By Larry LaRue The News Tribune
John Jaso gets it.
The left-handed hitting Seattle Mariners catcher has found his game in 2012, becoming something of a hero by batting .280 and — in just 46 games — leading the team with seven game-winning RBI.
Jaso understands that fans want to see more from the young Mariners.
“It takes patience,” Jaso said. “It took me 21/2 years to find myself at this level, a lot of these kids are in their first full season.”
Jaso knows why so many people think big-league players are out of touch.
“Last year I realized how special the big leagues are. We all sign out of high school or college, we don’t know what a 9-to-5 job is, we don’t know what it’s like not to have health insurance,” Jaso said.
“I like to look around online, and I saw that a dentist will go to school for eight years, and make $130,000 a year. I’m making the big-league minimum and make four times that much.”
Jaso has kept his own success in his first half season with Seattle in perspective, as he has his major-league career.
“What kind of player am I? Well, I’ve averaged five home runs a year in my career, and here’s Jim Thome coming in with Baltimore with more than 600 home runs,” Jaso said, laughing. “That helps me keep things in perspective.”
Jaso gets it.
The Mariners open a three-game series in Oakland tonight, the final series before the All-Star break. Seattle is last in the four-team American League West. A 35-49 team that one year ago was 42-43.
Jaso has been one of the Mariners’ bright spots.
“John’s approach at the plate is what we talk about with our young kids,” manager Eric Wedge said. “He goes up there ready to hit, he hunts his pitch and lets it fly when he gets it.
“He’ll work the count, he’ll swing at the first pitch if it’s the one he’s looking for. He’s where we want our younger hitters to be.”
Jaso got a hint of what a great at-bat required in his first major-league start, and he learned it behind the plate, not at it.
“I remember September of 2008 — I started game No. 162, and I’m back there calling pitches against guys like Gary Sheffield, Magglio Ordonez,” Jaso said.
“Ordonez is fouling 0-2 fastballs the other way, into the stands down the first-base line. I called a slider, and he hit a home run to center field.
“What I remember most was their approach. In the minors, you hear all about the great pitching. You never talk about the hitting.
“In the minors, I could let my talent take care of my game. My focus didn’t really come until I got up here and realized, talent might not be enough,” Jaso said.
Knowing that and refining his own approach took time. In his first full season in 2010, Jaso hit .263 and posted a .372 on-base percentage. Then last year, Jaso saw his average (.224) and on-base percentage (.298) take a big fall as teams adjusted to him.
“I feel like I’ve become a big-league hitter this year. My first year in the majors, I had success. I was new. Teams didn’t have a scouting report on me,” Jaso said.
“Then teams had the chance to see me, challenge me differently. I fell off the second year but learned a lot.
“This season, I tried to put the two together. What I’d learned, how my approach needed to change, what I’d done to be successful,” Jaso said.
Being ready at the plate, having a plan when you step in the batters box — even that part of Jaso’s game changed this year.
“My preparation starts before the game,” he said. “If I don’t have a plan until I’m walking into the batters box, that’s too late,” he said.
“Last week when Boston was in, I faced Josh Beckett, and Beckett owns me. I think I was like 0-for-12 with six strikeouts against him. Always before, I’d be thinking about that when I faced him.
“This time, with the bases loaded, my plan was ‘Don’t over think, trust your hands, keep them ready’ — and I doubled off Beckett,” Jaso said.
Drafted by the Tampa Bay Rays in the 12th round of 2003, Jaso was an All-Star at every level in their minor-league system and batted .300 in three postseason games with the Rays in 2010.
And this winter, Tampa sent him to Seattle for reliever Josh Lueke.
“When I was traded, I didn’t feel wanted by the Rays. Anger consumed me for about 30 minutes, and then Jack (Zduriencik) called and told me the Mariners really wanted me. The anger kind of faded,” he said.
When the Mariners broke camp this spring, Jaso was one of three catchers on their roster, joining Miguel Olivo and rookie Jesus Montero, both right-handed hitters.
Jaso didn’t catch a game in April. His work came as a designated hitter, a pinch hitter.
He won a game in the ninth inning against Texas on April 11th, tied one on April 27th with a ninth-inning pinch-hit single, and the Mariners won in 10 innings.
“When I do something good, I remember it,” Jaso said. “That’s what you have to look at when you struggle — the good things you’ve done.”
His reputation became one of those ice-in-his veins hitters in game-on-the-line situations.
“He likes those situations,” Wedge said. “He wants them, but he doesn’t go up there over anxious.”
Jaso even gets Seattle – and loves it.
“I do love Seattle and the area. I like the feel of the rain hitting me, the green, the mountain,” Jaso said.
He understands careers don’t last forever.
“I’m almost 29. I’m getting older, and that requires adjustments,” Jaso said. “I stand straighter at home plate, because I can’t crouch down as much in my batting stance.
“You figure out what works, the other team sees it and tries something different. It’s a constantly changing situation. I get that.”