The 2022 Blue Jays won 92 games and finished second in the American League in runs scored, and Alejandro Kirk had a lot to do with that. Hitting .285/.372/.415 and playing better defense behind the plate than most expected when he was a prospect, he formed a dynamite catching chimera with Danny Jansen and Gabriel Moreno, who was sent to Arizona this offseason. The resultant pairing of Kirk and Jansen projected to give the Blue Jays the best catching situation in baseball in 2023. But while the rest of the top catchers in the majors have worked out about as expected, Toronto’s have not, combining to hit a respectable but disappointing .232/.311/.384. As the younger and much less experienced of the two, with more time to grow as an offensive player, Kirk’s struggles concern me more.
It’s easy to forget how quickly Kirk rocketed through the minors in recent years. After playing mostly in High-A Dunedin in 2019, the Blue Jays were interested enough in his talent to put him on the taxi squad at the start of September 2020, even getting him into nine games, seven as a catcher. The following season, he only played a couple of weeks at Triple-A Buffalo before becoming a permanent major leaguer. While a promotion that aggressive does happen once in a while, there’s no situation that I can remember in which a team promoted a catcher who wasn’t an extremely polished defender that quickly. He hit .242/.328/.436 — a solid triple-slash for any catcher, but exciting for a player with such little high-level experience. Perhaps as importantly, while Kirk didn’t fool anyone into thinking he was the next Yadier Molina with the glove, he played far better defensively than the DH-pretending-to-be-a-catcher archetype that players like Zack Collins fall into. But Kirk’s .234/.353/.324 line so far is not what people expected in the follow-up season, and while the resulting wRC+ of 96 is far better than trainwreck status, it’s also far from the stardom he displayed last year.
When you see a dropoff like that, especially in a fairly short stretch of games, you frequently see a BABIP blip along with it. But while Kirk has dropped about 40 points of BABIP since last year, his hit profile supports a fairly low BABIP. In fact, ZiPS thinks that he’s “earned” a .249 BABIP based on how he’s hit this year, lower than his actual BABIP of .261. The plate discipline stats also show no red flags; he still makes good contact and isn’t suddenly offering more often at worse pitches.
The icky part of Kirk’s seasonal line involves the loss of power, and unfortunately, the drop in both his exit velocity and loft is real; four miles per hour and seven degrees of launch angle are not small deviations. For the Statcast era, I took every player who put 75 pitches into play in consecutive years, ranked their dips in exit velocity and launch angle (out of 2,389 players), and found those with the biggest dropoffs, using the average of their ranks (we’re trying to get a general idea, so a very simple method is fine). Here are the results:
Largest Launch Angle/Exit Velocity Droppers
Kirk ranks highly in terms of dropoff in these stats, so it’s not surprising to see his power evaporate. It’s also not something that bodes well. ZiPS and other projection systems deal with these issues in a more scientifically sound fashion than this, but there are a lot of fading players on this list. The ones that did improve overall in seasons after the two-year window, such as Díaz and Acuña Jr., managed to reverse this process. I went down the top 50 players on this list and found that this held true as well. And Kirk actually showed some dropoff from 2021 to ’22 despite his excellent performance, suggesting that the seeds of a future issue had already been sown.
One culprit here is that he is simply topping hard pitches down in the zone, whereas last year he was getting just enough loft to squeeze a bunch of hits out of them; he hit .452 on low fastballs and lifted the majority of them with a positive launch angle. This season, only three of 13 low fastballs haven’t been driven into the ground, and Kirk has lost about eight degrees of launch angle on average compared to last year. It’s not just luck either: he’s hitting them with less velocity, resulting in an xBA of .231 compared to .336 last year.
The exit velocity issue is important for Kirk because he’s not a fast player and hits a lot of grounders; he’s not going to be legging out many soft infield hits, so he needs to hit the ball hard. Groundball BABIP is very sensitive to exit velocity, as unlike fly balls, there’s no sweet spot where a soft hit becomes an impossible-to-field bloop.
BABIP by Hit Type and Velocity, 2021-2023
And if you check the Statcast leaderboard in terms of year-to-year change, Kirk is near the top of the list in terms of most increased topped contact rate.
The good news is that the full model of ZiPS is aware of these hit tendencies and still thinks Kirk is going to be alright over the long haul, though his problems right now have increased the downside risk, pushing his projections down from the 3.5–4.0 WAR range they were in before the season:
ZiPS Projection – Alejandro Kirk
These types of changes aren’t good, but they’re also not death sentences for careers and can be reversed. Kirk, even while struggling, still retains a lot of the characteristics that made him such a good hitter last year. The key to improving his baseball game right now may be working on his golf game and re-embracing the modern trend of turning low pitches into long drives rather than worm-burners.
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