How Alejandro Kirk took his defensive game to another level

Analytics expert Mike Petriello joins Jamie Campbell on Blue Jays Central to provide analytical proof that catcher Alejandro Kirk's pitch framing this year is exceptional.

Because of Alejandro Kirk’s unusual five-foot-eight, 265-pound frame, it’s easy to make assumptions about what the young catcher can’t do.

Some of those assumptions are fair. For instance, we can say with 100 per cent confidence that the young catcher is not going to steal 30 bases in a season at the big-league level. There are certain things he simply isn’t built to accomplish.

Entering this season, it was widely believed that contributing strong defence behind the plate was one of those things. The perception was that he could function as more of a DH for the Toronto Blue Jays while Danny Jansen (or, at some point, Gabriel Moreno) handled the majority of the catching duties. While Kirk wasn’t unplayable behind the dish in 2020 or 2021, he was well below average — and there wasn’t reason to believe his defensive ceiling was particularly high.

Since Jansen hit the IL on April 11 and Kirk assumed everyday catcher duties for the first time in his MLB career, the 23-year-old has found a new level behind the plate. Small sample or no, Kirk has been good enough that his defensive potential deserves some re-evaluation.

That starts with his framing.

According to Baseball Savant, Kirk’s framing currently sits in the 96th percentile, which is a dramatic departure from what we’ve seen in the past.

Season

Framing Percentile

Strike Rate

2020

N/A (Too few innings to qualify)

46.3%

2021

31st

47.2%

2022

96th

51.8%

In previous years it wasn’t unusual to see Kirk stab at the ball instead of receiving it with quiet hands…

… or fail to get his body behind the ball, making pitches look more erratic than they were as he reached for them with his glove.

Here’s a similar pitch this season, a 95 mph fastball down-and-in, this one off the plate:

Gausman helps Kirk by hitting his spot, but that’s textbook receiving. The young catcher has been especially grabbing strikes in that spot, just off the inside corner to right-handers or off the outside corner to lefties:

His strike rate in that area — dubbed “Zone 14” — of 79.6 per cent ranks second among all qualified catchers, well above the league average of 63.6 per cent. His other trademark spot for stealing strike is pitches below the plate, but over it where his strike rate (66.1 per cent) also ranks second among qualified catchers, soaring above the league average of 48.2 per cent.

That’s good news for Blue Jays pitchers who throw vertically-breaking pitches, like José Berríos’ curveball.

These are small sample numbers, and it’s hard to know where Kirk will find himself on these leaderboards as the season continues. That said, coming into 2022 most wouldn’t have assumed he was capable of this level of receiving even for a short period of time.

Framing isn’t the only area the young backstop seems to have taken a step forward. Coming into this year Kirk has allowed 24 balls to get by him (whether by passed ball or wild pitch) in just 35 starts behind the plate at the MLB level. That’s a blocking incident every 16.3 innings — far more common than last season’s league average of 21.1.

While he wasn’t culpable for every single one of those balls getting through, there were some rough ones including this pitch in the strike zone…

… and this one right through the wickets:

Early in 2022, there are 22 backstops who’ve spent at least 100 innings behind the plate. Kirk is the only one who hasn’t allowed a wild pitch or passed ball.

Catchers not allowing wild pitches don’t exactly make for the sexiest GIFs, but here are two examples of pitches similar to the one above that Kirk did a far better job of squaring up — each coming with a runner on third who would’ve scored if he failed:

Exhibit A

Exhibit B

Lateral agility will probably never be a strength for Kirk, and it’s possible when pitchers totally lose the handle to one side or the other he might not be as quick to it as some other catchers. When it’s in the general region of the plate his low centre of gravity should help him square it up, though, and he’s been able to do that in the early going.

None of this means that Kirk is on the way to a Gold Glove. Controlling the running game remains a concern, for instance, as he hasn’t caught a base stealer this season and has a 15 per cent CS rate in his short career.

It does mean that we need to update our understanding of Kirk’s defensive abilities. When GM Ross Atkins joined Blair and Barker on April 26 he said the team was “very encouraged by his defence” and the team’s pitchers “have a ton of confidence in him”.

It’s easy to see why on both counts.

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