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Inside the Bisons: Catching prospect Danny Jansen can see clearly now

Danny Jansen had trouble reading the scoreboard from behind home plate during a spring training game in 2016. The catcher chalked it up to being tired and that it was a night game.

He was 20 and headstrong.

The last thing he wanted to acknowledge was a problem with his sight.

"I was stubborn," Jansen said. "As a baseball player, eyes are so important to us. You don’t ever want to think that you have bad vision."

He did what many young athletes do – he ignored it. Until one day he was driving with his roommate, pitcher Chris Rowley when the pair was playing in Dunedin, Fla. They were coming home from the ballpark while it was still daylight. Rowley made a comment about a name on a street sign.

Jansen was surprised that Rowley could read it.

Rowley was surprised that Jansen couldn't.

"When he told me he couldn't read that street sign, I was like, 'Man, that's pretty easy to read. You might want to think about getting glasses,' " Rowley said. "I didn't even think about it in the context of hitting a baseball. I just thought about it in terms of general life."

Jansen played the 2016 season before he finally went to an ophthalmologist and received a diagnosis – astigmatism in both eyes. And while Rowley wanted Jansen to be able to get through life with clearer vision, wearing glasses made a significant impact on his hitting.

"He's crushing the ball now," Rowley said.

Indeed he is. Jansen started wearing glasses in the Arizona Fall League in 2016. He went from hitting .218 that summer before the glasses  to .285 that fall.

"It was amazing. It was night and day," Jansen said of playing in glasses. "I remember squinting at night, really trying to squint to get clear vision. When I put those glasses on, it was just so much different. I was finally able to see the world clear."

He continued to wear glasses last year, his first full season with corrected vision. Jansen climbed three levels in the minor leagues, going from Class A Dunedin to Double-A New Hampshire to finishing the season with the Bisons.

Jansen hit a combined .323 while driving in 48 runs last season. For the first time in four seasons, he walked more than he struck out.

And while there's a good joke to be found in the numbers — after all, it's easier to hit the ball when you can actually see it — it wasn't all that easy.

Glasses might have fixed his astigmatism, but the stubbornness was a bit harder to correct.

"Last year I came in with that stubborn mentality," said Jansen, who turned 23 Sunday. "I spent so much time struggling in my career … but I said with the bat, I'm not going to think. I'm just going to do whatever my hands want to do. If it's ugly, it's ugly. I'm just going to try and put the barrel on as many balls as I can and just try to battle when I had two strikes. I hope to take that into this year as well."

Last year's success landed Jansen ranked No. 5 among prospects in the Blue Jays organization by Baseball America. And he has started 2018 with some good swings, hitting .389 (7 for 18) with a pair of RBIs and a home run in the first five games.

The glasses, and letting go of his stubbornness, haven't just helped his hitting. They've made a difference for his catching, as well.

"It's easier to pick up spin for blocking a ball," he said. "Just everything in general is so much easier."

And catching is the most important part of the game for Jansen. While players are often judged by their offensive numbers, Jansen spends most of his time working to be a better catcher.

"Catching is such a craft and I take so much pride in it," Jansen said. "That's my main focus. Hitting will always take a back seat to the catching because you're so much more than a hitter being a catcher. You've got so much control of the game. You have to just take the time.

"I've been fortunate to catch a lot of these guys, so I have this relationship built already, but if you don't know the guy, you want to build that relationship as fast as you can to get that trust factor because that's how we run, on trust."

The relationship model that Jansen employs behind the plate pays off with pitchers. Rowley, who has climbed the minor leagues with Jansen and is in the Bisons' starting rotation, said it's noticeable the way Jansen approaches the game with an attitude that favors learning over being right.

"Behind the plate, I think, the biggest thing is he truly thinks about how he wants to attack a hitter within the scope of the game," Rowley said. "He knows the pitcher. He knows the way he wants to attack a hitter. He knows what pitches he wants to call in which situations.

"But I think what sets him apart is if a pitcher shakes him off, some younger guys would be upset about that. 'Oh, why didn't he want to throw what I called?' He takes that as an opportunity to learn. If it works, he asks, 'Hey, what were you thinking?' and that helps him learn the game. If it doesn't work he says, 'Hey, this is what I was thinking.'

"I think he does a really good job of taking opportunities to learn and then absorbing them."

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