Toronto Blue Jays catcher Alejandro Kirk sat back in his two-strike approach and lashed an outside pitch down the right-field line. The 23-year-old’s eyes lit up as he rounded first base and slid into second, beating the throw from New York Yankees right-fielder Aaron Judge.
Toronto’s dugout went wild, as that line drive on May 3 gave Kirk his first extra-base hit of the season. After 61 at-bats, the monkey was finally off his back.
“He's starting to hit balls hard,” Blue Jays assistant hitting coach Hunter Mense said during the club’s last homestand. “And, honestly, not having an extra base hit and just being able to hit one where he stands on second, I think is such a relieving thing, too.”
Kirk has handled his first significant major-league slump well — a .260/.348/.312 slash line is still passable for a guy who’s fighting it at the plate. And when you dive deeper into Kirk’s 2022 numbers, there’s plenty of evidence he’s on the verge of breaking out.
Kirk has an eagle eye at the dish, and his plate discipline this season is better than it’s ever been, with his whiff rate and strikeout rate ranking in the 97th and 99th percentiles, respectively. For even greater context, in April 2021 — where Kirk put up an .805 OPS — he struck out 13.6 per cent of the time. In April 2022, the worst month of his career, Kirk struck out just 9.8 per cent of the time. He’s seeing the ball well right now.
Even during his least productive stretch as a major-league hitter, Kirk has stayed true to his approach. He’s walking at a higher clip than any player on the Blue Jays, and chasing very few pitches, which says he’s not panicked by his slow start or trying to do too much.
That level of maturity and commitment to his approach, especially during a period where his power has almost completely disappeared, is remarkable. Kirk’s been frustrated with himself the past few weeks, Mense said, but the perseverance he’s used to overcome these obstacles will set him up well for the future.
“You don't want to wish anybody to struggle at all, at any point in their careers,” Mense said. “But if it's taken the right way, it's so beneficial.”
With the approach numbers at an all-time high, Kirk is a tweak away from an offensive explosion. Right now, though, the swing is still “a little bit out of whack.”
“It’s really in his setup,” Mense said of Kirk’s mechanical struggles. “When he gets sitting down too far on the back of his heels, it's a position that he has a hard time moving from. And it's natural for anybody to just kind of start shifting and changing in positions throughout time and not really notice it.”
Mense described Kirk as a “sturdy” hitter, who, because of his short stature, works his hands closer to his body for success. In a normal year, Kirk crushes pitches up and up-and-in. That hasn’t been the case this season, and pitches have felt “further away” for Kirk.
“When you take a swing, you know exactly where it's at, especially [Kirk], he's got such good discipline and sees it so well,” Mense explained. “But then if you go back and look and it's not at the same spot you thought it was, or it feels closer on the plate than what you thought, your eyes aren't matching exactly where the pitch is.”
Kirk’s low barrel rates in April confirmed this theory. His typically flawless bat-to-ball ability is a tick uncalibrated this year, preventing him from fully squaring up pitches in the zone. But, over the last few days, plenty of progress has been made, and the Kirk of old is slowly returning to Toronto’s lineup.
While the Blue Jays struggled in Cleveland by dropping three of four to the Guardians, Kirk quietly had his best series of the year. The Mexican-born catcher went 4-for-14, connected on his first home run, didn’t strike out, and walked twice.
— Toronto Blue Jays (@BlueJays) May 6, 2022
Kirk has an .828 OPS through 24 at-bats in May, partially because he’s made some minor improvements on the inner half, but more so because the mechanical adjustments he practiced in the cage are starting to feel more comfortable.
For Mense, Kirk’s gradual improvements are a product of his receptiveness to hitting instruction and the youngster’s vicious determination to prove he belongs in the big leagues.
“It’s really cool to watch,” Mense said. “Because you couple that with competitiveness, too, and confidence that not a lot of people have, and you’ve got a pretty good player.”
He’s not all the way there yet, but Kirk’s bat is coming along. And for the Blue Jays, that help can’t come soon enough, as Toronto sits tied for 13th in MLB with a .692 team OPS — well below the club’s offensive capabilities — and four games behind the Yankees for first place in the American League East.
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