Supported by family, All-Star vote-leading catcher Kirk quietly strives for greatness

Toronto Blue Jays' Alejandro Kirk left, celebrates with teammate Santiago Espinal, right, along with other teammates in the dugout after hitting a solo home run during the third inning of a baseball game against the Chicago White Sox, Wednesday, June 22, 2022, in Chicago. (Paul Beaty/AP)

CHICAGO — Alejandro Kirk’s parents have watched him play ball in a lot of places. They’ve been with him at spring training in Dunedin; they’ve caught him at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg and Angel Stadium in Anaheim. But they hadn’t truly appreciated just how popular their son has become until they saw him play a home game for the Toronto Blue Jays late last year.

And it wasn’t even the true Rogers Centre experience. Pandemic restrictions limited attendance to only 15,000 that day. But Kirk’s parents were still taken aback by how many of those fans lined around the 100 level were wearing shirts and jerseys with their last name on it.

“That was honestly a dream come true for me and my entire family. To be playing in a huge stadium like the Rogers Centre, to see people wearing my jersey,” Kirk says through club interpreter Hector Lebron. “It was very, very emotional for my mom and my dad. And it was very, very emotional for me.”

Of course, that was merely anecdotal evidence as to Kirk’s status as a fan favourite. Nowadays, they can put a number on it. On Tuesday, MLB released its first update in 2022 all-star voting and, wouldn’t you know it, Kirk led American League catchers by a margin of over 650,000 votes.

Not only that — his 1,056,008 votes ranked third among all AL position players, trailing only Aaron Judge and Mike Trout. Barring a dramatic and unlikely shift in voting patterns, Kirk will be announced next month as the AL’s starting catcher at his first all-star game.

So, what does Kirk do when he’s informed of his vote tally earlier this week? He opens his family’s group chat.

“The first thing I did, I sent a message to my family that I was feeling very, very happy because of all the voting,” he says. “Of course, they were very emotional. They told me they were very proud of me for all the work that I've put in for this. They were just very happy, overall.

“I called my brothers, my dad, my mom, my girlfriend. We're a very, very close family. So, those were the first ones that I felt that I had to call.”

Kirk’s older brother, Juan Manuel Jr., plays for Pericos de Puebla in Liga Mexicana de Béisbol, Mexico’s top professional circuit. His younger brother, Andres, plays for Sultanes de Monterrey in the same league. They’re both catchers, naturally. Although Andres, the tallest of the three, can also play a little first base.

They all grew up playing for little league teams coached by their father, Juan Manuel, whose own baseball career topped out at the amateur level. But that did little to quell his passion for the game, or dissuade him from encouraging his three boys to pursue their own dreams of making it further than he did.

The problem they’d all run into, of course, was aesthetic. The Kirk genetics do not produce a prototypical athlete’s build. When we say Andres is the tallest of the three, that means he’s — generously — 5’10. And just as thick as his older brothers through the midsection.

Now, we know better than to judge books by covers these days. Athleticism is independent of body composition; high performers come in all shapes and sizes. But that level of open-mindedness isn’t always apparent in veteran baseball scouts searching for talent at remote Mexican showcases. The Kirk boys would have to do something else to stand out.

Which is exactly what Alejandro did in 2016, when the Blue Jays stumbled upon him at a workout and informal game featuring local teenagers in Tijuana, Mexico. Club scouts — Dean Decillis and Harry Einbinder among them — were there to see someone else. Another catcher no one can even remember the name of. But it was impossible to take eyes off the short, stocky kid with the smooth, simple swing. The one spraying line drives all over the yard.

Projecting the body type would require a leap of faith. But the Blue Jays knew they’d have to take risks on the international market that year as their spending was severely restricted by MLB after the club exceeded its bonus pool the year prior to sign Vladimir Guerrero Jr. for $3.9-million.

And Kirk’s low heart rate, hand-eye coordination, and bat control convinced the Blue Jays he was one worth taking. Not long after that workout, and with little competition from other clubs who quickly wrote Kirk off due to his build, the Blue Jays signed him to a $30,000 deal that — knowing what we know now — proved an unfathomable bargain.

“In Tijuana, nobody told us who was coming to watch us — if any scout from any organization was going to be there or looking for any particular player or not,” Kirk says. “So, every day we knew that we had to be ready. You just go out there and work hard. Because you never know who's watching."

Juan Manuel Sr. taught his sons from a young age to focus on the little things they did on a baseball diamond — seeing the ball out of the pitcher’s hand, receiving pitches quietly behind the plate, taking their time throwing to first — rather than getting caught up in the heat of the moment. A professional coach would call that attention to detail and routine. Juan Manuel just called it baseball.

That’s where Kirk’s mettle comes from. His nerve. The steady pulse he maintains amidst the pressure and stress of MLB competition. Juan Manuel Jr. and Andres are the same way. All of the Kirks are.

“Yeah, it definitely runs in the family,” he says. “If you meet my dad, he's so calm, quiet. That's why I'm like that.”

You’ve no doubt seen Kirk standing in against some guy throwing 98 with a wipeout slider, fouling tough pitches off, letting others off the plate go, almost placidly thinking along with the catcher game-calling behind him. You’ve seen him do it late in close games; with runners in scoring position and two out; behind in the count. It’s almost like he’s unaware of the game’s circumstances, immune to leverage.

Kirk has a 112 wRC+ in two-strike counts, the 12th highest across MLB. He has a 139 wRC+ in plate appearance made in the sixth inning or later, an 80th percentile mark. He’s got a 166 wRC+ with two out, 24th in MLB; a 215 wRC+ with two out and runners in scoring position, which sits 20th. The higher you dial the leverage, the less he feels it. Or at least, that’s how it appears.

“I mean, from the outside, you probably don't see it. But there's always pressure. There's emotions that, with time, I've learned how to handle,” Kirk says. “I can control those things. I try to not let everybody notice it. But there's always some pressure on me. And I've just got to know how to handle it — especially at this level.”

So, how does he handle it?

“I just talk to myself. One of the things I say is just, ‘pitch by pitch.’ That's the way I can make good adjustments,” Kirk says. “I tell myself, ‘Just take it easy. Go pitch by pitch.’ And that helps me out a lot.”

It’s comical to think back to the spring training discourse about whether or not the Blue Jays even had room for Kirk on their major-league roster, let alone enough opportunity for him to play regularly. Could you imagine starting this guy at triple-A? What kind of lineup do you have if you don’t have room for his bat in it?

But as ridiculous as it seems in hindsight, Kirk still entered 2022 as a somewhat unproven commodity. He had 69 games and 214 plate appearances at the big-league level. He had only 165 and 675 in the minors. His bat played everywhere he went on his rocket ride through the Blue Jays system — from Dunedin to Lansing to Buffalo to Toronto. But there still wasn’t a substantial track record to tell you whether that was likely to continue going forward or not. Lots of players hit really well on their way to the majors. Until they don’t.

And then Kirk slumped out of the gates. He finished April batting .245/.339/.245 with a 69 wRC+. His first extra-base hit didn’t come until his 71st plate appearance of the season on May 3. He was still taking his walks; still putting balls in play consistently. They just weren’t coming off his bat with much authority. Five of the 14 hits — all singles — he had through May 2 didn’t even leave the infield. Imagine where his numbers would’ve been if he hadn’t gotten lucky and reached on those?

But through it all, Kirk trusted his bat would come around. That the production would be there if he stayed poised and consistent. If he didn’t panic. It’s not the easiest thing to do as a 23-year-old who’d only played double-digit major-league games.

“In the big leagues, slumps are going to happen. Maybe at the beginning of the season, maybe at the end. But it always happens,” Kirk says. “So, I was just saying, let me stay calm. Let me keep working in the cage with my coaches, trusting my coaches, watching a lot of video. And that's basically what I did. And then everything got better.”

In a hurry. With another two-hit performance Wednesday — including his second homer in as many days — that went practically unnoticed due to how commonplace games like that have become for him, Kirk’s now hitting .307/.395/.487 on the season with a 150 wRC+. That includes his April slump. Following those first 70 plate appearances without an extra-base hit, he has 18 — eight homers, 10 doubles — over 150 since.

Meanwhile, he’s walking in 12.3 per cent of his plate appearances and striking out in only 10 per cent of them. He’s produced 2.5 fWAR through his first 60 games. These numbers aren’t just spectacular among the offensive wasteland that is MLB’s catching position. They’re spectacular no matter where you play.

Kirk’s wRC+ is top-15 league-wide; his .883 OPS is top-16; the fWAR, top-17. He’s one of only eight qualified hitters with more walks than strikeouts. Some of the seven others — Luis Arraez, Yandy Diaz, Steven Kwan — profile as everyday players having solid seasons. And some of them — Michael Brantley, Alex Bregman, Jose Ramirez, Juan Soto — profile among the most prolific hitters in the game.

There’s your floor and ceiling for Kirk. At worst, his bat’s playable every night in the bottom-half of an order thanks to his discipline and a top-10 contact rate that allows him to consistently work long, positive plate appearances, carrying him through power slumps. At best, his bat’s powering an offence from the heart of it thanks to preternatural barrel control that allows him to spray line drives to all fields while using his pull power to yank balls into the left field seats.

Add up that ability, the atypical body type, the quietly confident placidity he carries through everything he does, and you have the building blocks of a fan favourite — a mantle Kirk has easily assumed in Toronto despite a proclivity to hide from attention rather than seek it. Any introvert can relate. It’s better in shadows. There’s comfort in quiet.

Of course, Kirk’s aware of his burgeoning popularity. It would be hard not to. There was the anecdotal evidence. The social media following; the people who stop him on the street; all those fans at Rogers Centre wearing shirts and jerseys with his name on them. But now there’s empirical data, too. Over a million votes — nearly 700,000 more than the next guy. As always, Kirk’s appreciative. And Zen.

“I try to not let that take me out of my game. I just want to stay focused on what I do every day, to keep trying to help the team any way that I can,” Kirk says. “But, yes, I've noticed that. And it's great. It feels good.”

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