Coming off his 2022 All-Star season, Kirk’s rough second half from last year has carried over into his fourth big-league campaign, as he’s hitting .254/.353/.328 with just two home runs and 14 RBIs over 44 games. He also owns a 96 wRC+, four percentage points below league average.
Kirk has still been racking up walks, of course, as his 12.2% clip ranks in the 81st percentile of the majors. And he isn’t swinging and missing, with his strikeout (11.5%) and whiff rates (13.8%) placing in the 95th and 96th percentiles, respectively.
But for a player labelled by many as one of the top pure-hitting catchers in baseball a season ago, there’s no question he is capable of more than what he has shown thus far in 2023.
It is worth noting, however, Kirk also faltered out of the gate last season before exploding in mid-May, riding a sensational .347/.432/.578 slash line with 10 home runs, 32 RBIs and a 191 wRC+ across 52 games heading into the All-Star break.
There have also been outside factors at play in 2023, as Kirk missed the start of spring training while awaiting the birth of his child, forcing him to withdraw from last March’s World Baseball Classic. Since he arrived late, there was less time to learn the club’s new pitchers and take live-game reps in the batter’s box.
That meant playing catchup this spring while juggling the responsibilities of being a new father — a difficult task for any player, but especially for a 24-year-old catcher with only one full season under his belt.
The Blue Jays backstop has heated up again in May, though, hitting .333/.349/.381 with a 105 wRC+ over his previous 12 games. He only has two extra-base hits during this span, but a power surge could be on the horizon based on his encouraging batted-ball results.
Kirk’s line-drive output has increased significantly lately, soaring to 38.5% versus the 15.4% clip he produced over his first 32 games. This improvement has also boosted his overall line-drive rate to a career-high 23.1%, nearly four percent higher than in 2022.
With Kirk creating more line drives, it has meant fewer ground balls across this 12-game stretch, evidenced by his 41% rate - a 16.7% improvement from his first 32 games. It is also eerily similar to his 46.5% GB% from last season’s spectacular 52-game span.
The right-hander’s hard-hit output hasn’t changed — and remains a concern — but even weak contact has better odds of landing for a hit when kept off the ground, which he struggled with through the first month-and-a-half of the season.
Lately, meanwhile, Kirk has been able to lift balls more effectively by making a few swing adjustments, as he’s worked with Blue Jays hitting coaches to ensure his back leg stays engaged. And that approach has done wonders for his launch angle over this small sample size.
Previously, the 5-foot-8 righty featured a 1.5-degree average launch angle over his first 32 games of 2023, declining sharply as the calendar flipped to May. Since May 17, though, it has climbed to 4.9 degrees - just under half of last season’s 8.1-degree average.
Generating lift was the first step. Now the challenge becomes turning those batted balls into hard-hit line drives, likely stemming from a timing issue that Kirk has yet to correct. But if last season is any indication, he probably isn’t far off from making the necessary adjustment.
The Blue Jays surely hope that’s the case, as they’re forced to lean on Kirk in the short term with Danny Jansen recovering from a groin strain, meaning there won’t be a shortage of plate appearances. And we’ve already gotten a glimpse of that as the 2022 All-Star caught three straight games on the previous road trip.
While Tyler Heineman is up as Toronto’s backup catcher, the 31-year-old’s career .211/.279/.274 slash line and 58 wRC+ is likely an indicator that his playing time will be scarce at best. But he will be used to give Kirk a break on occasion, as he did on Thursday.
Gabriel Moreno, whose 0.6 fWAR is slightly higher than Kirk’s (0.5) this season, isn’t walking through the door to solve the problem. So the solution to Toronto’s offensive woes at the catcher position must come internally.
Thus, the onus is on Kirk to build off the momentum created recently and transform it into a hot streak similar to last season’s, which began just as Jansen returned from his first of two IL stints.