This Is a Jonah Heim Appreciation Post

Jonah Heim
Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports

Through the course of a season, it can be difficult to appreciate catcher defense. The expectation is that catchers will put their body on the line for their team day in and day out. But while they have their opportunities to save runs and steal strikes, no single block, frame, or throw has a significant effect on the season; at best, you’re saving a single run. If you miss a block or don’t get your hand under a low fastball in the shadow zone, you just move on and get the next one. But in a close playoff game, each of those pitches suddenly becomes more important, and along with that, the role of the catcher. These are the times when you get to see a catcher who really controls the game, just like Jonah Heim has.

Heim was one of the best catchers in baseball this year, delivering 4.1 WAR over 131 games. From a defensive perspective, he was the best in baseball regardless of position according to Defensive Runs Above Average, third-best according to Deserved Runs Prevented, and eighth-best according to Statcast’s Fielding Run Value. Visually, the argument is just as compelling. He is smooth in every aspect of the game and easily deserving of the statistical reputation he’s established for himself. He’s showing extreme poise in guiding a staff that’s missing some of its best pitchers, allowing them to take the risks they need to combat a talented Orioles’ lineup.

On Saturday night in the ninth inning of Game 1, Heim had a chance to sway the outcome of the game when Gunnar Henderson got a bit too aggressive on first base. José Leclerc, who has a big leg kick, was on the bump; on his first pitch to Aaron Hicks, Henderson took a big secondary lead. Heim took note and fired over a back pick on the next pitch:

It wasn’t a close play, but it was the type that should make a runner think twice about who he’s messing with behind the plate. Heim doesn’t have one of the best pop times in the league at face value, at 1.97 seconds on average. But pop time alone doesn’t account for throw quality, since accuracy isn’t included. You get a better idea of that when looking at his Caught Stealing Above Average, where he tied for fourth-best in the majors at +5. The smartest catchers take a bit off the throw depending on the situation to have the most accurate delivery.

If the back pick showed anything, it was that Heim had clear control of the running game and was fully confident in whatever would come next. That made Henderson’s next decision even more surprising:

Henderson lost his posture as soon as he took off, which goes against one of the basic rules of accelerating: If you stand straight up, you’re driving momentum in the wrong direction. Whether it was his decision to steal or not, it was shocking to see him keep going after a subpar jump. But let’s get back to the throw. From a one-knee-down stance, Heim executed a perfect weight shift and foot replacement. Moving in that direction can be difficult, but Heim rotated perfectly into his lead leg, allowing him to stay in line with second and deliver an easily received throw to Corey Seager to get Henderson trying to swim around him. That didn’t necessarily close the door, but it sucked the energy out of the stadium by taking the tying run off the bases.

In Game 2, Heim got a chance to show off his other defensive skill: blocking. He had a tough matchup with Jordan Montgomery pitching and Jorge Mateo on third base. Montgomery lives off throwing his curveball (and sometimes changeup) in the dirt. With the extremely aggressive Mateo on third, he had reason to be hesitant about burying a ball low. But with Heim behind the dish, Montgomery had the confidence to do what he needed with his pitches. This pitch to start the at-bat was a miss, but it was one that wouldn’t cost him:

A big part of pitching is knowing where you can miss and not get hurt. Montgomery had faith Heim would do what he had to even if he missed in the dirt.

Two pitches later, in a 1–2 count, Montgomery did the same thing, but this time with his patented loopy curve:

This was another oopsie, bouncing before the plate; Heim had to soften the blow and hope the pitch didn’t skedaddle too far away. He managed to do that and keep Mateo at third. Ryan Mountcastle battled after this pitch but ultimately hit a well-located changeup to Seager to end the inning.

Heim has always had his defensive skills. What made him a reliable everyday guy this year was his bat coming around, particularly from the left side, and though he posted just a 96 wRC+ as a lefty, he showed clear progression from previous years. In the first half of that same inning, he stepped to the plate with runners on first and third. There were two outs, but the Rangers had already plated four in the inning against Grayson Rodriguez. It wasn’t a great matchup for Heim, considering Rodriguez’s high velocity and plus changeup, but he had to force the rookie pitcher to execute. Here is how the at-bat started:

There really wasn’t much Heim could do with this one; 98 mph and slightly off the plate is tough for any hitter to cover. But he saw the big opening on the left side of the infield and thought it might be a perfect pitch to attack. It’s a good approach, especially with an opportunity to drive a runner in; you can’t score guys without swinging.

Rodriguez saw that he had overpowered Heim and went right back to the heater:

Not as good of a location, but Heim wasn’t on time for this and was unable to stay on top of the pitch. His load was happening a bit too slowly.

If you’re not ready for a heater in the heart of the plate, you have to make an adjustment. From the perspective of Rodriguez and Adley Rutschman, going to another pitch would be silly; a curveball or changeup would just speed Heim up. Here’s how the next pitch went:

What a fantastic adjustment. In his previous two swings, Heim’s hand load was taking too long, so when he recognized another heater up and away, he abbreviated his load and shot his barrel right at the ball. Hitters may not have full control of spray angle since it is pitch dependent, but it’s clear that Heim knew he could make this swing on a pitch out of the zone and get rewarded for it with the hole wide open. It may have not been a barrel in the literal sense, but it was a great swing in the context of the at-bat. Hard groundballs at 102.5 mph will play if the field is open like this.

So far in the ALDS, Heim has been a difference maker. There haven’t been any loud homers or barrels into the gap, but he is winning the little battles over and over again. Heading into Game 3 against Dean Kremer, expect the same aggression from Heim. He hits right-handed changeups well, and that’s Kremer’s primary non-fastball pitch against lefties. On the defensive side, it’ll be more of the same. Nathan Eovaldi will have all the confidence he needs to throw his splitter or curveball in the dirt against Baltimore’s talented lefties, because he knows that Heim will have it handled.

Esteban is a contributing writer at FanGraphs. You can also find his work at Pinstripe Alley if you so dare to read about the Yankees. Find him on Twitter @esteerivera42 for endless talk about swing mechanics.

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6 months ago

The block on the changeup in the dirt is ridiculous lateral agility for having a knee in the dirt the whole time

6 months ago
Reply to  ajake57

He’s pushing his whole body weight up enough with just his right leg to make that slide. There’s no leverage for the left leg to help; if anything, it’s dragging and making the move harder. That’s impressive lower body strength and coordination. The fact that he also snags the bounce out of the air with his bare hand is also really slick.