LANSING, Mich. via TORONTO, Ont. - Ever since appearing in the Little League World Series, Lansing Lugnuts catcher Hagen Danner knew he was good at baseball.
In fact, Danner's Huntington Beach team won the coveted LLWS title in 2011.
"It's been the best experience I've ever had in my life," Danner, now 20, said of the team's championship run. "It makes it more fun when you have guys on the team that you're able to communicate with and make jokes with, even when things are going bad."
Though he didn't grow up a fan of the Los Angeles Angels (he rooted for the Cleveland Indians as a kid as his father hails from Ohio), he did have a particularly noteworthy interaction with Lugnuts manager Dallas McPherson when he was six years old.
McPherson, who played with the Angels from 2004 to 2006, apparently refused to sign a young Hagen's hat before a game. McPherson's Angels teammate, first baseman Casey Kotchman, obliged and gave Danner a thrill as a young baseball fan. Danner still jokingly ribs his skipper about it, even a decade later.
As a young baseball fan, Danner's Indians fandom reached its peak when former outfielder Grady Sizemore sent him an autographed baseball after his team captured the Little League World Series.
Danner actually started playing the outfield as a child due in large part to Sizemore's influence. He then "forgot how to run" and transitioned to catching. While he did pitch in his youth, he prefers his current spot behind the plate and in the batting order.
"I'd rather hit a walk-off home run than throw a no-hitter," he said. "It's a better team feeling, to win something for your team. There's no better feeling than that."
Entering the draft, he had no idea whether he wanted to be a pitcher or a hitter. When teams asked him which he preferred, he answered simply, "I want to be a big-leaguer." After reflecting on his choice (and being selected 61st overall by the Blue Jays in the 2017 draft), he knew he chose the right path.
Even though Danner has racked up some key extra-base hits this season, his year hasn't been fruitful overall - he's slashing .179/.266/.418 in 59 games entering the week of July 8th. Still, he takes things at-bat by at-bat, trying to get on base and help his team win.
Recently, he's made adjustments to his swing to compensate for the different way that pitchers are attacking him, especially with offspeed pitches. He's trying to be more selective with outside pitches late in counts, now that he's aware that opposing pitchers have seen and analyzed his heat maps and hitting charts.
Defensively, though, he continues to impress, forming meaningful relationships with the Lugnuts pitchers. In particular, Danner makes note of Sean Wymer's "disgusting" curveball and Fitz Stadler's monster 6'9" frame, which are especially fun to experience behind the plate.
Coming from Rookie-Advanced Bluefield, Danner has appreciated the atmosphere at Cooley Law School Stadium, noting that he's exceptionally excited to be spending this season with the Lugs at the next level on the minor-league hierarchy.
"It's super nice, I'm really happy that I'm here," he remarked. "Lansing's the best - great ballpark, great atmosphere, and great food!"
Though things haven't exactly gone as planned in his second professional season, Danner, always positive and passionate, is confident things will turn around for him as the season progresses. Like many members of the 2019 Lansing Lugnuts, he's a name to keep an eye on going forward.
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.