42 pitchers this year, while the Jays (39) came in second, and the Orioles finished third with 38.
That’s not coming entirely in the bullpen, either. A 25-year-old rookie, Trent Thornton, led the team in starts with 28. The since-departed Aaron Sanchez and Marcus Stroman were up next, with 29-year-old opener Wilmer Font sitting fourth on the leaderboard at 14 “starts.” After that it’s 13 starts from 25-year-old rookie Jacob Waguespack. Of the team’s top remaining pitchers in terms of innings, 25-year-old rookies take up three of the top four slots. It’s largely a young team learning the ropes.
That learning experience extends behind the plate, where rookie Danny Jansen has had to maintain the unenviable balance of working with a deep pitching staff while dealing with his own struggles in his first full season at the big-league level. Jansen and fellow catcher Luke Maile were kind enough to discuss different aspects of handling such a large, ever-changing group prior to Toronto’s late-September series against the Yankees.
The key for both is communication, early and often. Though there’s a moderate level of familiarity between the pair and the pitchers from their work together in spring, or for Jansen, his path through Toronto’s minor-league system, the early conversations go a long way towards building a rapport.
“It just comes down to talking with them, communicating and knowing what’s been working for them lately, adjustments they’ve made, what it is that they need me to do to make them successful,” said Jansen.
For Maile, it’s the sort of ground work that sets the stage for everything that a battery achieves.
“Everything with being a catcher kind of begins and ends with communication, whether that’s you dealing with somebody that you’re meeting for the first time or you’re dealing with somebody that you’ve caught hundreds of times. I mean, at the end of the day you’re going to have to talk to them and get a feel for what they’re feeling out there, what pitches they like on that particular day.”
With only so many hours in the day and more information than ever to digest, the wealth of knowledge available from the scouting department is credited with lightening the load. Jansen will watch video of a pitcher’s last start to get ahead of the curve and spot any changes that may have occurred since their last work together. For a guy who says his biggest fear is not being prepared, adjusting to all of the pre-game prep work was a big part of his personal development this year.
“It just took a little bit to get used to the scouting reports and the information that I’m getting told and the information I’m getting on my own,” said Jansen. You have to take that how it is, you don’t want to over-flood yourself and that just comes with learning what you can take and what works for you.”
After Jansen and a pitcher run through the basics, they’ll get into the nitty gritty of a day’s work.
“It starts with obviously knowing his pitches. And then it’s, ‘Where do you want me to set up? Want me to stay on the plate, you want to nibble, go corners, you want to stay halves?’ Depends if he’s got a four-seam, sinker, all that stuff. What’s his out pitch? And then we pretty much go over a lineup together, how we want to do this.”
Getting into the details and putting all those puzzle pieces together is one of his favorite aspects of the job.
“A pitcher’s got his own notes then we apply that and talk with [Blue Jays pitching coach] Pete [Walker] and it comes down to making a scouting report on his day and how to make him successful to get him through six or seven. It’s a fun conversation, man, I mean it just has a lot of variables and it’s part of the job. It’s a blast.”
In a trying year for the team overall, you would’ve excused Jansen had he managed to gloss over the fun parts. He has been thrown into the deep end, catching 35 of Toronto’s 39 pitchers in 102 games, after appearing in 29 games following his call-up in August of 2018. At times it’s all felt like a 0-to-100 experience, with a general lack of stability forcing the pitchers and catchers to build and rebuild relationships on the fly.
“Handling a whole staff from day one and having that challenge of having a lot of guys come in and out and always kind of adapting, it has been (a challenge),” Jansen said. “The stability of having one rotation for a long time wasn’t there this year but that’s how it goes sometimes and you have to make adjustments, you have to make adjustments quick. It is what it is and just try to make the most of it, and try to learn as fast as I can.”
For Maile, who takes a similarly active role in plotting a pitcher’s course for the day, sometimes the joy of the job comes in deviating from the plan rather than building it.
“The great thing about baseball is that a lot of times you can go in with a game plan and something happens where you completely – you don’t even use it and you still have great results. I think it’s important to be creative and the only way that you can do that is if you have an open line of communication and you get that trust factor.”
That creativity manifests in thinking outside the box and getting a pitcher to try unconventional things on the mound, and being in the meetings with a pitcher helps settle some nerves about throwing that carefully-crafted plan out the window when the time arises.
“If you got a guy that’s predominantly a sinker-baller, for example, and you feel like it’s time to start throwing some breaking balls – if the guy trusts you because you talk to him a lot and because you’ve got that consistent communication, that trust factor, it makes it more fun when you’re calling four straight breaking balls,” said Maile. “You don’t feel like there’s pressure for it to get done right. You know that the pitcher knows that you’ve put in the work and that whatever the outcome is he’s going to understand that you were prepared.”
One can’t help but wonder if that was a direct hint at the day’s plan. Hours after our conversation, Maile helped guide sinker-balling rookie T.J. Zeuch through four innings against the Yankees. Though he was pulled after just 70 pitches, Zeuch came away with six strikeouts on the day, surrendering just four hits and two runs in the process.
Although Zeuch ended up throwing his sinker about 52 percent of the time, right in line with his season average, the day began with a new approach. Over the first two innings, Zeuch threw his sinker just 13 times (a shade over 40 percent) while his slider and changeup combined for half of those pitches. Maile never called four straight breaking balls, but he did go slider-slider-changeup to get ahead of Aaron Judge (finished off with a strikeout on a sinker) and a changeup-slider-slider sequence in a strikeout of Giancarlo Stanton.
For Maile, that effort to push the envelope — albeit in a calculated, game theory sort of way — is one avenue to building a strong relationship between catcher and pitcher.
“The times that you don’t use the game plan, you may stray from it, is a lot of times a ‘feel’ decision. A pitcher’s going to have to feel out whether he thinks this is the right time to stray from what they wanted to do coming into the game or he might just decide, ‘You know what, I’m going to stick with it and live and die by the numbers.’ I think as catchers, the only way to really find that rhythm is to kind of challenge them once in a while and see if you can’t make them do something that maybe they didn’t exactly come into the game thinking they were going to do, and when it works it’s a beautiful thing. It really accelerates the relationship.”
Getting to that point is the hard part, especially as the Blue Jays have been constantly rotating players in and out. While some pitchers come with quick connections, the time it takes to create a strong relationship is different for everyone and can hinge on a number of factors even if a catcher can pick up on some things quickly.
“It depends on if it’s a starter or a reliever,” according to Maile. “If it’s a starting pitcher usually you’re going to have a pretty good feel for him after the first couple of innings, right? And that second or third time through the order you’re going to have a much better understanding of what plays or what makes their game right than you might for a reliever, for example, where a reliever you’re going to see for as little as one hitter. Even if it’s three hitters, most of the time it’s right-on-right or left-on-left so you don’t necessarily have every single example on the first day so it might take longer with a reliever. I like to think after the first couple of warmup pitches you should have a pretty good idea of what got them here and what makes them good.”
Beyond that, it’s about a player’s personality, and that’s a hard thing to place in a specific bucket. Maile explained, “Some guys, they like to be told what to do and other guys, they’re very insistent on what got them here and I like working with both of them. I don’t think that there’s one right way to do it. I think a lot of it is personality-driven just based on the guy, and as a catcher you’ve gotta be flexible, you’ve gotta be able to work with both types of personalities and both types of styles.”
For Jansen, it’s the sort of bond that needs to be formed on the field. “It all starts with the communication at first, and then as you play together, as you are out there together, you start to build that. If you have to go have a mound visit and you need to talk to them in whatever way you have to to put them in a successful way, have that trust, the only way you can build that trust is starting from communication and building it. I can’t put a timetable on it, everybody’s different and all that stuff, but it’s a fun part about the job – always having to communicate and always having to do that and always building relationships. It’s one of my favorite parts.”
Jansen, like his counterparts across the league, had to bear the brunt of all the franchise’s roster machinations, and keeping track of who’s coming or going in the choppy rhythm of the season has proven to be a challenge at times. “A lot of guys got hurt this year, a lot of guys went somewhere or came, and next thing you know you kind of always have to be adjusting, be learning instead of just having that routine of, ‘These are the guys that are here, you know what they’re doing, you know what every pitch looks like, whatever they wanna do.’ Next thing you know you have a new face, you gotta talk, you gotta think about, ‘Alright, this is what this guy wants to do in this situation,’ so it’s just a lot of that on the run.”
Jansen doesn’t shy away from the work — “I get here early” — and relishes all that goes into being a full-time catcher. He’s also placed an emphasis on improving defensively after his bat did most of the talking through his minor-league career. Jansen’s work has paid off in the form of some strong statistics — he has been credited with 12 Defensive Runs Saved (DRS), tied for fourth among all catchers that have played more than 750 innings, and ranks seventh among catchers in adjusted Fielding Runs Above Average (FRAA). Jansen credits finding a routine with his breakthrough — he was able to make a mechanical change in his own approach — and is now feeling at ease with all that the job entails, though, it took help from a few different outlets for him to settle in. Eric Sogard and Justin Smoak were mentioned specifically, and their insight helped Jansen establish some control over his hectic schedule.
“Sogard’s not here anymore, but Smoaky, I look to him for his routine and before the game in the weight room, that’s big for me. It locks me in, gets my body right so I know I don’t have to do anything extra for that. I could be sitting around not doing anything all day and I go in the weight room, I feel like I’m ready to play. Having those routines and things is huge, especially if you’re struggling or stuff like that, it’s always a constant variable.”
There’s still more learning to do, and Jansen is hoping to make the most of the remaining time he has with his veteran teammates.
“I think it’s important to have veteran presence,” said Jansen, “especially with such a young core coming up. You gotta have guys to look at and look towards in times when you’re struggling personally or as a team, and that’s a huge thing. Now there’s really not many left so I’m not going to speak for anyone else, but I’m sure they feel the same way and want to take advantage of every moment we have with guys that have three years, four years, five years, nine years, 11 years like Buck [Clay Buchholz] and Smoak and all that, really pick their brains.”
As the season winds down, it’s not lost on Jansen that a similar leadership role should soon be thrust upon him, and it’s a title he is ready to embrace. The “catcher of the future” moniker has often been a kiss of death for the Blue Jays, but Jansen has gone through a chaotic, demanding season and come out on the other side with plenty of positives to look back on.
If nothing else, it will only get easier. The league’s new roster rules, with 40-man September rosters reduced to 28 starting next year, should prevent this kind of turnover from falling on Jansen’s plate again, and he’ll be armed with a much better sense of how to carry himself if it does. In the end there are no complaints about how the year went, even if the sink-or-swim nature of things led to plenty of low points.
“I feel that I’ve made a lot of adjustments physically and mentally and I’m really glad it happened in my first year. I’m only going to get better from it – that’s a fact – so I’m going to learn from it and I’m grateful that it happened, you know?”
One scouting report that will likely slide to the back burner in Jansen’s mind? The duo’s work together. Maile has pitched in mop-up duty twice this season, and the two had different recollections of the experiences.
Jansen was remembered a fair amount, saying, “Yeah, he threw the knuckleball a lot. I mean the conversation isn’t much, just like, ‘I’m putting down one sign to second base, whatever,’ he’s just gonna try and get the ball over the plate and not walk anybody. He punched out Shin Soo-Choo on a fastball and he’s throwing his knuckleball around, it was actually a lot of fun.”
Maile recalled a much shorter version of the conversation, with no such discussion of signs.
“He just told me to duck.”
File it away as another unique learning opportunity for Jansen, who happened to arrive when catchers’ plates have never been fuller.
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