Taking Jansen's injury 'minute by minute,' Blue Jays need more from Kirk
ST. PETERSBURG -- Losing to the undefeated Shane McClanahan isn’t exactly newsworthy. It happens to everyone. But losing Danny Jansen is another story.
Jansen left Wednesday’s 7-3 loss to the Rays at Tropicana Field with left groin tightness after running out a ground ball in the fifth inning, and while manager John Schneider said this was a precautionary move to try to get ahead of it, it’s a worrying turn for a Blue Jays roster that has been among MLB’s healthiest up to this point.
“We’ll see. We’ll see how the night unfolds and how tomorrow goes,” Schneider said. “We’re taking it literally minute by minute right now.”
Alejandro Kirk was already scheduled to catch Alek Manoah in Thursday’s finale, reuniting the usual battery after the Blue Jays gave Manoah a fresh look with Jansen last week. There’s no true starter in this talented tandem, but Jansen was clearly beginning to emerge as the ‘1A’ catcher with a hot stretch at the plate and a solid handle on the rotation.
However Jansen is valued publicly, you’d need to triple that to capture how highly he’s valued by the Blue Jays internally.
In a perfect world, Toronto would have 24 hours to see how Jansen feels when he wakes up, but Thursday’s 1:10 p.m. ET finale creates a quick turnaround. If this were an infielder, the Blue Jays could drag it out for a day or two, but two healthy catchers is non-negotiable. The club has Tyler Heineman on the 40-man roster, giving him the obvious edge, or veteran Rob Brantly in Triple-A, who impressed the organization in Spring Training.
Regardless of the timeframe the Blue Jays are looking at here, they’ll need more from Kirk.
We’ve seen a different version of Kirk this season, and not an improved one. The 2022 All-Star starter still has an exceptional plate approach, with more walks (19) than strikeouts (18), but he’s not producing as much power, and he is hitting more balls on the ground. For one of the slowest runners in the league, that’s a dangerous recipe.
“Kirk is so unique, because he has a really good command of the strike zone and can handle a lot of different pitches,” Schneider said. “I think a part of this is the league saying, ‘OK, we’re going to throw it here with a purpose.’ That’s part of the adjustment period for a young hitter. He’s been so good for us and we’re never going to ignore that. He has the ability to continue to be that good for us. It’s just about getting back to swinging at the right pitch.”
Kirk’s average exit velocity is down 4.2 mph this season, from 90.5 to 86.3. That’s on the low end of the MLB spectrum, and it makes it far less likely that Kirk will be able to sneak some of these ground balls through the infield for singles.
Last season, Kirk’s average launch angle was 8.1 degrees. It’s plummeted to just 1.6 degrees in 2023. Among the 323 batters who have made at least 50 plate appearances this season, that ranks Kirk at 318th. Beating the ball into the ground simply isn’t going to work for a player with Kirk’s speed, and when he does happen to make hard contact, it needs some air under it.
Kirk at his best is one of the most unique hitters in the league, a contact machine who hits enough to cover up for his lack of value on the bases. His bat should fit perfectly within the brand of baseball the Blue Jays are trying to play, particularly when he’s hitting with runners in scoring position, but that hasn’t lined up yet.
A slower start through April was understandable to an extent, as Kirk was delayed arriving in Spring Training following the birth of his first child. But the Blue Jays now find themselves at 26-24, last in the American League East after the first 50 games. This is when water tends to find its level, and for Kirk, that has to mean a step back in the right direction by driving the baseball.
A positive diagnosis for Jansen is the ideal outcome here, as his power to the pull side has been one of the rare bright spots over the past couple of weeks, but this catching tandem was always built to weather an injury. Regardless of how Jansen feels when his alarm clock goes off in the morning, the Blue Jays are ready to see more from Kirk.