ARLINGTON, Texas (AP) — Jonah Heim had played only 13 big league games before he was traded for the third time, a multiplayer deal that brought the switch-hitting catcher to the Texas Rangers in exchange for their longtime starting shortstop and last remaining piece of their first two World Series teams.
Heim was previously dealt twice in a 16-month span as a minor leaguer even before his MLB debut, for a journeyman first baseman-outfielder who went on to become a World Series MVP, and later an infielder who also played in a Fall Classic and became an All-Star.
While Heim wasn’t the primary figure in any of those deals, including the one when he came with veteran slugger Khris Davis from Oakland to Texas right before spring training in 2021, he became an AL All-Star starter this season and is now behind the plate for the Rangers against Arizona in their first World Series since Elvis Andrus was the young shortstop for their only other Fall Classic appearances in 2010 and 2011.
“Coming here was probably the best thing that ever happened in my career,” the 28-year-old Heim said.
“We know he’s a great offensive player, but I think as a catcher he’s really improved his game,” veteran closer Jose Leclerc said through a translator. “We’ve improved as well working with him, so I think it’s something that we both have to learn from each other. … I think it’s just something that’s going to keep getting better over time.”
Jose Trevino and Heim split time behind the plate in 2021, and the Rangers acquired Mitch Garver the following spring with the anticipation of him being the primary starter. Trevino was then traded to the New York Yankees, where he debuted with an All-Star season.
But Garver had a torn flexor tendon in his throwing arm in 2022, started only 14 games at catcher and was limited mostly to being a designated hitter before season-ending surgery that July. Heim was the starting catcher for 102 of his 127 games, and completely spent by the end of the season after that unexpected heavy workload.
“Last year was definitely a learning experience,” Heim said. “Never experienced a grueling 162 (game) grind like that, and getting to play every day on top of that.”
Heim was ready for it this season, when Garver missed 47 games after getting sidelined early with a sprained left knee. Heim started 116 games at catcher in the regular season, playing 41 of the last 45 after returning Aug. 13 from being on the injured list with a left wrist tendon strain. He has started every game this postseason with Garver in a DH role.
“I feel great. I had three weeks off, not by choice, but got the body right,” he said. “And adrenaline is a powerful drug.”
Pitching coach Mike Maddux has called Heim the unsung hero of this postseason run for the wild-card Rangers, with the catcher engaged in every pitch and all the daily advance game-planning.
“Watching Jonah grow this year has been great and I think as it’s come down where he’s caught every game now, he’s getting better and better and better,” Maddux said. “He has stepped up his game and he’s taking full responsibility back there. He’s not the loudest guy in the world, needless to say. But his heart’s big and he gives a damn.”
Rangers right-hander Jon Gray said Heim, a Gold Glove finalist who has gained quite a reputation for framing pitches, has always handled things like a veteran.
“I feel like he’s felt like an older guy the whole time I’ve been here,” Gray said. “But it’s only gotten better too, like he steals a lot of strikes. … He’s done a great job and obviously hitting, he’s been putting up crazy numbers. So, I mean, not a whole lot more you can ask for.”
In addition to working with the pitchers, Heim hit .259 with 18 homers and 95 RBIs in the regular season. His 91 RBIs in games when he was also behind the plate were the most in a single season for any Texas catcher other than Hall of Famer Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez.
Heim was about three weeks shy of his 18th birthday when the Baltimore Orioles drafted the lanky 6-foot-4 catcher in the fourth round of MLB’s 2013 amateur draft out of Amherst Central High School in the Buffalo area.
The Orioles traded him to Tampa Bay for Steve Pearce at the deadline in 2016, two years before Pearce had three homers and eight RBIs for Boston when they beat the Los Angeles Dodgers in five games to win the World Series. The Rays sent Heim to Oakland after the 2017 season for Joey Wendle, who played in their 2020 Fall Classic and was an All-Star the following season.
When the Andrus deal took him to Texas, Heim landed in a state he had always loved. He had spent a little time there growing up since his dad was in the military.
“Growing up, like UT (Texas baseball) was always on ESPN,” Heim said. “I just always thought Texas was something bigger than just the state. … A lot of military bases around here and it’s a big military state. So we spent maybe a month or two here, just my dad stationed here, and just kind of fell in love with it.”
And the Rangers have certainly fallen in love with Heim.
AP MLB: https://apnews.com/hub/mlb