It is the month when cult heroes enter the mainstream, when glue guys show a far wider audience just how indispensable they are, and beloved players are showered with even more adoration.
Major League Baseball’s playoffs are marketed as a platform for the stars, hype videos of the same recognizable names seemingly on a loop from September through October. Yet more often than we realize, it is a different tier of player that takes to October, a time when underappreciated skills gain value and local favorites gain a wider appreciation.
Players like Alejandro Kirk.
“He’s the best. He’s the man,” Blue Jays outfielder George Springer says of Kirk, the club’s catcher and designated hitter. “His smile is something everybody loves and he likes to have fun.
“I’m extremely happy to have him here and have him be who he is as a person.”
And who he is as a hitter.
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October often shines brightest on those who make contact, who swing not for the fences but with purpose. Kirk, who has struck out just 57 times in 468 at-bats, might be the perfect playoff concoction for a Jays team with plenty of muscle and star power.
As MLB’s four wild card series commence Friday, a look at one X-factor from each best-of-three series:
Alejandro Kirk: ‘Everyone roots for him’
At 5-8, 245 pounds, Kirk might better resemble the gritty lineman on your high school football team. But baseball is welcoming of all shapes and sizes – especially when Kirk’s skill set enters the equation.
While he won’t break many of the sexier Statcast metrics, the Blue Jays revere him for an ability to put the ball in play – he’s in the 98th percentile with a 10.6% strikeout percentage – and receive behind the plate. He ranks in the 94th percentile for pitch framing, and his ability to, ahem, pilfer strikes is a large reason why he’ll be behind the plate when Alek Manoah starts Game 1 of their wild card series against the Seattle Mariners.
“He really works at that and knows that’s going to be his thing catching – his framing, stealing strikes,” says Blue Jays right-hander Kevin Gausman, who likely will start Game 2. “ What he’s done at the plate – as I watch pitchers try to find his weakness as the season goes on – there’s really not one. He can hit the high ball really well for a short guy, he can hit the low ball well, he’s an exceptional off-speed hitter.
“Just a tough at-bat, never strikes out. You feel anytime guys are on base, he’s going to put the ball in play.”
Kirk ranks eighth in the AL with a .357 on-base percentage, has hit 14 home runs and his .790 OPS gives him a 127 adjusted mark through Tuesday. It is not elite production, but it’s very good for a catcher and, as evidenced by his 51 appearances at DH, exactly the lineup presence the Blue Jays need behind sluggers like Springer, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette.
Springer says Kirk has elite barrel control and an uncanny ability to do what hitters often profess but rarely execute – hit the ball where it’s pitched.
“If you put the ball in play, anything can happen,” Kirk says through club interpreter Hector “Tito” Lebron. . “That’s my mentality all the time – having those three guys in front of me, moving them over or trying to get some RBIs for the team.”
It isn’t a glamorous life, which is one way Kirk was easily overshadowed when he caught the gregarious, mic’d-up Manoah during the All-Star Game. But he’s beloved in Toronto, particularly after scoring from first on a double last month, prompting interim manager John Schneider to call that scenario “the most exciting play in sports.”
Kirk senses the love.
“it feels good. I’m very grateful for all the support, not just for myself but all the support they have for the whole team,” he says. “That’s what we’re there for. We’re going to continue to go out and play hard for the fans.”
Including those in his own clubhouse.
“He’s a guy,” says Gausman, “everybody roots for.”
Others to keep an eye on in this best-of-three round:
Steven Kwan, Guardians: OBP machine
Oh, you want a guy that can hit? Nobody in the majors has more hits since the All-Star break than Kwan’s 90, and he has a pair of 18-game on-base streaks this season. The Tampa Bay Rays’ No. 1 mission this series might be to keep the likely Rookie of the Year finalist off the basepaths.
Luis Guillorme, Mets: Quietly essential
It’s odd, this narrative that the Mets won 101 games yet somehow “collapsed” to hand the NL East title to Atlanta. Besides, their most impactful swoon might not have been their final three games against the Braves but rather the stretch they endured without infielder Luis Guillorme. New York was 75-40 and held a 5 ½ game lead on Atlanta when Guillorme landed on the injured list with a groin strain. By the time he was back in the lineup Sept. 12, the Mets’ lead was down to 1 ½ games after a 14-13 stretch with Guillorme on the shelf.
Like Kirk, Guillorme is a contact machine, striking out just 46 times in 335 plate appearances, and his .351 OBP gives the Mets six regulars with OBPs between .347 and .397. Aces Jacob deGrom and Max Scherzer may overpower the visiting San Diego Padres in their wild-card series. Guillorme and Co. may wear them out on the other end.
Bryson Stott, Phillies: Day care king
The Phillies are mostly a gaggle of salty veterans – think Bryce Harper, Nick Castellanos, Rhys Hoskins – but they would not have broken their 11-year postseason drought without an infusion of young talent affectionately known as the Day Care. Stott, who turned 25 on Thursday, might be the most important, forming a solid double-play combo with veteran second baseman Jean Segura.
He also handles the bat extremely well out of the No. 9 hole, serving as a de facto leadoff man in front of slugger Kyle Schwarber, and has a .735 second-half OPS after a .561 first-half mark. Stott’s longest season of his life will continue with Philly’s best-of-three series at St. Louis.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: MLB wild card: Blue Jays' Alejandro Kirk an X-factor in playoff series