A five-player trade between the A’s and Rangers in February of 2021 grabbed immediate headlines due to the recognizable names at the top of the deal. Texas sent stalwart shortstop Elvis Andrus to the division-rival A’s in a swap that brought baseball’s most consistent .247-hitting, 40-homer slugging designated hitter, Khris Davis, to Arlington. It was an exchange of players who’d become lineup fixtures but also had seen their respective contract extensions turn sour for their organizations. The Rangers kicked in $13.5MM to make the trade happen. They also sent backup catcher Aramis Garcia to the A’s and received minor league righty Dane Acker and a catching prospect of their own.
Fast forward two years, and that prospect, Jonah Heim, has become a centerpiece of the Rangers’ roster.
Heim’s development certainly wasn’t immediate. A fourth-round pick by the Orioles back in 2013, the now-27-year-old backstop was traded twice — first for Steve Pearce, and second for Joey Wendle — before making his debut seven years later, during the shortened 2020 season. Heim hit .211/.268/.211 in 41 plate appearances as a rookie and was ranked between eighth and fifteenth in Oakland’s system at the time he was traded to Texas.
That shaky age-25 debut could certainly be attributed to a small sample and the general strangeness of the 2020 campaign, but Heim received a heftier 285 plate appearances with the Rangers in 2021 and turned in a dismal .196/.239/.358 batting line. He managed to swat 10 home runs, but Heim rarely walked and even though he struck out at a better-than-average 20.4% clip, he rarely made great contact (87.1 mph average exit velocity, 37.3% hard-hit rate). Defensively, he was excellent, but Heim’s lack of offense made him look like a backup or part-time option behind the dish.
The Rangers seemed to agree, as they entered the 2021-22 offseason in search of catching upgrades and, just after the lockout ended, swung a deal to acquire slugging catcher Mitch Garver from the Twins. Heim started 12 of the Rangers’ first 28 games behind the plate, but an injury to Garver opened up the door for a larger role. Even when Garver returned relatively quickly from a flexor strain, the Rangers kept him at designated hitter. Prospect Sam Huff came up from Triple-A and saw some of the workload at catcher, but Heim’s early performance at the plate and his excellent defense earned him the larger portion of playing time.
From May 9 through season’s end, Heim started 70% of the Rangers’ games behind the plate. He didn’t sustain the torrid .342/.457/.658 line he’d compiled through his first 12 games, of course, but he finished out the year with a .227/.298/.399 batting line and 16 home runs. His walk rate jumped from 5.3% to 9.1%, and he cut his strikeout rate by a percentage point (19.3%). Heim also upped his average exit velocity by more than two miles per hour and increased his hard-hit rate by two percentage points. It was a series of small gains, but when paired with Heim’s defense, it resulted in a highly valuable all-around player. Heim trailed only the Yankees’ Jose Trevino in pitch-framing value, per Statcast, and Defensive Runs Saved (which doesn’t include framing) credited him with a plus-8 mark. Baseball-Reference pegged him at 2.5 wins above replacement. FanGraphs had him at 2.8 WAR.
That’s enough to consider Heim a starting-caliber catcher in and of itself, but the switch-hitter is in the midst of an offensive breakout that’s further elevating his profile in 2023. Through his first 123 trips to the plate, Heim has turned in a ridiculous .318/.382/.555 batting line with six home runs — already 37.5% of the way to his 2022 total despite having accumulated just 27% as many plate appearances.
Heim has undoubtedly benefited from a .354 average on balls in play, but there’s more than just good fortune at play. Heim has upped his contact on pitches in the strike zone from 88% to 90.1%. His average exit velocity has jumped another 2.2 miles per hour, and he’s seemingly made a more concerted effort to elevate the ball. After posting a 40% grounder rate in 2021 and a 39.1% rate in 2022, he’s hitting the ball on the ground in just 29.5% of his plate appearances this season. Heim has improved his launch angle in each of his big league seasons, and he’s nearly doubled last year’s barrel rate. Statcast ranks him in the 94th percentile or better in “expected” batting average, slugging percentage and wOBA.
Whether Heim can sustain that pace is up for debate. He had similarly encouraging batted-ball metrics during last year’s hot start to the season, though that came in a smaller sample of plate appearances by virtue of the fact that he was playing less often. By the time Heim had reached his current number of plate appearances, he was sitting on roughly average exit velocity and hard-hit rates. At the very least, he’s maintained a high-caliber batted-ball profile over nearly double the sample of his hot start in ’22 — and he’s done so while again grading out as a premier defender at his position.
Dating back to the 2021 season, Heim is now a .246/.312/.426 hitter — about 12% better than league-average by measure of wRC+. The league-average catcher hit .226/.295/.367 in 2022 (89 wRC+) and is hitting .242/.314/.389 (94 wRC+) so far in 2023. Heim is comfortably ahead of that pace even if he reverts to a mirror image of his 2022 production for the remainder of the season, and if he can sustain any of his new flyball-oriented approach and hard-contact gains, he’ll cement himself as one of the best catchers in the league.
Heim isn’t even eligible for arbitration yet — that’ll come this offseason — and the Rangers control him all the way through the 2026 season. Three different organizations have felt comfortable trading him to this point in his career, and never in exchange for a marquee player. Heim never ranked among the game’s top 100 prospects and never climbed higher than 13th on any of his four organizations’ top-30 rankings at Baseball America.
Despite that lack of fanfare in the minors, Heim has emerged as an everyday option on an ascendent Rangers club and improbably looks like one of baseball’s best all-around catchers. Texas doesn’t have a catcher in its top-30 prospects at Baseball America or MLB.com right now. They control Heim for another four years, so there’s hardly any urgency to explore an extension, but if he’s willing to sign on for a team-friendly deal right now, it’d be worth looking into the possibility of securing a core piece whose affordable salaries could help balance out the huge sums they’ve paid to their recent free-agent signings.
On that note, critics of the Rangers often like to scoff at the team’s efforts to buy a championship. They spent more than half a billion dollars in the 2021-22 offseason when they signed Corey Seager, Marcus Semien and Jon Gray. They followed up with nearly a quarter-billion more this past offseason when adding Jacob deGrom, Nathan Eovaldi and Andrew Heaney in addition to re-signing Martin Perez (among other, smaller-scale moves).
There’s little denying that a large portion of the team’s core has been acquired via free agency, but that’s only been a piece of the puzzle. They hit the jackpot in simultaneously acquiring Heim and shedding some of the Andrus contract, and they’ve done well to land both breakout slugger Nathaniel Lowe and Brock Burke in separate trades with the Rays over the past four years. The Rangers haven’t drafted well — Josh Jung’s excellent start to the 2023 season notwithstanding. Perhaps that played a role in the team moving on from longtime president of baseball operations Jon Daniels, but several of Daniels’ trade acquisitions have panned out, and Heim’s breakout has been a large part of that.
The title of a nursery rhyme.
deGrom Texas Ranger
He keeps the Texiera trade alive! Similarly, CJ Wilson got the Rangers a comp pick they used on Joey Gallo, who then got Smith, Duran, Otto, and Hauver, who could keep this going a long time. It’s quite amazing to follow along trade lineages.
Jonah’s a whale of a catcher.
I saw what you did there…..
Excellent article. Also, this is the kind of developmental success story that teams need to have to make the jump from perennial also-rans, to perennial contenders. The Rangers organization deserves credit for doing more than writing checks.
Hired Gun 23
I like the writing of this particular article. Alot of stats, personal analysis, trade history and mention of Jonah Heim consistently throughout…
It also kept away from unnecessary hyperbole which many writers use to disguise their writing abilities.
The Rangers take some flak for buying a roster and it’s a bit merited at the moment. The critics typically don’t understand or follow the Ranger’s system well enough to know that there are alot of guys coming through the minors that are going to fill in the gaps on this roster. The plan has always been to buy free agents first and let the young guys come up into a solid veteran core, which I think is kind of a cool appraoch. By the time the Rangers are really chasing a title I expect the roster to be about half and half FA/ developed.
deGrom Texas Ranger
For the upcoming draft, I’m hoping Texas avoids a pitcher or am underslot stunt like they did last year. Sure, Porter and Rocker look good now and were a win, but that’s not ever a certain. My list goes: Crews, Langford, Clark, and Jenkins in that order. I have seen some hitters with Bonds-like OPSs in the minors (higher than even Crews’s) and elite walk to strikeout ratios. I think those guys were Bryce Eldridge and some other guy. Anyways, who do you all think Texas should go for at 4th? Preferences and guesses who will be available?
I don’t know enough about the draft to offer a guess, but it seems like Texas should continue drafting pitchers. They have never really been able to produce enough arms and always end up buying them. Mike Maddux is there to develop a program. I’d keep keep giving him raw materials.
Drafting pitchers high isn’t a good recipe either and some organizations (like Texas) cannot develop them. Houston and Washington built their championship through drafting bats. Bregman Tucker Harper Rendon at the top and filled in the rotation with FA/trade pitchers letting their pitchers develop instead of the need leading to rushing them. Ranger chose Tate instead of Tucker in that draft. They have spent a lot of picks on pitchers with little to show but hopefully they can get something out of the more recent group of pitchers they have drafted high. The lack of draft development over the past 10 years is what cost Daniels his job. Even with Maddux there before they struggled to get production from home grown starting pitchers. Regardless a change was needed and I believe in CY to put in place a team to help develop these pitching prospects.
Nice to see another former Oakland A’s player mashing. A’s GM David Forst is a moron and John Fisher is the biggest disgrace as an owner in the history of SPORTS
Rangers have some good catchers
Why is a trade rumors site writing about a catcher without any regard to him in terms of potential transactions? Stop trying to be Fangraphs. This is unoriginal.
Well hopefully you’ve read enough to know next time , if you see Jonah Heim’s name, he won’t be involved in any transactions.
This isn’t Major league Baseball Whiners Anonymous either, chuckie.
Yeah, .687 OPS in minors which also matches his total MLB OPS. Call me doubtful he sustains anything near this production.