Jansen's return will bolster Blue Jays' catching situation

April 14th, 2024

This story was excerpted from Keegan Matheson’s Blue Jays Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

TORONTO -- 's absence has been so glaring, so obvious.

On the IL since late in camp when we all learned what a pisiform bone is -- the small bone in Jansen’s wrist that he fractured -- Jansen is expected to return as early as Monday for the beginning of the Blue Jays’ series against the Yankees at home.

This team always needs Jansen, but especially now.

Alejandro Kirk is off to a dreadful start at the plate, batting .133 with a .333 OPS through his first 13 games. All six hits have been singles, too. Batting near the middle of the Blue Jays’ lineup, it’s been a difficult spot for this offense to work around.

“He’s still gotten some big hits for us and just missed a ball to right [Friday], but he’s just getting out in front a little bit,” said manager John Schneider. “When he’s really good, he’s making a ton of contact, but he’s getting out on his front side a little bit trying to chase a bit of production, if you will. When he’s really good, he’s backing the ball up and seeing it deep. He’s just rushing a little bit.”

The formula with Kirk isn’t complicated. He’s a contact machine and likely always will be, but he needs to shoot line drives. Kirk is one of the slower runners in the league, so once the ball is hit on the ground, only a lucky bounce can save him. There hasn’t been enough threatening contact off Kirk’s bat, though, and his average exit velocity continues to drop from year to year. That has to be a source of genuine concern for the Blue Jays.

There’s some weight to Schneider’s critique, too. When Kirk is at his best, he’s lining balls to right-center or back up the middle. He looked so good in Spring Training, hitting for more pull power than you’ll typically see from him, but opposing pitchers are cashing in on Kirk’s aggression now.

Granted, Kirk has been his usual self behind the plate and pitchers like working with him, particularly when they can work down in the zone and benefit from Kirk’s blocking and framing. He’s been asked to carry a heavy load with Jansen on the IL, but it’s not something that’s never been done before.

When Jansen returns, expect him to be the 1A to Kirk’s 1B, which is how this duo has always been set up best.

“That’s the goal, to get him back to how we normally use him and Kirky,” Schneider said. “Hopefully today and tomorrow go well and it will be a pretty even balance for those, too.”

It will be interesting to see how the Blue Jays match each catcher up with the rotation, too. There are some more pronounced examples, like Chris Bassitt throwing to Kirk for 168 of his 200 innings last year. Yusei Kikuchi threw to Jansen more often, but Kevin Gausman and José Berríos were closer to an even split.

Lining up Jansen with Gausman makes sense off the top, strictly to get Gausman a different voice and shake things up. When Gausman was shelled by the Rockies in Friday’s lopsided loss, he felt that he got away from his fastball too early after giving up a few hits on that pitch. This left him to lean on his slider and splitter, both of which he calls “middle speed,” and that allowed the Rockies’ batters to look for something in that mid-80s velocity range. It simplified things for them.

One of Jansen’s strengths is working with pitchers, so Gausman’s situation Friday felt like a spot where Jansen may have approached those in-game adjustments differently.

The obvious draw is Jansen’s bat, though. Since leaning into his identity as a pull-power hitter, Jansen has shown he’s capable of hitting 30 home runs in the big leagues ... if he can stay healthy.

On a club that talks so often about establishing an offensive identity and carrying out their plan, Jansen should be a shining example of that, particularly when it comes to an individualized approach. Jansen knows what works for him and commits to it, fully. It’s what allows Jansen to come up big under pressure and juggle the many responsibilities of a catcher so well.

When that’s gone, even for a couple of weeks, you notice it. Jansen’s health has betrayed him for years now, but if he can stick around for a few months, he’ll be one of the most important bats in the lineup the second he lands back in Toronto.