Vancouver Canadians Hagen Danner (Photo by Christopher Oertell @cjimagesnw)
The first C’s Chat of 2022 is with 2021 Vancouver Canadians pitcher Hagen Danner.
The prospects of the 23 year-old from Newport Beach, California reaching the bigs were given a major boost when he was added to the Toronto Blue Jays 40-man roster back in November. Danner was selected in the second round of the 2017 MLB draft where he starred as a pitcher and catcher at Huntington Beach High School. The 61st overall pick was given a $1.5 million bonus to turn down a commitment to UCLA. His signing scout was Joey Aversa.
Danner earned notice in local circles when he was a member of the Ocean View squad that advanced to the 2011 Little League World Series. He was also a part of the USA-18U national team that won the gold medal at the Pan American Championships in 2016 at Monterrey, Mexico, contributing a two-run double to help the USA knock off Cuba 6-1.
There was a general consensus that scouts preferred Danner on the mound but the Blue Jays decided to start him out behind the plate. He batted .160 with five doubles, two home runs and three stolen bases for the Gulf Coast League Blue Jays in 2017. The 6-foot-2 righthanded hitter had a much better 2018 season with short-season Bluefield, hitting .279 with an on-base percentage of .409 and a slugging mark of .432. He collected 11 doubles and two home runs.
The Blue Jays decided to give Danner his first exposure to full-season baseball by starting him out with the Lansing Lugnuts in 2019. He had 25 extra-base hits, including 12 homers, but he slashed .170/.254/.369 while also seeing time at first base. At one point, it appeared Danner would be heading to Vancouver in late August as his name appeared in the Northwest League transactions column but it turned out to be a “paper move” or for administrative purposes only.
Danner decided to turn the page by turning his focus away from the batter’s box by going back to the mound again in the fall of 2019. He told Sportsnet’s Shi Davidi that throwing live batting practice to former Huntington Beach teammate and Kansas City Royals prospect Nick Pratto helped convince Danner that pitching was his best bet to move forward.
After the pandemic cancelled minor league baseball in 2020, Danner put together a solid debut on the mound in 2021 with Vancouver. He posted a 2.02 earned run average and saved three games while striking out 42 batters and walking 12 over 35-2/3 innings. His first professional save came in his first appearance as he struck out four batters over two shutout innings to preserve the C’s first win of the year in Tri-City May 6. A lat strain sidelined Danner for part of the summer but he finished up strong by shutting down the opposition in 13 of his last 16 outings.
Below is the audio interview that C’s Plus Baseball conducted with Danner this past December. A transcription of the chat is also below and has been edited for clarity.
C’s Plus Baseball – Hagen, congratulations on being added to the Blue Jays 40-man roster. Talk about how you felt when you got the good news.
Hagen Danner – Yeah man, I mean. It’s a start to a dream of mine to just get one step closer to the big leagues and getting that call was awesome. Just definitely a whirlwind of a year, especially through Covid changing into a pitcher and then being able to show it off a little bit in 2021 here. It was definitely a successful year and I still have a lot more to grow. I grew from a lot of stuff and I definitely have a lot more room to grow so I’m excited for this next year coming.
CPB – Who’s the one who gave you the good news?
HD – Corey Popham, one of our pitching coordinators. Great guy.
CPB – How has he helped you develop as a pitcher since turning pro?
HD – He was actually the rookie ball pitching coach when I was starting to be a pitcher and then he quickly moved…to being one of the coordinators because of how smart he is with all this kind of stuff. He definitely helped me in instructional league to try to find the new slider and kind of just let me be free and let me just keep being an athlete. That was his biggest thing was just to make sure I stay an athlete just like I was as a catcher and just kind of have fun with it.
CPB – How did you react about having to make the transition again (from catcher to pitcher)? You start your pro career as a catcher, then having to go back to the mound again and it was always talked about that pitching was really your Plan B if hitting did not work out. Now pitching is your Plan A but (what are) your thoughts on making the transition back to the mound?
HD – Yeah, I mean honestly, it wasn’t too difficult. I had always just like kept it up, kept my arm strength up and I tried not to have it as a Plan B. That was my thing…when I signed as a catcher, that was my thing. I wanted to be a catcher, I wanted to hit and finally realizing that that was just making my life a lot a lot more stressful than it needed to be. I was starting to lose my love for the game and once I decided to become a pitcher, that’s changed around a lot. So now the game is just so much fun and I’m out there having a blast again competing.
CPB – Well, you finally get to the Vancouver Canadians and your Huntington Beach teammates (2019 C’s outfielder) Dom Abbadessa and (2018 C’s first baseman) Jake Brodt also made stops here in Vancouver. It looked like you were maybe going to bypass the level, but as it turns out, you do get to wear the Vancouver uniform after all but (what are) your thoughts about getting the pitch finally in a C’s uniform?
HD – It was fun. I obviously definitely would have loved to be in Vancouver…Just people talk about how great that city is and how fun it is to play in front of those fans. But I mean to put on the uniform is always fun, representing a different country which is great. I didn’t think I was going to start at High-A. I thought I was gonna start in Low-A so when they gave me the news of telling me I was going to be in High-A, it was super exciting.
CPB – And y our first appearance pitching as a pro, you wind up getting the save of the Canadians very first win of 2021. That was a nice way to start your pro career on the mound.
HD – Yeah it was. It was fun too. It was Donnie Murphy, our manager’s first career win as a manager in pro ball, which was funny because my high school coach Benji Medure also helped coach him when he was in high school (Editor’s note – at Riverside Polytechnic High School). So it kind of the whole thing coming together.
CPB – Kind of the circle of life, so to speak. Very nice. Okay, talk about your season with Vancouver. It went really well. There was a hiccup though. In between you had an injury. Maybe just talk about the first part of your season before you went down with an injury.
HD – Yeah, I mean it was super fun. Very exciting…It was tough for me getting out there throwing a lot more than I had thrown obviously in the last three or four years so that was kind of where the injury came along. I was throwing 3 innings and that third inning, my arm started feeling really tired. My body started feeling tired and I apparently I wasn’t ready for three innings. I thought I was and I guess I wasn’t. And that’s where the injury kind of fell in.
CPB – And it was a lat injury ? Was that what happened?
HD – Yeah, it was just a lat strain. It wasn’t too bad. Definitely we took it more on the cautious side just because it kind of led towards oblique too which you don’t want that to ever happen so. But we took some time off, did a lot of rehab, stayed there in Oregon because I wanted to make sure I could come back for the season and not be stuck in Florida so. So it was a good idea to stay there (C’s trainer) Brandon Hammerstrom helped me a ton out there too. And it was fun being out there with all the guys. I was still able to have fun with my teammates and you know, just make sure I got better.
CPB – Well, it almost seemed like you really didn’t miss a beat. You had an outstanding month of August and an outstanding month of September. I think looking at the stats, I think you only gave up one run a month. That’s pretty darn good, but (was your return) as seamless as it seemed to be. Obviously you had to put in some work to get ready again but things seemed to really work out well for you in the second half.
HD – Yeah, no, I mean I had been able to watch a lot of baseball while I was down so coming back,it just made me more excited to be able to get out there and compete again, just not being able to compete but watching everyone else compete, it made me a little jealous out (sitting) on the bench so I was super excited out there and never felt better in my life. I guess it showed that I was just out there having fun.
CPB – So having fun, what were maybe the other keys to your success with Vancouver in 2021?
HD – I would say just being myself out there…I mean having Phil Clarke behind the plate, Andres Guerra, it made it a lot easier for me because those guys are some of the best dudes I’ve ever met. I can go out to the mound when I come in the game and crack me a joke or something to ease the little butterflies every pitcher gets when they’re coming out there. It was a lot of fun…I just told myself I want to be myself and I’m out there in the mound whether it’s getting excited after striking out the side, getting excited after holding the guy on at third base. I mean I love to yell a little bit and just be myself.
CPB – If you had to describe yourself as a pitcher or give a scouting report on yourself, how would you describe yourself?
HD – Competitive, ultra competitive. I hate to lose and my mindset out there is, ‘I’m gonna get you out and I’m gonna want to strike you out so I don’t want you to hit the ball off me.’
CPB – Talk about your pitching repertoire. I understand it’s right now. It’s fastball, slider. Is there maybe anything else in the mix or are you just focusing on those two pitches?
HD – I also have a curveball. I’ve always thrown a curveball since high school. It was one of my better pitches in high school. I have a lot of feel for it. I used to kind of throw it for a strike, a get-me-over for a first pitch or something, get someone off my fastball. And then I got that slider in instructs and it’s been super fun to throw. It’s very easy for me to learn because it’s a pretty simple pitch, but definitely it’s working its magic, so we’ll keep throwing that one for sure. And obviously, the fastball…It’s just gained a lot of velo within the last year and it’s definitely helping me get guys out.
CPB – I’ve heard you’ve been high-90s (miles per hour) with your fastball. I heard maybe you touched 100? Is that where you’ve been at?
HD – Yeah, I did. I touched 100 for the first time in instructs, and yeah, I’ve been sitting around 98-99, which is a big jump from high school. I just took a lot of time off and I’m already feeling super healthy and learned how to move my body right.
CPB – Is it just basically a four seamer you’re throwing right now? Any other variations of the fastball?
HD – Just four-seamers. I let that thing ride, man.
CPB – Okay, as far as your slider goes, I know that’s a pitch that’s still been in development for you, but who first taught you the slider and how do you feel it’s coming along?
HD – Yeah, Matt Tracy and Corey Popham. They both showed me at first and they wanted me to have something that was hard still and had just a little bit of movement. Nothing too big, something I can control easily and just get the hitters thinking it’s a fastball every time and that they swing right over it. I mean, I’m playing catch with it still and it feels really good. It feels just like it felt in instructs and that was the plan, to try not to change much from instructs and stay healthy.
CPB – You mentioned a couple of names already, Corey Popham and Matt Tracy. Who else has helped you develop as a pitcher?
HD – The entire front office. The entire front office just have encouraged me to just be myself out there. All the metric guys. All the guys that are looking at all the metric numbers, they always come up to me and help me. (Blue Jays pitching skills coach) Evan Short is a very knowledgeable guy about all that stuff so he’s helped me a ton.
CPB – Now I want to focus on what it was like having to play in Hillsboro when there was basically this cloud in the air, was the team going to come back to Vancouver or not? And it turned out you weren’t able to make the trip north of the border, but what was that like pitching with all that uncertainty, wondering where are we going to wind up staying for the whole year?
HD – To me it was less about I wasn’t really worried where I was going to be at because obviously we’re always moving around anyways. It would have been super fun. We were always talking in the locker room how fun it would be to to be playing right now in front of the Vancouver fans and just being in Vancouver and going to visit the city and all that but for the fans that came out to Hillsboro, we loved that…the ones that did really cared and it they helped us get through the season so props to them.
CPB – As far as playing a Ron Tonkin Field, what was it like playing with an artificial surface? How did you like pitching there?
HD – I loved to pitch there, man. The ball didn’t fly very much there so I got some flyouts and there might have been some balls that were hit off me, they could have gone out in a different field but you know, you pitch to your park and that’s kind of what I did. The only time the ball would fly was when the wind was blowing out to left but lefties had a hard time hitting it out to right, that’s for sure, they really had to get ahold of it. And centerfield was definitely a dead, dead place to hit a baseball so it helped out for the pitchers a little bit.
CPB – Now you would have liked pitching in Nat Bailey Stadium as well because that’s certainly got a reputation as a pitcher’s park as well. Certainly not pitching somewhere like I’ll say Everett, which is really, I think, the High-A West version of Fenway Park. Talk about what it’s like pitching at the other ballparks.
HD – I love to pitch at all of them, except for Everett. (Laughs) That was the one that I gave up my two home runs and, I mean, that’s also a thing where you got to know your ballpark. You come in there and there’s no excuses. Every other pitcher is pitching in the same ballpark and the same amount as you. Whether that mound, if you don’t like it or not, there’s no excuses, so it’s only going to hurt your own stats if you go out there and have doubtful thoughts about it. I mean it is what it is and all the other fields are great, the fans are great. I like the league It’s kind of a small-based league. The farthest trip we had was six hours and it makes it a lot easier to commute and just kind of stay healthy and not have to ride in so many buses.
CPB – And getting Mondays off, that must be a nice change of the schedule for you guys considering got you were lucky to get a day off in a month.
HD – That was huge. I really enjoyed that…You’d get through the week, you’d get to Saturday and then one day game and you get a day off. It really made you push even harder, knowing that you had one day off every single week. It helped us. I mean, it helped me stay healthy towards the end of theseason and really using that off day as a day just to let your mind ease and kind of get away from baseball. Maybe go golf a little bit, or do something with your buddies.
CPB – The first half of the season you guys were neck-and-neck with Everett and Eugene for the top spot and things were going pretty well up until say late June. Talk about the first half versus the second half. Why you guys were so successful in the first half, but things didn’t go your way in the second?
HD – That’s just how it is in the minor leagues. You lose a lot of your top players because they get sent up. You get a lot of young guys, you just have so much different talent and it’s hard to keep a team chemistry when people are moving up and down during the season. I mean, if you have a team chemistry, that’s the biggest part about baseball is being able to have fun on the field and play as a squad. And that’s what you miss out a little bit on the minor League Baseball side is where you think you got your whole team up and then you lose, say you lose a captain because they get sent up to Double-A or something, and now you’re trying to find someone else to take their spot. So it’s just kind of how it is sometimes. Yyou’d love to win. It makes the game way more fun when you win, but there’s only so much we can do about that.
CPB – Getting back to the mound. (With) your previous experience as a catcher, how does that help you on the mound because you really have a good vantage point of both sides of the pitching-catching equation?
HD – It definitely helps. Being from both sides, you notice how hard hitting really is when I was trying to do it. It’s definitely not easy. You miss pitches that pitchers think ‘Oh crap, that’s a bad pitch’ and you’ll miss it as a hitter and pitchers get away with more things than the hitter could possibly get away with. I know what hitters are kind of looking for when you get up there. Whether they’re sitting on an offspeed pitch, that’s beyond me but I just kind of go out there and throw what I know is my best stuff. And if they hit it, they hit it. I, f not, then it’s another good day, you know, knowing that they’re always on a fastball and it makes it more fun, makes it more competitive. And I know that when they’re going up to the plate, they’re trying to maybe cheat for my fastball because I’m throwing a little harder, but being able to compete with them and throw that fastball even not being scared at all, it makes the game a little more fun.
CPB – Well, I guess one advantage for you going back to the mound again, I guess you had a chance to save some bullets when you were catching in your previous stint with the Blue Jays organization. So I guess your arm has got to feel a lot more fresher these days.
HD – Yes, it sure does. And my body feels a lot better as well. I’m not putting so much stress on my knees and on my hips and I’m learning how to actually move my body in the correct positions and how to just stay healthy in everyday life. It’s also allowed me to golf more.
CPB – Very nice. Okay, you had a chance to go down to instructs and at the Blue Jay state-of-the-art development complex. What was that experience like going through instructs?
HD – It was great man. It’s definitely one of those things where that was my fourth instructs. Getting that call, I knew I was going to be going to that thing and so I had to put the positive outlook into my mind. It’s one of those (things) where you have such a long season, then you’re heading there and you’re like ‘Oh man, it’s just a little more baseball. I’d like to go home’. But for me, I needed to show them more. I wanted to show them more and I knew it was going to be a big couple of weeks for me to show what I have and know that the decision that they had to make was coming up. I just knew I went out there and gave it my all so I’m really thankful that they that they saw that and it worked out.
CPB – How has your offseason been going as far as getting ready for 2022? What’s been your game plan for the upcoming season?
HD – It’s been really good. I’ve been following their throwing program almost to a tee up, working out five days a week…I’m hanging around Jacob Nix, who’s with the Padres, who was a big leaguer in 2018 and that’s helping a lot. He’s teaching me how to move my body and I’m doing a lot Of PRI (Postural Restoration Institute) movement things and learn how to breathe right. It’s going all good, I’m still super healthy? and the mind is at the right place right now.
CPB – OK, my final question. Now that you’ve been added to the 40-man roster, and probably if I had to guess, it looks like you may start out 2022 with New Hampshire. I’d be surprised if you were back here in Vancouver, even though we would like to see you pitch. But I mean, for you, you need to advance and go to Double-A. Now that you’re getting so close, how does it feel now being on the 40-man and realizing you know what, the majors really aren’t that far away now.
HD – I have no idea either where their thoughts are with where they’re going to send me. I’m going to spring training ready to fight for a spot. That’s my goal is to make the big leagues so I don’t want anything to get in the way of that. I try not to think about where they’re going to put me and any of that stuff, it’s kind of just keep pitching and if I do well, it’s going to speak for myself and they’re going to move me, I mean there’s nothing holding them back from bringing me to the big leagues yet so that’s my goal right now is just to work as hard as I can. It’s actually making me work even harder because it’s kind of sitting right there. I know…I’m so close and I want to do everything I can and I don’t want to leave anything behind so I’m just head on my shoulders right now and just moving forward every single day.
Danner also spoke about his close bond with Nick Pratto, the Royals first base prospect who made it to Triple-A in 2021.
“He’s my best friend. We met we were about seven years old. We went to the same elementary school, we played at the same Little League and that’s kind of how we met. We were both pretty good in Little League and we’re on the same team and we ended up winning a ton of games. And his dad was our coach. And that just made it so much more fun and we kind of stuck together this whole time. He came to my draft party I had at my house right after he got drafted. He had his excitement and he was even more excited to come see me get drafted. That shows what kind of guy he is.”
Danner could very well be facing Pratto in a big league game sooner rather than later.