Blue Jays’ Kirk proving he can hold his own against elite velocity

Watch as 21-year-old catcher Alejandro Kirk smashes his first MLB home run over the right field wall against the New York Yankees.

When the Toronto Blue Jays opted to call up Alejandro Kirk, despite his lack of high-minors experience, the move was made to solve one specific problem: a lack of offence from the catcher position.

Just seven games into his MLB career, it looks like Kirk might be able to help with another weakness of this Blue Jays team — namely, an inability to hit top-notch velocity. It’s an issue that could be magnified come playoff time when opposing teams lean on their best starters and high-leverage relievers, who are both likely to bring the heat.

This season the Blue Jays have seen 996 fastballs 95 m.p.h. or harder. Put another way, those high-velocity fastballs account for 12.6 per cent of all pitches thrown to the team — and they’ve rarely turned those pitches into meaningful production.

These struggles are well-documented, but it’s fair to ask what they have to do with Kirk. Although we don’t tend to associate any type of speed with a guy who has the potential to steal the ‘Big Sexy’ moniker from Bartolo Colon, he’s got a lightning-quick bat.

Kirk has yet to whiff on an MLB fastball, which is impressive even in a very small sample. He already has three hits off pitches 95 m.p.h. or faster, which ties him with lineup staples like Lourdes Gurriel Jr. and Cavan Biggio. The team leader in that category, Randal Grichuk, only has six such knocks. Two of Kirk’s hits have also gone for extra bases, which ties him with the team lead, despite the fact he’s made just 18 trips to the plate.

The best example of his ability to hit the hard stuff came on Monday with his fourth-inning double off Jonathan Loaisiga.

What makes this hit particularly impressive is that he’s able to get around on a 96-m.p.h. sinker well inside to muscle it down the left field line. That’s not a bad pitch at all, and often a hitter will foul it off, or inside-out it to second base. Kirk turned it into extra bases.

Both of the young catcher’s booming hits to right field in that game came on tough fastballs too, the single on a 98-m.p.h. offering from Nick Nelson, and the homer on a Chad Green heater clocking in at 96 m.p.h.

These pitches aren’t hit to right field because Kirk is late on them. For all his virtues, he doesn’t have enough raw power to mishit balls out of the park. These are two solid examples of Kirk extending his arms and going with the pitches, which is often a good way to approach high-velocity offerings.

While those are clips from a single game, they come off three different pitchers, suggesting that there wasn’t a single guy he was locked in on. Even if we buy the idea that it was just a hot night, that doesn’t explain why other Blue Jays have barely topped this high-velocity hit total all season long.

If it were easy to have a game where you collect three hits off 95-m.p.h.-plus fastballs — none of them cheap — more accomplished MLB hitters like Biggio or Gurriel Jr. would have managed it already this season. It also doesn’t account for the fact he hasn’t swung through a fastball in any of his other appearances, including the club’s recent matchup against Gerrit Cole. It seems likely there’s something here, even if we don’t know the extent of it just yet.

There’s still plenty of reason to remain skeptical of Kirk’s ability to produce offensively considering his lack of experience above High-A Dunedin, but what we’re seeing now is consistent with what we know about him as a prospect. His MLB Pipeline profile describes his swing as “direct and impactful.” That’s exactly what we see in the clips above. According to FanGraphs, he had a five per cent swinging strike rate in the minors in 2019, which gels with the fact he hasn’t missed a fastball — and has struck out just once — in his first seven games.

There’s not enough data for us to be sure of virtually anything when it comes to Kirk’s present true talent, or future ceiling. That said, what evidence we have suggests that he’s not going to be blown away by the kind of fireballers the Blue Jays will see in the wild-card series, whoever they draw. That’s more than can be said for some of his teammates.

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