Tampa Bay’s New Center Fielder of the Future

Kevin Kiermaier debuted for the Tampa Bay Rays in 2013. Here were his end-of-season numbers:

G GS PA AVG OBP SLG wOBA WAR
Kiermaier 1 0 0 .000 .000 .000 .000 0.0

The Rays added Kiermaier to their 40-man roster on September 30 last season for their Game 163 tiebreaker against the Texas Rangers. Kiermaier debuted in the ninth inning when Joe Maddon subbed him in as a defensive replacement in center field, and as a result Kiermaier earned a spot on the Rays postseason roster for their Wild Card game against the Indians. An unusual debut, to say the least, but not surprising given what was thought of Kiermaier at the time.

Rays General Manager Andrew Friedman called Kiermaier the best defensive player in their organization at any level at the time of his callup last season. MLB.com’s Bernie Pleskoff, a former professional scout, called Kiermaier an “outstanding defender” and went on to say that Kiermaier could win multiple Gold Gloves.

It was always thought that Kiermaier had a future as an MLB player, probably as a fourth or fifth outfielder who mostly served as a late-inning defensive replacement or pinch runner. Now, Kiermaier has the highest WAR on the team projected to be best in the AL East, and he’s done it in less than half as much playing time as anyone else.

Kevin Kiermaier received his first major league start on April 12 this season against the Cincinnati Reds after being called up two days prior. He started in center field, hit ninth and wasted no time living up to his reputation.

kk0

You could certainly argue that Joey Votto and the Reds got overaggressive early in the game with no outs, and they certainly did. You also have to credit Kiermaier for making Votto’s decision look way worse than it actually was. He closes on the ball about as fast as one could and delivers a low-arching, one-hop laser right to the catcher to get Votto in embarrassing fashion. He went 0-for-4 in this game, giving him a career wRC+ of -100. The Rays optioned him back to Triple-A after the game.

One month later, the Rays called Kiermaier back up to the big leagues. He’s been on the team ever since.

kk1

There’s Kiermaier, in his third game, doing his best Mike Trout impression on May 18 against Trout’s team, the Angels to rob Erick Aybar of extra bases. Kiermaier also hit his first major league home run in this game, giving him a 75 wRC+.

kk2

This came a little less than a month later, on June 18. It’s also one of my favorite plays I’ve ever seen. I mean, really? In the NFL, there’s a thing called an “Unnatural Football Act, Uncommon to the Game.” This refers to a penalty in which a defensive lineman attempts to draw the offensive line offsides. Regardless of the differences in definition, I’d like to refer to this as an “Unnatural Baseball Act, Uncommon to the Game”:

Screen Shot 2014-07-23 at 1.38.18 AM

After this game, Kiermaier’s 18th, he owned a 208 wRC+.

kk3

This happened a little over a week later, on June 20, in his 26th game. Kiermaier had hit a home run the night before. His wRC+ sat at 169.

The following game:

kk4

This is one of those plays where an elite athletic talent makes a very difficult task look way too easy to the untrained eye. Because Kiermaier didn’t need to fully extend to make the play, it’s easy to think it might have been somewhat routine. But what makes this play remarkable is Kiermaier’s jump. The Rays broadcasters immediately picked up on this and noted that, while Kiermaier might not be the fastest guy on the team, they guaranteed he was the quickest in reaching his top speed, and that there might not be anyone better at reaching top speed in the entire MLB. In the GIF, you never see Kiermaier running at anything other than top speed.

From Pleskoff’s aforementioned scouting report:

“Kiermaier’s instincts are outstanding, and he seems to know where the ball is at all times, taking good routes and covering ground quickly with his outstanding speed.”

From Kiermaier himself:

“[Defense] is something that can carry me to the big leagues because they know that I can play [it] at the highest level. And you know, I have the speed and the arm, but it’s my instincts that separate me from others.”

Kiermaier had an RBI double in this game and later scored, maintaining his 169 wRC+. Fast forward another month and Kiermaier’s wRC+ is still 160, highest on the team. It’s not entirely surprising that Kiermaier has been doing the things shown above. It is surprising the way he’s hitting.

Well, maybe.

The power is surprising. We’ll say that much. Kiermaier already has eight home runs after never having hit more than six in any one season in the minor leagues. At the same time, he had already hit three in just 134 Triple-A plate appearances prior to being called up, so you could kind of see this in the works. It also sounds like Kiermaier has made a mechanical adjustment that could lend itself to some more power. Kiermaier says he used to be a home run hitter in college, but ditched a leg kick in his swing once he reached the pro level and was groomed to be a leadoff hitter. Now, the leg kick is back and so is the power:

“This whole year, I was backspinning balls all the time like earlier in my career,” Kiermaier said. “I’d hit balls good every now and then, but ever since I’ve gone back to this leg kick, it has helped me out a ton. That’s the thing–I’ve always had the power to hit home runs.”

Kiermaier’s HR/FB ratio is currently at 19.5%. That’s certainly not sustainable. But dig into his average fly ball distance and the power surge starts to seem a little less fluky. Kiermaier’s average fly ball is traveling 295 feet. To put that into context, that’s the same average distance as that of Troy Tulowitzki and higher than Mike Trout.

There’s also this: Kiermaier has always ran higher isolated slugging percentages than his home run totals would suggest due to the way he plays the game. Kiermaier turns routine singles into doubles and doubles into triples as well as anyone.

kko1

Last season, between Double-A and Triple-A, Kiermaier racked up 21 doubles and 15 triples in a little over 500 plate appearances. The year before, 13 doubles and eight triples in just 300 plate appearances.

“Anytime I hit that gap, my doubles and triples are never too far apart because anytime I hit that gap, I’m thinking three right out of the box,” Kiermaier said. “I get a lot of hustle doubles too, catching the outfielders sleeping and taking an extra base.”

What’s interesting is that most guys who see a spike in home run production are said to be “turning their doubles into homers,” essentially trading them off. That’s not the case for Kiermaier, who turns his singles into doubles. He can maintain a similar rate of doubles and triples that he posted in the minor leagues while still hitting home runs because of the way he goes about getting his extra bases. His .251 ISO won’t last, but this doesn’t seem like a guy incapable of posting league-average power numbers, albeit in a unique fashion.

There’s also the .349 BABIP that’s likely due for some regression, but given Kiermaier’s speed, hustle and line drive ability, there might not be as much regresion in store as one might expect, just like his power. Last season, Kiermaier ran a .346 BABIP over 500 PA. The year before that, .331.

Add all this up and you’ve got a guy that ZiPS projects to be a true-talent league average hitter, after being projected for just an 80 wRC+ to begin the year. A league average hitter with the kind of defense and speed that Kiermaier has is a very useful everyday starter. A guy who hits anything like how Kiermaier has been hitting with the kind of defense and speed he has is a bonafide superstar.

The Rays may already have a center fielder in Desmond Jennings, but with the way Kiermaier is playing and how he projects moving forward, it sure seems to make some sense for that to change. Jennings grades out as a plus defensive center fielder, but he may actually be better suited for left field due to his arm. In center field, his arm has graded out at -5 runs below average. In left field, where you don’t need an arm, it’s back up over league average. Kiermaier has the arm for center field, certainly the range, and is hitting enough to stick in the lineup everyday.

Despite being projected as the best team in the AL East moving forward, the Rays have already dug themselves a hole so big that they’re currently being given just a 10% chance to make playoffs. But at the very least, it appears they’ve found their center fielder of the future in Kevin Kiermaier.




Print This Post



August is currently an associate reporter for MLB.com, covering the Cleveland Indians. He previously covered the Indians, Browns and Cavs for the Akron Beacon Journal and ohio.com. He tweets often about the Indians, assorted nerdy baseball things and also other stuff, too. He'd like it if you followed him on Twitter @AugustF_ABJ, but you don't have to.


49 Responses to “Tampa Bay’s New Center Fielder of the Future”

You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.
  1. DavidKB says:

    Elite defense may not contribute to the team as much as elite offense, but it is seriously fun to watch.

    +11 Vote -1 Vote +1

  2. dang says:

    Why the hell did the bat boy just mosey on over when Kiermaier was running full speed straight at him? Show some urgency, you almost got bowled over.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

    • joser says:

      I wondered the same thing. The only charitable explanation I have is that either he thought it was easily out of play or he thought there was no way anybody was fast enough to get there in time to make the play. But the explanation I’m going with involves all the substance abuse that surely accompanies the professional title “Tampa Bay Rays’ ball boy”

      Vote -1 Vote +1

    • Mr Baseball says:

      Maybe the ball boy has incredible instincts like Kiermaier?

      Vote -1 Vote +1

  3. Steve says:

    He’s basically Jennings. They have two of the same OFer.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  4. Edgardo says:

    Fine piece of writing and analysis. It’d be nice to have some comps to other young CF in the last 10 years. Say, Franklyn Gutierrez, Austin Jackson, Adam Jones and Trout himself.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  5. Billy Hamilton says:

    How does his defense, speed, and hit tool compare to mine? I have definitely hit more home runs than anyone thought I would so far this year.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

    • I was actually thinking of Hamilton quite a bit while writing this post. Hamilton certainly has the edge in speed, but I’d probably give Kiermaier the edge in fielding instincts, though Hamilton’s speed probably allows him to cover a similar amount of ground. Both are hitting better than expected.

      All in all, Hamilton has been worth 3.2 WAR in 379 PA. Kiermaier is at 3.1 WAR in 183 PA.

      Vote -1 Vote +1

  6. Brazen Reader says:

    You used “hustle” in a way that totally made sense, which is, apparently, very hard to do for most writers. Good work.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  7. joser says:

    Hopefully the awful turf in his home stadium doesn’t shorten his career.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  8. bdsparty32 says:

    When I read the title, the first thing that popped into my head was that the Rays traded for Dalton Pompey. Shows you how much attention I’ve been paying to Kiermaier this year. Looks like a really nice player though.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  9. arescan says:

    Been paying attention to Kiermaier for a while. He raked in Canberra.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  10. Rick says:

    “he may actually be better suited for left field due to his arm.” You’re saying this in regards to Jennings, b/c he has a weak arm. However, I’ve noticed a team like the A’s, who have moved Cespedes to left and kept Crisp in center to take advantage of Cespedes’s arm strength. A LF’er gets more opportunity to utilize his arm according to them (in part b/c often times a CF’er is making a play too deep to throw anyone out), so having the stronger arm in left is preferably.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

    • Tom B says:

      The reason Crisp is in center and Cespedes is range, not arm strength. It makes no sense to have your best OF arm in left field at all if it can be avoided.

      Vote -1 Vote +1

      • Edgardo says:

        Yes, Crisp is in CF because of his range, but usually the OF’s best arm is not in CF or LF but in RF. Look at BR’s active leaders in assists. Hunter is the one true CF.

        Rank Player (yrs, age) Assists as OF Throws
        1. Bobby Abreu (18, 40) 136 R
        2. Carlos Beltran (17, 37) 133 R
        3. Manny Ramirez (19, 42) 129 R
        4. Jeff Francoeur (9, 30) 121 R
        Torii Hunter (18, 38) 121 R
        6. Ichiro Suzuki (14, 40) 110 R
        7. Alfonso Soriano (16, 38) 98 R
        8. Nick Markakis (9, 30) 91 L
        9. Raul Ibanez (19, 42) 90 R
        10. Alex Rios (11, 33) 88 R

        Vote -1 Vote +1

  11. spitzer says:

    There’s also this: Kiermaier has always ran higher isolated slugging percentages than his home run totals would suggest due to the way he plays the game.

    You should use run in the above sentence.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  12. jmsdean477 says:

    Too bad he won’t have those wheels for ever playing on that shit carpet, I will be so glad when Selig is gone, and maybe the new guy has the balls to address the A’s Rays stadium issues. Retire already you Colluding tool.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

    • Pennsy says:

      He is “addressing the problem,” the problem being the cities won’t pay for extremely expensive brand new stadiums. Selig knows that if nothing else the Rays’ lease will be up in 2027 and they’ll be free to move to some larger market. The Rays are an inventory franchise- MLB has no real interest in baseball working out in Tampa Bay, they have interest in an MLB franchise bringing a healthy financial return. And the two things that do that, at this moment, are mammoth cable deals and subsidized stadiums.

      Tampa Bay can’t give MLB the first, so if they can’t find a way to give MLB the second by 2027 then you can almost guarantee there will be a subsidized ballpark in a city, somewhere, sparkling new and waiting for them in 2028.

      Vote -1 Vote +1

  13. BenH says:

    Interesting that in a story of speed and power, there is no mention of his inside-the-parker that dinged off of Jackie Bradley Jr.’s face.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  14. Hurtlocker says:

    A great talent indeed. Love to watch that defense.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  15. unclefrank says:

    Man that was a good read. And good GIFs. That kid can fly!

    The Rays need to share the love. How come they seemingly have a superstar come from nowhere every couple of years? Zobrist, then Moore (never lived up to the hype, but ranked higher than Trout and Harper on most prospect lists, and was an 8th rounder), Cobb, and now Kiermaier. It just isn’t fair!

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  16. Rauce says:

    He looked terrible in RF vs the Royals a few weeks ago. Made two very aggressive plays to lay out for balls he should have known we’re not catchable.
    Of course, if memory serves he also hit a grand slam in one of those games.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  17. Love KK and glad to see him getting some love. If he could just hit lefites (.225/.244/.350) he’d be ridiculous.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  18. nilbog44 says:

    I always hear about defense and how important it is on this site and every other baseball blog. But is it really? Aren’t most balls in play either clean hits that no one will get to or routine plays that every mlb player could make? So the need for elite defense isn’t needed near as often as people say. Are most world series teams known for getting there because of their defense? Also I kept hearing that the yankees were going to be terrible because of their infield defense. Not really. Their seemingly crappy pitching staff seems to be doing ok with that defense behind them. I think defense is overrated.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

    • David says:

      so how should it be rated?

      Vote -1 Vote +1

      • nilbog44 says:

        It shouldn’t be talked about like it’s a huge deal. Everyone before the season was going on and on about how bad the yankees infield defense would be. I said it simply doesn’t matter. Has it mattered? Because every time I look up, no one is scoring any runs on them. And they don’t have any strikeout pitchers. So are they booting balls all over the place? are balls getting through? NO. Because all mlb players can freaking field 99% of balls in play

        Vote -1 Vote +1

        • what...? says:

          Yeah… That’s using anecdotal evidence to make sweeping assumptions.

          Defensive contributions are not weighted equally to offensive contributions when it comes to WAR. However, good defense still has a non-insignificant effect on a player’s value.

          Vote -1 Vote +1

  19. matt w says:

    Nitpick: when he had an .000/.000/.000 batting line, his wRC+ would’ve been -100, not 0.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  20. Shauntell says:

    Would like to see the Rays trade DeJesus after this season, he should still have some value costing 10mil for the next 2 seasons. That way you’d have an outfield of Myers, Kiermaier and Jennings with Guyer being their 4th outfielder. That could turn out to be a nice little 10 WAR outfield. Then they could bring up Mahtook up at some point and give him a shot…

    Interesting fact: Zips had two rookies putting up WAR values of 5+ before the season: Betts and Kiermaier. Looks like they might get one of those right…

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  21. Slacker George says:

    In Brownout Field, or whatever they call the Angels’ park, I think Aybar’s hit would not have been a home run. The wall is quite high in that spot and the yellow line is at the top of the 15+ ft. section. I think.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>