Among the catchers of this season, Willson Contreras has been the talk of the town in baseball. It’s easy to see why: fans are suddenly the best season of their career in a year of walking. It attracts everyone’s attention. Suddenly, fans of other teams find themselves hoping to land their favorite club on time or maybe this break. On the sabermetric side, there is growing evidence that Contreras has indeed taken a step forward. The catcher with so many offensive sides is a rarity, and with a powerful 161 wRC +, the veteran has made himself a valued piece of jewelry.
But enough of the Cubs or Contrerates. Do you know who it is? secondly catcher wRC + this season? That’s right, it’s Alejandro Kirk, who has been Blue Jays’ main quarterback since Danny Jansen went to IL with a broken finger. Its 146 wRC + isn’t too far behind Contreras, and the corresponding triangle is beautiful: the .311 / .392 / .469 line is somewhat rare in today’s game.
Kirk’s output may not be as surprising if you pay attention to his sub-league numbers. Starting with the Rookie Ball in 2017, he raked in every level he was assigned to, taking more walks than punches that led to promotion to the Premier League in 2020. Blue Jays gave him a decent chance the following year, and although he was in good working order, the 106 wRC + with 189 discs didn’t leave a strong impression. This year, however, Kirk looks like the unstoppable force his sub-league record promised to be.
If I were asked to identify one of the characteristics of Alejandro Kirki, I would refer to all his fields, the difference doubling the power. And there’s no better way to illustrate that than with some good GIFs. First, here’s Kirk, who stays on a high-speed balloon plane and hits it in the middle:
Something more challenging, here he fights a well-located cutter and sends it to the opposite field:
Do you want an example of raw power? When Kirk sees a square he likes, he has shown that he can pull it out in that moment, as can be seen at a speed of 110 miles per hour:
Kirki’s swing is particularly noticeable – it is efficient and fast, with very few moving parts, allowing it to cover all four quadrants in the zone. Based on these three clips, and without any additional context, you might think that Kirk is one of the best, if not one, of the most balanced bats. The numbers show the approach of all his fields: he distributes about a third of the balls hit to the left, center and right respectively. And as a bonus, that means teams never move against him. Well, they’ve tried it five times this season, but it’s probably the result of a why-hell-no-mindset. I do not blame them; Kirk has been gaining momentum lately.
In addition to the propensity to hit the ball, Kirki is also characterized by a complete lack of momentum and miss in his game. His 87.8% contact rate ranks seventh among beaters with at least 200 recordings as of this writing; its 4.8% stroke rate ranks sixth at the same time. It is amazing that this has not happened at the expense of his contact quality. In addition, its rate of fluctuation against squares outside the zone is the 75th percentile. Kirk isn’t an expert on this – he can sometimes be misled by focusing on contact – but his discipline is good enough to give him a fair share of the walks and to minimize the number of badly hit balls he plays.
We’ve identified the type of player Kirk is, but without a comparison, all of these numbers can be quite opaque. He’s a doubles beater who rarely makes certain seasonal decisions, but what does this skill union look like in the long run? To find out, I had a little fun touching the players. Kirk comfortably reached the threshold of 200 records on Saturday, so I used it as a limit. From there, I looked at the barrel rates (per plate appearance), odor frequency, and chase rate (both per se) of the strikers and determined how similar they were to those of Kirk. This allowed me to generate an overall score, with a lower score indicating greater similarity.
It’s all a bit complicated, but we’re here for the results. Below are the five bats that most closely resemble Kirk this season, including their 2022 numbers:
Five composers for Alejandro Kirk
Through the June 18 games.
That’s a pretty big list of names, and that’s why it’s such a star-filled table! The combination of discipline and contact with even modest barrel rates is a proven formula for success. Of course, that doesn’t mean Kirk is as good as some of the other players, but the resemblance is striking. In addition to the indicators listed, a big factor in achieving a steady rise is that a batsman like Betts or Ramírez can make 30 home runs during the season without huge exit speeds. It is possible that Kirk should start pulling more flies if he wants a similar increase in power, but there is no need for urgency at the moment. He is doing very well on his own terms.
(In addition, it can be said that the jumping on Verdugo’s name is strange, although perhaps we should give him more praise – despite his low career breakthrough and not a visible drop in scores, he has posted a low 0.254 BABIP. within a month.)
I find it exciting how Kirki’s offensive style and results on the court are not like those of the average catcher. In fact, the closest catcher to him in terms of similarity is Dodgers’ Will Smith, who ranks 31st. Catchers have not historically been known for their scorching bats, but I think it’s important to see how far Kirk stands above his peers. Here is another table, this time with three new columns: the average number of catchers this season by measure, too overall, and the position of catchers among the nine positions (including DH but not throwers). Your typical defense device doesn’t frighten the hearts of opponents’ throwers, but why?
Catchers are not the biggest hitters
|Meter||Catch Avg.||Too average||Positional degree|
Through the June 18 games.
The answer is quite straightforward. Catchers don’t show much pops or put a lot of balls out of the zone to compensate for time or time. This first point also applies in part to Kirk, but in terms of the number of breakthroughs or contacts, he is on the absolute left of the division, on his island. Considering that the various responsibilities of the catchers take up the time it takes to practice hitting, Kirk’s rise is all the more amazing. The catcher doesn’t have to have a kind of profile, but again, Kirk has spent most of his career defying what is expected of him.
Oh, and I haven’t even talked about his pitch framing skills. Along the way, Kirk learned how to fish in a one-knee position, which has been shown to help catchers get borderline strikes. But when he gained catching experience last season, Baseball Savant awarded him a 47.2 percent hit on the border, placing Kirk in the bottom third of qualified throwers. This season is another step forward: he achieves 50% of hits, leading him to the top 10.
There’s a great article from Nick Ashbourne Sportsnet which suggests that Kirk has cleaned up the way the squares were received, flashing fine strokes towards the hit zone rather than violently stabbing the ball. This is certainly a plausible explanation, and if a player shows up with better interest rates, we will be less skeptical when it comes to visible change. But there are also aspects beyond Kirk’s control. The framing numbers vary depending on the squad family the catcher works with, as well as the inclinations of the home plate judge in the game. I don’t think Kirki’s 2021 was a big enough sample. If so, it’s probably best to split the gap and consider him a medium-forward playground – unless he’s constantly cheating the judges.
Will Kirk continue this admirable pace of attack? There are a few areas where the dreaded regression to the average is inevitable – it has benefited from the frequency of elevated lines, and it is good to remember that assigning a high xBA to bloop singles does not mean that they are repeatable. In addition, its slow speed always puts a hard limit on what BABIP can achieve. Otherwise, however, Kirk may be optimistic about moving forward. It is clear that he has the ability to control the ball and his impeccable contact is about the safest floor on which the batsman can count. Predictions are also rosy, seeing him as the owner of a 125-year-old wRC + who will win two more wins by the end of the season than a replacement.
The average regression assumes that we know the true level of talent in the player. In the case of the church, I’m not sure it’s defined. He’s not yet the best baseball catcher – the throne now belongs to Wilson Contreras, who has an advantage in both attack production and playing time. For the past few years, it has belonged to the permanent Will Smith. But Kirk is the most likely heir. It’s hard to believe, but he’s still only 23 years old and has enough time to refine his already powerful bat and show that his newly found pitch frame is real. It is true that there is not much precedent in Kirk’s teapot frame in professional sports, which raises questions about his aging. But does that mean I’m ignoring how much he’s robbed this season? Hey! So now let’s admire how much Kirk stands out in the landscape of trappers, and appreciate how he realizes the ceiling of his stars – one double at a time.
The statistics in this article are for the June 18 games, unless otherwise specified.
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