Heim goes from backup to frontline catcher

May 3rd, 2023

This story was excerpted from Kennedi Landry’s Rangers Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

ARLINGTON -- A catcher’s job, as describes it, is mostly about “catching the ball and throwing it back.” Which is a simplistic, but understandable, way to describe the position.

It’s more than that, no doubt, but Heim finds a way to simplify everything he does on the baseball field, whether that is on the defensive end or at the plate.

The scouting report on Heim when the Rangers traded for him ahead of the 2021 season was that he was a defense-first catcher who competed for reps as a backup. In the two years since, he’s done nothing but prove himself to be a frontline starting catcher.

“This guy does a terrific job behind the plate,” manager Bruce Bochy said. “Metrics show that he's a good framer, good catcher, good blocker and a good thrower. He’s hitting over .300 now with power that keeps on both sides of the plate. He’s emerging as one of the better catchers in the game. That's how good I think he is.”

The defense for Heim has come as advertised, especially when it comes to pitch framing. He leads all MLB catchers in Baseball Savant’s pitch-framing metrics, but he’s also been good with both blocking and throwing out runners this season.

And if you ask catching coordinator Bobby Wilson, it was Heim’s defensive abilities that afforded him the time to figure things out offensively.

“When you look at being a catcher, your most important part is to catch the ball and throw back and work with the pitchers,” Heim said. “So any extra bonus to that is doing well at the plate. Obviously, I haven't always been an offensive catcher and a lot of work has gone into it. I can't thank the hitting coaches enough for working with me on that. There’s still a lot of work to be done every day and I’m just trying to get better. We'll go from there.”

Heim’s offense has gotten progressively better each season. In 2021, he hit just .196/.239/.358 in 82 games. In ‘22, he bumped the slash line up to .227/.298/.399 while starting 129 games. Through 28 games this season, he’s been on another level, batting .303 with a .978 OPS.

Entering Tuesday’s game against the D-backs, he ranked among the AL leaders in slugging (third, .592), OPS (fifth, .978), RBIs (sixth, 22) and on-base percentage (seventh, .386). His five homers are the second most among AL catchers, behind Oakland’s with six.

“Offensively and defensively, he does it all,” Wilson said. “He handles the pitching staff, he’s everything you can ask for from that position. He's doing all of it at a really, really high level so, it's still early, it's gonna have to last the entire season, obviously, but we’re trying to take care of him, too, and making sure he takes care of himself, physically.”

For Wilson, it’s been a “dream come true” to have a guy like Heim commanding the infield and pitching staff day after day for the Rangers. It’s meant even more to see him put it all together to be a true all-around catcher.

The talent was always there. After all, he was the A’s No. 9-ranked prospect, per MLB Pipeline, at the time of the trade to the Rangers. The bat-to-ball skills were there and all the upside as a switch hitter was there in the eyes of the coaching staff. The challenge became unlocking all that potential and translating it on the field.

Last season, Heim worked with hitting coaches Donnie Ecker and Tim Hyers, making small adjustments to his stride and stance in order to build more power, consistency and freedom in his swing. This year, it’s been more about keeping everything simple, trying not to overthink and trusting in his swing in every plate appearance.

Hyers emphasized a few points that contributed to Heim’s early success at the plate.

“He’s still a young player coming into his own,” Hyers said. “I think last year, navigating and playing every single day behind the plate was really difficult and he’s learned how to manage his body better this year coming into the season. That's number one. 

“And number two is body control and how he loads his body to hit has been a lot more consistent this year. He's a long-limb guy with long levers and sometimes you can get out of sequence and that affects how you make contact with the ball. I think he's got a really good loading pattern right now, it’s very consistent.” 

Heim’s development may not be the main driving force in the Rangers’ early success this season, but it’s no doubt been a sign of what this team can be as a whole. His well-roundedness and ability to command a pitching staff while also contributing offensively will no doubt be important for Texas.  

“Him taking a leadership stand and a leadership role in the club is probably the biggest thing that I feel like we've, as an organization, developed him into,” Wilson said. “He’s not just somebody who goes back there and catches the ball, but somebody that truly leads the staff and leads the team. He sets an example about how we want to play the game. I think that's the thing I'm most proud of, the true leadership qualities, skills that he's acquired over the past three years here.”