Despite unusual build and background, Blue Jays catcher Alejandro Kirk inspires faith

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·MLB Writer
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DETROIT, MICHIGAN - AUGUST 29: Alejandro Kirk #30 of the Toronto Blue Jays during an at-bat against Detroit Tigers at Comerica Park on August 29, 2021, in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images)
DETROIT, MICHIGAN - AUGUST 29: Alejandro Kirk #30 of the Toronto Blue Jays during an at-bat against Detroit Tigers at Comerica Park on August 29, 2021, in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images)

With Danny Jansen returning on Tuesday, and top prospect Gabriel Moreno looking like a possible contributor as soon as 2022, Alejandro Kirk is neither the Toronto Blue Jays' clear catcher of the present nor their obvious backstop of the future. While his standing with the franchise is murky, the fact that he’s a remarkable talent has never been more apparent.

It’s tempting to see the five-foot-eight, 265-pounder as more of a folk hero than a baseball player, but, 51 games into his MLB career, it’s becoming more and more evident that his talents are as special as his frame is unusual.

Over the last 50 years, just 44 catchers at ages 22 and younger have accumulated 150 or more MLB plate appearances as rookies — a threshold Kirk passed on Tuesday. It’s easy to forget just how impressive it is that the Mexican backstop is in the majors at all.

Among those 44 catchers, Kirk's wRC+ — a one-stop-shop offensive stat that accounts for home ballpark and era — is fourth. The only guys ahead of him are Kyle Schwarber, who was primarily an outfielder as a rookie, Salvador Perez, and 1971 Rookie of the Year Earl Williams. Some of the names directly behind him include Gary Carter, Joe Mauer, and Benito Santiago.

In the context of the Blue Jays, Kirk’s offensive numbers are even more eye-popping, as the franchise has struggled to develop competent catchers for decades. Just 13 catchers in team history have managed even 100 MLB plate appearances as rookies. Kirk’s wRC+ (120) is by far the best — Pat Borders is second at 101 — and he leads the group in batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging.

Here’s how Kirk’s numbers at the plate compared to the other dozen Blue Jays rookie catchers to log significant time:

Kirk vs. other rookie catchers
Kirk vs. other Blue Jays rookie catchers.

Although the Blue Jays have never had a rookie catcher who wielded the bat like Kirk — or particularly close — there are a couple of reasons that it’s been hard for the team and its fans to bestow the “catcher of the future” tag on him, beyond the presence of Moreno.

The first is Kirk’s defence.

Catcher is a defence-first position, and the rookie doesn’t particularly shine in any facet of that part of the game. He’s thrown out just 13 percent of base stealers in the majors (although he ran a healthy 39 percent in the minors), his blocking is a work in progress, and both FanGraphs (-1.6) and Statcast (-2) agree that his framing costs the Blue Jays runs. Add in a body type that doesn’t scream athleticism, and there’s a great deal of concern about what he has to offer on that side of the ball.

The best counterpoint to those worries is that Kirk simply lacks experience. The 22-year-old had an accelerated trip through the minor leagues and has just 1339.2 innings behind the plate in his entire professional career. For reference, Jansen had 2738 frames at catcher in the minors before he broke through with the Blue Jays in 2018. Kirk doesn’t have a Yadier Molina-like defensive ceiling, but it’s fair to assume he can improve — especially at such a cerebral position.

On Wednesday, for instance, he made an aggressive heads-up snap throw to first for a pickoff that he probably wouldn’t have attempted — let alone executed — a year ago:

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Even if Kirk is never even average defensively, it seems probable that he could paper over shortcomings with his offensive output, and we still don’t know with confidence what he’ll look like on that side of the ball as more of a finished product.

The other major impediment to having confidence in Kirk is that he simply doesn’t have much of a track record. The rookie has just 210 total plate appearances above the High-A level under his belt, which invites a wait-and-see approach. While that’s fair, there’s nothing we’ve seen from Kirk that looks like a small-sample-size fluke. The catcher has posted sturdy strikeout and walk rates thus far in the majors, he hasn’t gone on a power tear that would distort his numbers, and his .296 BABIP doesn’t indicate that he’s had an undue amount of hits fall in for him.

Even with his unusual and limited body of work, projection systems have fully bought into his offensive potential. All five of FanGraphs’ models (ZiPS, Steamer, FGDC, The Bat and The Bat X) see him as a significantly above-average for the rest of 2021 — and ZiPS’ three-year projection sees him as a good starter likely to improve.

Alejandro Kirk's projections for the next three seasons.
Alejandro Kirk's projections for the next three seasons.

Statcast is also bullish on how he’s hit the ball with authority. Kirk’s career average exit velocity is 92.4 mph — a number just 15 qualified hitters are topping in 2021. His Expected Slugging of .497 is actually better than his actual .460 number, indicating he may even have experienced some bad luck, like when he crushed a 102 mph, 402-foot, flyball on Wednesday only to see it caught in the deepest part of the ballpark.

Alejandro Kirk goes deep
Alejandro Kirk hits a long flyball.

Because we haven’t seen players who look like Kirk thrive in the major leagues, it’s always possible to find ways to doubt him. His literal production, on the other hand, has done nothing but inspire faith. The fact that the Blue Jays have put him in the lineup in seven of the last nine games — each time between the fourth and sixth spot in the order — seems to indicate they might be starting to believe.

When it comes to his bat, at the very least, there’s no reason not to.

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