Blue Jays catchers providing overlooked boost during hot streak

As the Blue Jays lost a fiery affair against Tampa where the dugouts emptied, the Yankees and Red Sox both won to push Toronto out of a wild card spot.

The 19-6 run the Toronto Blue Jays have been on since August 28th doesn’t have mysterious origins.

When you’ve got a lineup that’s hit an astounding .278/.357/.517 and a starting rotation producing a solid 3.71 ERA while leading the majors in innings pitched, you’re going to start piling up some wins — even with a few bullpen wobbles.

One aspect of the team’s recent success that’s been underrated of late, though, is its catching. Early in the season, Danny Jansen was a combination of injured and offensively ineffective, Alejandro Kirk also missed time, and Reese McGuire had to hold the position down for long stretches.

The result is that the catching position was a drain on the team’s lineup for most of the season, but not lately:

Some of that difference can be explained by how the at-bats have been allocated differently in recent weeks, with the return of Jansen and the three-man catching corps.

Moving away from McGuire isn’t the sole explanation for the Blue Jays’ improving offensive fortunes at catcher. Kirk has been the biggest beneficiary, and his wRC+ during the team’s current hot streak (109) is almost identical to his season-long number (111).

The biggest difference has been Jansen’s offensive awakening. There’s a serious small sample size alert associated with what the 26-year-old has done since returning from the IL on August 31, but in those 14 games his .324/.390/.730 slash line is eye-opening.

In recent weeks we’ve seen him hit peaks he hasn’t reached before…

… backed up by solid Statcast data:

Of the 29 balls Jansen has hit 100 mph or harder this season, 12 of them have come in his last 14 games — including the second-longest home run of his career:

It’s hard to call this anything more than a hot streak at this point, but for a guy whose offensive potential has always been well-regarded, it will bear watching. More importantly for the Blue Jays in the short term, Jansen has helped lengthen their lineup when they need it most.

While the catcher’s offensive improvements have been the most visible, the Blue Jays have also enjoyed some strong work on the defensive side of the ball, particularly when it comes to controlling the running game. Early in the season, teams were willing and able to run on the Blue Jays with impunity, recently that hasn’t been the case.

This is another small sample, but once again there seems to be something tangible at play as Kirk, in particular, has looked more comfortable throwing the ball of late. In his first 43 MLB games behind the dish he managed to catch just three base runners stealing with 20 successful thefts allowed. In his last six, he’s caught three against eight steals. He also picked off the first runner of his career on September 1.

Although Kirk’s ability to move behind the dish may always come into question given his unusual frame — and blocking balls has been an issue early in his career — there’s nothing wrong with his arm. The 22-year-old threw out 39 per cent of base runners during his minor-league career and consistently got solid grades from scouts for his arm.

There’s no reason to expect he can’t improve in that area with experience, and that seems to be happening now. Combine that with more playing time for 2019 Gold Glove finalist Jansen — the best blocker and framer on the roster — and you’ve got a recipe for the kind of solidity that runs in stark contrast to what the New York Yankees are getting from the position lately.

When your roster has legitimate MVP and Cy Young candidates, plus the hottest lineup in the game, the catcher position — especially when shared by multiple players — isn’t going to get much shine. In the context of the Blue Jays roster, the backstops are complementary players, but lately they’ve been putting on some star performances.

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