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The Toronto Blue Jays’ Stars Haven’t Delivered — But An Unsung Hero Is Picking Up The Slack

All throughout last season and into this spring, we raved about the Toronto Blue Jays’ World Series potential — and their marquee names were a big reason why. With a lineup led by the slugging trio of Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette and George Springer, a rotation featuring former Cy Young candidates Hyun Jin Ryu and José Berríos, and an offseason haul that included All-Stars Matt Chapman at third base and Kevin Gausman on the mound, Toronto’s collection of stars rivals that of any team in MLB.

And yet, the Blue Jays’ most valuable player so far in 2022 — according to wins above replacement — is not one of those stars. In fact, catcher/designated hitter Alejandro Kirk was almost completely unheralded going into the season. He was not a big-time prospect, he certainly doesn’t look the part of a superstar, and he plays like almost no one else in baseball. Put simply, Kirk is the secret weapon Toronto never thought it would need to contend in the stacked American League East.

One reason why the Jays have needed Kirk’s unexpected All-Star turn is that the rest of the roster hasn’t delivered on its promise. Though it fell short of the playoffs a year ago, Toronto’s underlying stats suggested it was nearly a 100-win caliber ballclub in disguise. Considering the Jays had one of the youngest lineups in MLB, a prospect class ranked No. 4 according to Baseball America, a payload of offseason pickups and a long-awaited return to playing home games in Toronto for a full season, it seemed like a no-brainer that they would improve — perhaps dramatically — on their performance from 2021. But instead, the Jays have held steady at best. While their winning percentage is roughly the same as it was last season, their runs-per-game differential and WAR per game are both down significantly from 2021, with each of their top six players (and eight of their top 10) by 2021 WAR playing worse so far in 2022.

Most of the Blue Jays’ stars are dimmer in 2022

Difference in wins above replacement per 162 games in 2022 versus 2021, for the 10 best Toronto Blue Jays by 2021 WAR

Player Age Position Newcomer? 2021 Season 2022 Season Diff.
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. 23 1B 6.6 4.1 -2.5
Bo Bichette 24 SS 5.5 2.4 -3.1
Kevin Gausman 31 P 5.4 4.9 -0.5
Teoscar Hernandez 29 RF 4.0 2.0 -2.0
Jose Berrios 28 P 3.8 -0.9 -4.7
Matt Chapman 29 3B 3.8 2.9 -0.9
Alek Manoah 24 P 2.6 6.2 +3.6
George Springer 32 CF 2.4 4.6 +2.3
Hyun Jin Ryu 35 P 2.3 -0.1 -2.5
Lourdes Gurriel Jr. 28 LF 2.2 1.8 -0.5

Sources: Baseball-Reference.com, FanGraphs

But along with young starting pitcher Alek Manoah, whose breakout has seen him rise to No. 5 in pitching WAR this season, Kirk has picked up the slack for Toronto, helping the club overcome its mainstays’ underperformance by surpassing all expectations himself.

Some of that is merely a function of Kirk not having played enough to warrant much of a baseline for projection: After making his MLB debut more than halfway through the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, Kirk had just 69 games and 1.0 WAR to his name heading into 2022. And it wasn’t clear Kirk would carve out more of a role on this year’s Blue Jays, either, with incumbent catchers Reese McGuire and Danny Jansen blocking his path as spring training began and legitimate questions about whether Kirk was good enough defensively to earn regular reps behind the plate. Although his bat was regarded as an asset, a career weighted runs created plus (wRC+) of 113 through 2021 pegged Kirk as a fairly average DH as well, on a team with no shortage of players who need to rotate in and out of that position.

However, Kirk has forced Toronto to make room for him — and then some. He already has more plate appearances this season (246) than in his entire career before 2022 (214), and he’s on pace to set a new full-season career high in wRC+ with a 163 mark (a ridiculously good number for a catcher) while also erasing any doubts about his defense behind the dish. According to MLB’s Statcast data, only three other catchers — Jose Trevino of the New York Yankees, Jonah Heim of the Texas Rangers and Sean Murphy of the Oakland A’s — have framed strikes for their pitchers better this season than Kirk. Add everything up, and Kirk has already been worth 3.1 WAR this year, which ranks 13th among all position players and first among regular catchers. (Willson Contreras of the Chicago Cubs is second among catchers, and 15th overall.)

Kirk has been among baseball’s best players in 2022

MLB position players with the most wins above replacement (WAR) in 2022

Player Team Position wRC+ Def. Runs* WAR
Manny Machado Padres 3B 162 +4 4.10
Paul Goldschmidt Cardinals 1B 194 -3 4.08
Mike Trout Angels CF 188 +2 4.04
Tommy Edman Cardinals 2B 114 +12 3.99
Rafael Devers Red Sox 3B 172 -1 3.96
Aaron Judge Yankees CF 174 +1 3.81
Jose Ramirez Guardians 3B 173 -2 3.68
Yordan Álvarez Astros DH 203 +1 3.63
Nolan Arenado Cardinals 3B 135 +9 3.46
Xander Bogaerts Red Sox SS 145 +2 3.24
Kyle Tucker Astros RF 143 +10 3.23
Dansby Swanson Braves SS 131 +3 3.12
Alejandro Kirk Blue Jays C 163 +5 3.10
Mookie Betts Dodgers RF 147 +6 3.04
Willson Contreras Cubs C 156 -2 3.03

*Relative to position average, based on an average of Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs’ fielding metrics.

WAR is based on JEFFBAGWELL — the Joint Estimate Featuring FanGraphs and B-R Aggregated to Generate WAR, Equally Leveling Lists.

Sources: Baseball-Reference.com, FanGraphs

And the way Kirk has earned his place near the top of that list is unique, to say the least.

Listed perhaps generously at 5-foot-8 and 245 pounds, Kirk doesn’t have the physique of towering teammates like Springer (6-foot-3) or Lourdes Gurriel Jr. (6-foot-4). And in a certain sense, he hits like we might expect, based on the historical performances of other pint-sized players. This season, Kirk is one of just eight players who has qualified for the batting title with more walks than strikeouts, a hallmark of hitters with superb plate discipline and eye-hand coordination. But Kirk has far more power than many players in that diminutive club from the recent past. 

Kirk’s isolated slugging is 30 percent better than league average this season, making him one of only three qualified batters — along with Juan Soto of the Washington Nationals and fellow tiny slugger José Ramírez of the Cleveland Guardians — to have an isolated power at least 30 percent higher than average, a walk rate at least 30 percent higher than average and a strikeout rate at least 30 percent lower than average. And while Ramírez doesn’t hit many line drives and is known for pulling the ball, Kirk has ascended as a line-drive masher and one of baseball’s biggest threats to hit to the opposite field, where power is harder to come by.

Kirk will never be confused with a five-tool player. His Statcast sprint speed is slower than 94 percent of MLB players, and his arm strength is nothing special by catcher standards. He’ll also never be confused for Mike Piazza, Salvador Perez, Carlton Fisk — or any of the classic hulking, power-hitting catchers from baseball history. Kirk doesn’t have many natural comparison points, and that is part of what makes him special.

Regardless of how Kirk gets the job done, the Blue Jays are here for it. Though they are tied for a distant second place in the AL East with the Boston Red Sox, 12½ games behind the streaking, historic Yankees, our Elo forecast model gives Toronto an 87 percent chance to make the playoffs and a 5 percent shot at the World Series. That’s not too bad, considering that their headline stars have been a mixed bag so far. Maybe some of those big names can use the season’s second half to reclaim form that made us so enamored with Toronto in the first place. But until then, the Blue Jays will keep relying on Kirk’s quirky production to keep them right in the thick of the playoff race.

Check out our latest MLB predictions.

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