Kevin Kiermaier debuted for the Tampa Bay Rays in 2013. Here were his end-of-season numbers:
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.
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.
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+.
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”:
After this game, Kiermaier’s 18th, he owned a 208 wRC+.
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:
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.
“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.”
“[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.
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.
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.
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