Alejandro Kirk slashed a solid .285/.372/.415 with 14 home runs and a 129 wRC+ last year in his first full big-league season. Moreover, the 24-year-old Toronto Blue Jays catcher drew 63 free passes while going down by way of the K just 58 times. His 10.7% strikeout rate was third best in the junior circuit, behind only Steven Kwan’s 9.4% and Luis Arraez’s 7.1%.
How similar of a hitter is Kirk to Arraez? I asked that question to Blue Jays manager John Schneider prior to Thursday’s game in Dunedin.
“When you talk about contact, not a lot of swing-and-miss, yeah, they’re similar,” replied Schneider. “There’s a little more damage potential with Kirky. But more walks than strikeouts is tough to do at any level, [especially] the big leagues. So, I think when it’s just strike zone command, on-base, and contact-ability, they are pretty similar.”
Arraez, now a member of the Miami Marlins, won the American League batting title with the Minnesota Twins while slashing .316/.375/.420 with eight home runs and a 131 wRC+. Following up on my initial question, I asked Schneider if Kirk has the potential to capture a title of his own.
“Ohh man,” replied Schneider. “I don’t want to pigeonhole anyone into anything, but when you have good command of the strike zone… for one, you have a chance. When you’re putting the ball in play, especially with two strikes — I think he hit close to .290 with two strikes — that’s a good thing. So, yeah man, the sky’s the limit for Kirky.”
Schneider went on to say that other batting-title contenders might have the 5-foot-8, 245-pound catcher beat in the infield-hit category — this despite Kirk’s having had a surprisingly high number (14) of them last year.
“It was over 10,” said Schneider. “We had fun with that in the dugout, but playing the percentages it may not be that every year.”
Matt Strahm picked up some old-school pointers from a longtime Boston backstop last year. Playing with the Red Sox after two seasons in Kansas City and four more in San Diego, the 31-year-old southpaw attained that knowledge courtesy of the club’s Game Planning Coordinator/Catching Coach.
“Jason Varitek was a huge help to me with things like learning how my stuff was effective,” said Strahm, whom the Philadelphia Phillies inked to a free-agent deal in December. “He’s a legend of this game, and he taught me a lot. It was mostly simple things I’d never looked at. An example would be a guy like Jesse Winker; I could never get my fastball by him above the zone. Varitek pointed out that he’s a left-handed thrower that hits left-handed, so he can get to that pitch a lot easier.
“That had me looking at what a hitter’s dominant hand is,” continued the West Fargo, North Dakota native. “If he’s right-handed with a dominant right hand, a fastball up he can probably get to. If he’s left-handed with a dominant left hand, same thing. Conversely, Rafael Devers is really good against the breaking ball down, because he gets to drop his right hand —his dominant hand — on the pitch. And where does he struggle? Fastball up. This isn’t 100% — not all hitters are the same — but Varitek was a switch-hitter, so he knows both sides of the plate, and he was a catcher, so he understands pitching, Again, he taught me a lot.”
Strahm had a 3.83 ERA and a 3.72 FIP in 50 appearances comprising 44-and-two-thirds innings in his lone Red Sox season.
RANDOM HITTER-PITCHER MATCHUPS
Spencer Torkelson will head into the 2023 campaign having done more-challenging hitting drills over the offseason as he looks to rebound from a disappointing 2022. He’ll also be using a different bat. Instead of a 34-inch maple, the Detroit Tigers first baseman will be swinging a 33-and-a-half maple. The switch was influenced by inquiries he made to elite hitters.
“To be honest, last year I would ask everyone on first base what size bat they use,” Torkelson told me following Friday’s game in Clearwater. “Mike Trout and Carlos Correa said ’33-and-a-half,’ and I was like, ‘Well, some of the best players in our game, [including] the best player in the game, swing 33-and-a half, so let’s give it a try.’ I tried it out and loved it. Now I’m swinging the same model, just a half inch shorter.”
Alek Manoah had a good answer when asked earlier this week about his personal goals and expectations for the upcoming season.
“If you don’t go 34-0 with a zero ERA, you have areas to work on and areas to improve,” the Blue Jays right-hander told a small group of reporters. “For me, it’s just continuing to get better each time out there, continuing to mix in all of my pitches, continuing to have a load of confidence in all my pitches, continuing to go out there and compete.”
Manoah went 16-7 with a 2.24 ERA last year. He is 25-9 with a 2.60 ERA over his two big-league seasons.
Mike Piazza manages Italy’s WBC team. Gianmarco Faraone is the program’s coordinator, and I took the opportunity to ask him about baseball in the European nation during December’s Winter Meetings.
“The sport is extremely popular in the central north of the country, and we’re working on bringing that through the entire country,” said Faraone, who was born in Italy and played high school baseball in Toronto before moving back to his homeland a few years ago. “There is a lot of history with how American soldiers landed in Italy during WWII and spread the game of baseball.”
Faraone went on to explain that Italy’s professional league has 32 teams in the top division, with each having a roster of 20 players. Similar to soccer, the teams all have developmental programs, which begin at age 8. The players move up the ranks within the system, and once they reach a certain age they can be sold to other teams (as is the case in European soccer). Asked about notable amateurs on Italy’s U-18 Baseball World Cup National Team, Faraone cited shortstop Edoardo Cornelli and pitcher Matteo Marelli. The top player in Italy’s professional league is currently 28-year-old catcher Alberto Mineo, who has played in the Blue Jays and Cubs organizations. Mineo is on the roster of Italy’s WBC team.
The single-season record for saves by a right-handed pitcher is held by Francisco Rodriguez (62 in 2008). Who holds the single-season record for saves by a left-handed pitcher?
The answer can be found below.
Blaine Hardy has been named the new baseball coach at Central Lakes College, in Brainerd, Minnesota (of “Fargo” fame!). Hardy pitched in 233 games for the Detroit Tigers from 2014-2019, and in one game for the Milwaukee Brewers in 2021.
Albie Pearson, who played for the California/Los Angeles Angels, Washington Senators, and Baltimore Orioles in a career that spanned the 1958-1966 seasons, died late last month at age 88. A left-handed-hitting outfielder who stood just 5-foot-5, Pearson captured Rookie of the Year honors with the Senators in 1958, and was an All-Star with the Angels in 1963.
The answer to the quiz is Randy Myers, with 53 saves in 1993.
The Kansas City Royals took Gavin Cross and Cayden Wallace with their first two picks of last year’s draft. I recently asked Cross, a 22-year-old outfielder out of Virginia Tech, for a snapshot scouting report on the 21-year-old third baseman out of the University of Arkansas.
“First of all, he’s a great guy,” Cross said of Wallace. “As far as baseball, he’s a strong country guy from [Little Rock] Arkansas who has really good hand-eye coordination and hits the ball hard. He’s got a great arm. I haven’t played with him a ton, but he’s always level-headed and even-keeled. There’s a reason he got drafted.”
Who has more juice in his bat, the first-rounder or the second-rounder?
“I think we’re pretty similar,” said Cross. whom the Royals drafted ninth overall. “He might have had me in [instructional league]. When we were there, he hit a home run at 112 or 113 [mph]. My max is around that bar, 110 or 111. I did hit more home runs in [Low-A] Columbia, but pound for pound, hardest-hit ball, he probably has me.”
Cross slashed .293/.423/.596 with seven home runs in 123 plate appearances with Columbia. Wallace slashed .294/.369/.468 with two home runs in 122 plate appearances.
“Bryan Shaw’s pitches move really late in different directions,” the veteran backstop said of the 35-year-old reliever. “That makes him more challenging to catch because the ball isn’t necessarily doing the same thing every time. He’s got a cutting fastball and it’s going to cut in different ways. It will also range between 90 and 97, and that will change the pitch characteristics.”
Hedges signed with the Pittsburgh Pirates in December. Shaw was inked to a minor-league deal by the Chicago White Sox late last month.
Sticking with quotes from last season’s notebook, I asked Los Angeles Angels GM Perry Minasian about his philosophy on promoting young players to the big leagues, including those with limited experience at the highest levels of the minors.
“I guess the question would be, ‘What entails being ready?’” replied Minasian. “We don’t have any set standards for at-bats, innings, or anything like that. It’s more the individual person and where they’re at mentally, physically, and emotionally. We break down the player in all those facets and decide where they’re best suited for. I don’t believe in black and white when it comes to at bats or innings.”
According to Minasian, the Angels are amenable to double-jumping players to the big leagues.
“We’ve done it,” the GM told me. “We promoted Chase Silseth from Double-A earlier this year, so it’s certainly not something that’s out of the question. There are a lot of reasons to experience Triple-A, but again, it goes down to the individual player and where he’s at developmentally. Of course, there is also where you’re at as a club.”
A record-setting total of 303 players made their MLB debuts last year, with the Oakland A’s (19) accounting for the most, followed by the Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Guardians with 17 apiece. The players getting their first taste of big-league action included 46 former first-rounders, 11 non-drafted free agents, and 70 international free agents. A dozen countries were represented, led by the United States (223) and the Dominican Republic (33). California (49) and Florida (25) were tops among U.S. states.
These facts, and much more — including bios and stats for all 303 players — can be found in James Bailey’s new book, Major League Debuts 2023. (Please support your independent local bookseller.)
LINKS YOU’LL LIKE
Twinkie Town’s John Foley wrote about the relationship between pitch tempo and defense.
Purple Row’s Joelle Milholm wrote about women trailblazers in baseball and other sports.
RANDOM FACTS AND STATS
Zack Greinke had a 76 ERA+ in 2005, his second big-league season. The 39-year-old right-hander has had an ERA+ of 100 or better every season since. His career mark is 123.
Greinke has allowed the most hits (1,567) over the past 10 season. Kyle Gibson has allowed the most runs (806).
All seven members of the 1936 New York Yankees who had 400 or more plate appearances finished the season with at least 100 runs scored or 100 RBIs. Joe DiMaggio and Lou Gehrig reached triple digits in both categories, with Gehrig’s 167 runs and 152 RBIs representing the top total for each.
The Seattle Mariners signed Gaylord Perry on today’s date in 1982. The 43-year-old right-hander proceeded to go 10-12 with a 4.40 ERA over 216-and-two-thirds innings in what was his penultimate big-league season.
The National League’s Indianapolis Hoosiers purchased Pretzels Getzien from the Detroit Wolverines on today’s date in 1889. The German-born right-hander had his best season in 1886 when he and Wolverines teammate Lady Baldwin went a combined 72-24 with 97 complete games.
Players born on today’s date include Mike Hessman, who homered 462 times in a professional career that spanned the 1996-2015 seasons. Hessman — now a hitting coach in the Detroit Tigers organization — hit 14 home runs in MLB, 14 in NPB, one in the Venezuelan Winter League, and 433 in the minors.
Also born on today’s date was Skin Down Robinson — given name Walter Kenneth Robinson — who played in the Negro Leagues from 1938-1943. An infielder from Fernandina Beach, Florida, he saw action with the Cleveland Bears, Jacksonville Red Caps, and New York Black Yankees.