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In Which the Value of Kevin Kiermaier is Probably Grossly Overstated

Jose Abreu has seemed a virtual lock for the AL Rookie of the Year Award ever since Masahiro Tanaka went down with what could be a season-ending elbow injury. Abreu has done nothing but hit the hell out of the ball since storming into the Majors after fine-tuning his craft in Cuba. Rookies like Brock Holt and George Springer have had nice seasons of their own, to be sure, but they’re certainly no challengers to the might of Abreu.

Then, of course, there’s the best rookie that mostly nobody’s heard of. Let’s say hello to Mr. Kevin Kiermaier. A 31st round pick in 2010, Kiermaier fought his way through the minors and finally, after a single game appearance last year, was called up for good on May 17th. He’s since appeared in every game since May 31st.  In 57 games (198 plate appearances), he’s hit .311/.362/.544. More importantly, he’s produced a .391 wOBA and 157 wRC+. Those are certainly pretty numbers. But can he keep it up? Kiermaier hit well at almost every level in the minors, but was always known for his superb glove work. Let’s look at his and Abreu’s numbers together, shall we? All stats herein are as they were prior to the inception of action on Monday the 29th.

Player Games PA wOBA wRC+ HR K% UZR DRS fWAR
Abreu 91 393 .406 159 30 23.9% 1.1 -5 3.4
Keirmaier 57 198 .391 157 8 18.7% 10.5 8 3.1

Abreu is numerically the greater offensive producer, if only by a slim margin. He’s only out-produced Kiermaier relative to the league (wRC+) by two points, but his wOBA is indicative of the fact that he’s driving the bar a lot further (.619 slugging percentage versus Kiermaier’s .544). Yet while chicks most certainly dig the long ball, it isn’t everything.

Kiermaier’s .362 OBP is a fantastic mark. It’s about twenty points higher than Abreu’s, and it’s incredibly beneficial for his spot in the lineup. For all his famous lineup tinkering, Joe Maddon has been primarily using Kiermaier out of the 9 spot of late. He even went as far as batting the pitcher (Alex Cobb) eighth on July 23rd in an inter-league game against the Cardinals so that Kiermaier could bat ninth. Putting him there allows him to serve as what basically amounts to a second leadoff hitter when the lineup turns over, and there’s one more runner on base for the big boppers in the heart of the order.

Kiermaier also is much more of a two-way player. UZR and DRS are both very pleased with his defensive skill set. That’s not a surprise, as many scouting reports on Kiermaier always gave glowing reviews of his instincts and range in the field. It’s that defense that has allowed him to be right on Abreu’s tail in total value, in far fewer games. While UZR says that Abreu isn’t a total loss at first base, DRS says he leaves much to be desired. Naturally, first basemen traditionally aren’t employed for their gloves, but nobody complains when someone like Carlos Santana comes along and dazzles on both sides of the ball.

Now, the hard part. We want to extrapolate Kiermaier’s value over the same time span that Abreu’s accrued his, but how? It would be easy to simple do it over the same number of games played. However, “games played” doesn’t account for late-inning substitutions, or early exits. A better (but still not perfect) way of looking at it would be to extrapolate it over innings played. This is still not perfect, as a batter can hit in the top of an inning and then be replaced in the field in the bottom, and vice versa. However, I’m not a good enough statistician to develop my own metric for this (check back with me in a few months) and I can’t find anything out there to show just how much time a player has seen.

I used Baseball-Reference’s game logs for this, as they have a count of how many innings the player saw. Here’s how these numbers work out.

Player Innings Played PA fWAR fWAR/I
Abreu 812 393 3.4 ~ .00418
Kiermaier 464 198 3.1 ~ .00668

This is far from an exact science. Abreu and Kiermaier didn’t produce exactly that many wins every inning they plated, but it’s how the numbers work out. Now, if Kiermaier’s fWAR/I (fWAR per innings played) is multiplied by Abreu’s total innings played, the result is an fWAR total of 5.425. So far this season, Mike Trout leads all of baseball with 5.7 fWAR. Troy Tulowitzki is in second place with 5.1. That’s assuming, of course, that Kiermaier maintains his current level of play. And as I said before, “But can he keep it up?” The answer to that is “I haven’t a clue.” Here’s why.

.353 50.7% .336 .225

There are two glaring realities. One is that Kiermaier hits a lot of ground balls. His BABIP would seem to indicate that’s he’s getting lucky, and his grounders are finding holes in the infield. For what it’s worth, here’s the league leaders in ground ball rate out of everyone who’s qualified for the batting title. It’s a mixed bag for sure. There are some good hitters around Kiermaier’s range, like Yasiel Puig, Alexei Ramirez and Melky Cabrera. Derek Jeter’s made a heck of a career out of a high ground ball rate and good BABIP. So while that isn’t an immediate cause for concern, it’s something worth watching to be sure. For reference, here’s his Brooks Baseball spray chart on the year.

The other is that southpaws have completely owned him. While right-handers are more common (and Kiermaier certainly has no problem with them), in the age of specialized bullpens it’s one awful quality to have. Managers (and the think-tanks in front offices) are surely catching on to this. Eventually, the scouting report will read to get a lefty reliever to face him in high-leverage situations, if they can. This also, of course, could be a result of small samples sizes. Kiermaier only has 43 plate appearances against lefties, and 155 against right-handers. Another thing to keep an eye on going forward.

However, what Kiermaier is doing is not wholly unsustainable. Players have made livings on putting ground balls in the right spots, and good players at that. However, the projections for the rest of the season aren’t too pretty. ZiPS predicts that he’ll produce a .259/.312/.385 line for the rest of the season. Steamer has him at .257/.311/.382. The projection systems are generally not too far off from reality, but it’s fun to think about what could be. Will Kiermaier end up being a 5-win player? The odds aren’t good. It’s certainly possible, though, and if it does happen prepare yourselves for a wonderful offseason debate on whom the rightful winner of the Rookie of the Year Award really was. In the meantime, let’s marvel at how darn good this former 31st round pick has been.

Nicolas Stellini is a student, college baseball announcer, and amateur baseball writer. Check him out over at @StelliniTweets. 

Examining the Prince’s Reign in Texas: Prince Fielder and the 2014 Rangers

One of the offseason’s most talked-about moves was the trade that sent Prince Fielder to the Texas Rangers in exchange for Ian Kinsler and gobs of cash. While universally (and rightfully so) viewed as primarily a salary dump for GM Dave Dombrowski and the Tigers camp, the Rangers have gained a strong bat to place in the middle of their batting order alongside Adrian Beltre and Alex Rios.

Yet unlike the much-theorized David Price trade, the Fielder deal was not a pure salary dump. Fielder stumbled mightily in his production in 2013. In 2012, he posted a robust .313/.412/.528 traditional slash line, with an impressive .940 OPS and 153 wRC+. According to Baseball-Reference’s oWAR calculations, 2012 was Fielder’s third-most valuable year at the plate with a 5.4 mark. All of this stands in stark contrast to Fielder’s 2013.

Last year Fielder posted a much more pedestrian .279/.362/.457, .819 OPS, 125 wRC+ and 2.9 oWAR. While of course those are still above-average numbers, when attached to the name Prince Fielder and his ubercontract, Dave Dombrowski clearly had reason for concern. However, off-the-field issues are widely believed to have contributed to the dip in Fielder’s production, and natural regression may have also contributed to the fall from Fielder’s career-high traditional slash line. Fielder also enjoyed a career-high .321 BABIP in 2012, with his 2013 mark of .307 more in line with his normal marks.

So, the question presents itself; what exactly does Texas GM Jon Daniels have on his hands in the 2014 model year Fielder? There are a number of factors contributing to this answer. Firstly, while the batters ahead of him do not contribute to his slash line, they certainly do help counting stats such as RBIs. While RBIs are naturally an utterly useless stat when evaluating individual performance, men getting on base allow a hitter to create runs, and as runs are ultimately what win games, putting men on ahead of big bats such as Fielder is part of what goes into good team creation. Therefore, I will examine the clip at which we can expect there to be runners on base when Fielder bats for Texas as opposed to his stint in Detroit.

Secondly, I will also examine the impact Arlington itself will have on Fielder’s bat. Arlington has traditionally been a much more hitter-friendly location than Detroit. But how much exactly will Texas raise Fielder’s numbers?

The top of the 2013 Tigers lineup consisted of Austin Jackson, Torii Hunter, Miguel Cabrera in front of Fielder. Those first three hitters posted OBP’s of .337, .334, and .442, respectively. That averages out to a .371 mark, albeit an imperfect one due to Cabrera’s significantly higher individual mark (also, Cabrera hit a lot of home runs last year, and while that counts towards his OBP, that means the bases were empty when Fielder came to bat). We’ll refer to this average of the top of the order as tOBP, or “Top OBP” for the rest of the article for the sake of saving space.

The top of the 2014 Rangers lineup will be made up of Shin-Soo Choo, and either Elvis Andrus or Jurickson Profar before Fielder, who will bat third. There are a number of different projection systems we can use to forecast the upcoming season, for this article we’ll be using Steamer. Choo is given a .391 OBP, Andrus a .340, and Profar a .321. With Andrus in the lineup the projected tOBP is .365, with Profar it’s .356. So despite throwing his wallet at Choo and his obscene .423 2013 OBP, Jon Daniels in fact is giving Fielder less to work with in front of him.

Or is he? Part of the smaller (projected) tOBP in Texas is that Fielder simply won’t have the best hitter in the game hitting in front of him anymore. Also, one has to expect Fielder to be better at the plate this year. Steamer awards Fielder a substantial .290/.390/.516 line with a 142 wRC+ and 3.4 WAR, a major uptick over last year’s production. If we factor him into the projected Texas tOBP, with Andrus it’s a .374, and with Profar it’s .367. That’s something you like to see if you’re Adrian Beltre, who lead the league in hits last year and launched 30 homers.

And speaking of homers, Fielder’s move to Arlington will help him in that department. The newly named Globe Life Park ranked seventh last year in home runs with a total of 107 being hit there. Comerica Park, where the Tigers play, ranked fourteenth with 99. This helps Steamer award Fielder 29 home runs, up from 25 last year.

However, can we possibly expect Fielder to exceed these projections? As mentioned earlier, Fielder’s down year was contributed to by a number of off-the-field issues according to Hunter. A change of scenery will definitely do Fielder well, and he also seems to have lost some weight if the pictures and video coming out of Spring Training are to be believed. For that reason I’m willing to bump up Fielder’s numbers by a few slots, and I expect him to be even better than what Steamer predicts. Because baseball is a fickle mistress I could easily be wrong, but call it a gut feeling. All in all, Jon Daniels may have caught lightning in a bottle here with his rather expensive gamble, and if Texas manages to overcome their pitching woes they should be a very dangerous team with Fielder anchoring their lineup.