Kevin Kiermaier was always a solid prospect, but suddenly in 2013, he burst onto the scene with a big year at the plate. He began the year as a potential fourth outfielder; he ended it with a chance to challenge Desmond Jennings for the Tampa Bay Rays’ starting job in centerfield at some point in 2014. The first part of this interview was nice, but now we get to the good stuff–how the breakout season happened, and what Kiermaier continues to work on as he hopes to crack the Rays’ startling lineup.
Robbie Knopf: You entered the year with 6 home runs in 935 professional plate appearances, then you hit 6 in 2013 alone to go along with quite a few doubles and triples. Where did the increased power come from?
Kevin Kiermaier: This kind of goes back to my rookie year. In college, I was a home run hitter–the metal bats helped–but I had a leg kick in college and I kind of got away from that once I got to Rookie ball because I just a mindset of “hey, you’re going to be a true leadoff hitter now and you gotta cut down on the strikeouts and put the ball in play and make them make a play to get you out.” I kind of got away from the things that got me to get drafted. Looking back right now, I wish I would have stuck with the leg kick my entire career, but I didn’t do that. My Rookie season in Princeton, then in Bowling Green and Port Charlotte, I didn’t do it, but I actually started it again in the Fall League. It’s a slight leg kick, just for timing, and I did really good in the Fall League so I kept it going into this year. Everything feels so natural when I do that, and I just feel a lot more balanced. I’m not a power hitter by any means–most of the time I have a line drive approach, but I’ll hit one now and then–but this whole year, I was backspinning balls all the time llike earlier in my career. 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, but at the same time, I’m not made to do that at all. I look at myself as a gap-to-gap player, and 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. I get a lot of hustle doubles too, catching the outfielders sleeping and taking an extra base. I’ve just always played the game like that and that’s one of the big reasons I’ve made it to the big leagues. I play harder than everyone out there, and Tampa Bay likes that aggressive play. I love that they like that because that’s the type of player I’ve always been. Definitely the leg kick has helped my approach and I’ve just matured as a hitter throughout the years. It all translated into more success and power, and putting the ball in play with authority.
RK: Speaking of playing the game hard, between the way you play the game and the fact that you’re a lefty hitter with great defense who wasn’t hitting for much power, the first thought that would come to mind for a Rays fan had to be Sam Fuld. This season, everyone realized “Wait a second, this guy can actually hit!” and that you have a chance to be a starting outfielder. Looking back at it now, what do you think of the Fuld comparison? Do you take it as a complement?
KK: Yeah, I do, because Sam is great, and once I got up there, he actually helped me out a ton going through the scouting reports. We were up there for the same reason–he wasn’t going to be in the starting lineup, he was going to be a late-game defensive replacement and pinch-runner as well–so I was watching him as much as I could as long as I was there. He’s had a lot of success in the major leagues. For me, I just want to prove to everyone that even though defense is my strong point, I don’t want to take anything away from my offensive ability. I know that I can hit, and maturing more and getting to know what I want to do at the plate has helped me and it showed a lot this year. Each stride I’ve taken over the years, it’s all about having an idea of what you can and can’t do and always trying to produce as many quality at-bats as possible. Earlier in my career, I didn’t do that because I really wasn’t a smart hitter. I had always been a raw player, but the stronger you are mentally, the more that can translate into what you can do physically and the way you play out there. You’re always trying to be a student of the game and learn as much as you can on the fly. Once I was up there I was watching the guys and their routines, what they do in BP. For me, I was watching Sam a lot because I was up there, being pretty much his backup, so I was watching everything he did. My role for 2013 when I got called up to the big leagues was defensive replacement/baserunner. So I think it’s all about enjoying the game and trying to pick up the little things and always try to get that advantage.
RK: One more thing on your hitting. You are a lefty hitter, and one interesting thing is that you really struggled against same-side pitchers in 2011, but you’ve been able to put up much more respectable numbers against them the past two years. We can think of plenty examples in the majors of lefty batters who struggle mightily against lefty pitchers, and the Rays even have two outfielders like that on their roster right now in David DeJesus and Matt Joyce. What is the strategy to improve against same-side pitching?
KK: Honestly, it’s all the whole mental approach. In 2011, I really didn’t have a good idea of what I wanted to do at the plate, so every time I knew we were facing a starting lefty or some lefty was coming out of the ‘pen, I was instantly like “oh no.” Once you tell yourself you can’t do something, there’s very little chance of actually doing it. So I remember going into the first game of 2012, Scott Baker on the Twins was on a rehab assignment Opening Night, and he blew out his arm middle of the first inning. I had been really excited to face a righty, but then they brought in a lefty, and I told myself right then and there “OK, we’re done being a mental midget with lefties. I can hit these guys. I hit them when I was younger, in high school and in college. Nothing changes. They’re throwing it from a different side, but I’m comfortable with it. I can hit lefties.” First pitch, I hit a ball up the middle for a single and I stretch it into a double and ever since that moment, I’ve been able to hit lefties really well. It’s honestly all mental. I tell myself I can see the ball just as good against lefties as I can off righties. There a lot of times both this year and last year where I actually preferred to face a lefty over a righty, because I’ve had confidence, ever since that first at-bat of 2012, against lefties and now I’m fine. I don’t mind facing them. I don’t care what kind of arm slot they have or anything. Baseball is so mental, and it’s little things like that can make a huge difference. For me, it was great because I faced a lot of lefties this year and last year compared to the previous two years, and I needed that to get that mental confidence that I could hit them or else I was going to have that big hole in my game. I don’t want to be a platoon player–I want to be an everyday player. I can hit righties and lefties and I don’t care what they throw at me. But you’ve gotta have that mental aspect in hitting no matter how they have on the mound.
RK: Do you have the same approach at the plate against both lefties and righties?
KK: Against lefties, I really try to go up to the middle and away because a lot of times, you want to pull off on lefties. I still can’t pull the ball on lefties, but trying just to stay as simple as possible with lefties is my approach. Nothing crazy, but I hit for power better off righties. It changes up a little bit because the easier you see the ball, the easier it is to hit for power. I still see the ball a little better off righties than lefties. For lefties, I really just try to simplify my approach even more from what it is already. I can always adjust on the pitch in and pull it, but this approach is something that has helped me so much the past two years and I don’t plan on changing it anytime soon.
RK: Let’s get back to the real strength of your game, your defense. There are a lot of outfielders out there who have blazing speed and have a good arm, but so few of them turn into truly great defenders. How have you been able to refine your talents to make your defense into the focal point of your game?
KK: Well, I think the main thing is that I take a lot of pride in how I handle myself defensively. Everyday in BP, I’m always taking at least two rounds of really shagging BP like game speed. I’m standing farther in because that’s the best reads you can get to make it game-like. I like playing in because anyone can catch a ball coming in, but it’s that ball going back and how your routes are and it’s stuff like that where I just spend so much time on that. Other guys don’t spend so much time playing defense, but I just love being out there and making plays for our pitchers and throwing guys out. I take BP very seriously and I think doing that a couple hours before a game each and every day, it makes it that when I make a spectacular play in the outfield, I don’t really think that much of it because I do it every day in batting practice. Once the game starts, I can still do it. People say “hey, I don’t how you made that catch.” But at the same time, I always have to stay as top-notch as I can because that is something that can carry me to the big leagues because they know that I can play defense at the highest level. And you know, I have the speed and the arm arm, but it’s my instincts that separate me from others. That’s one thing I’m very thankful for. Like I said, it’s mainly the way that I handle myself. Everyone loves putting up the offensive numbers, and that’s great, but at the same time, taking a hit away or throwing a guy out and helping your team out is huge, especially with how baseball is nowadays. It’s getting so pitcher-oriented. Pitchers are getting better and better, and anytime that you can back him up on defense is great. Defense is a huge part of baseball today. You’re not seeing too many guys hit a whole lot of home runs anymore or anything like that. Anytime you can give you or your team an advantage, like taking away a run or anything like that, it’s huge in today’s game. I take that into consideration.
RK: You mentioned your speed in there, and your speed is one of the ways that you’ve become a great defensive player, but so far in your career, you haven’t been able to translate that to a high success rate with stolen bases. Why do you think that is and what are you doing to make stolen bases a bigger part of your game?
KK: Yeah, I definitely know that. I need to get better at that. I’m still learning when to go and when not to go in certain situations or certain counts and I’m still trying to get better at that, but one thing that sticks out to me was that this year at Double-A, I was very bad because there were times where I wanted to go, but I didn’t because our hitters would have good hitters counts and I didn’t want to steal and make them take a pitch that they didn’t want to take. Part of me told me I was too unselfish. I need to be a little selfish as far as our team goes because anytime I can get into scoring position, that gives us that much better of a chance of scoring that run and winning that game. I had never really looked at it that way because sometimes I’m at the plate and the runner steals on a pitch that I could have hit well and I always felt upset. Then I sat down with a couple of our guys and they kept telling me “you can’t think like that, you’ve gotta go when it’s the right time and the right count.” It doesn’t matter what that hitter thinks of you because you’re getting into scoring position and you’re making it that much easier for him to drive you in. In Double-A, I was not good, but I tip my hat that pitchers were really quick (to the plate) and did a really good job holding us on. Once I got to Triple-A, though, I was really good at stealing bags–I think I was 7 for 8–and they were a lot slower than Double-A. Even once I got to the big leagues, guys were very slow to the plate, reading the scouting reports. Double-A was really just a tough league to steal in this year because guys were so quick. But like I said, I’m just trying to learn each and every day and I’ve been doing a lot of speed training this offseason, working with a different start, and I feel really good out of it. We’re going to see how that translates once I get out there into games, but I’m really confident about what I’m going to be able to do on the basepaths as far as my first-step quickness and my speed overall. Like I said, just knowing when to go and when not to go and stuff like that, you have to factor all of that in.
RK: Stealing bases is one thing you’re continuing to work on. What are the other things that you are focusing on for this season to make yourself that much more ready for the major leagues?
KK: The main thing is the speed. My main focus is stealing bases better, and other than that, just trying to make my swing path a little better. It’s not too bad by any means, but you’re always trying to do something. You’ll never have it all figured out. Really, nothing crazy, but the main thing that sticks out is my basestealing abilities. That’s the thing I’ve been focusing on this offseason, and everything else will take care of itself once I get to spring training. We’ll see how I am when I face live pitching for the first time, and it’s all about the timing. That’s the main thing–you get down there, you gotta get the timing back then train your eyes to see the ball wherever in comes out of the hand, stuff like that. As far as the offseason is concerned, it’s all about my basetealing, just trying to get better in that aspect of the game.
RK: Kevin, you’re a player who may be talented enough to be on the Rays’ bench next season, but the indications are that the Rays will put you back at Triple-A to see if you can develop into a starting outfielder. What do you think that says about how the organization views you as a player?
KK: That’s one thing that’s huge for me. I just can’t thank them enough. Like I said, this last year was huge for me, playing consistent the whole year, and letting them know that I could play at the highest level. For them to call me up was really big for me and I know they like me. They love my defensive skill-set and think that anything I do offensively is going to be a bonus. I don’t know where they’re going to put me in the spring, but I just want them to know that I’m very serious about baseball and want to contribute in the big leagues as quick as possible, whenever that time may be. It sounds so cliche, but you know people say “control what you can control” and that’s something that’s out of my hands, but my goal going into spring training is to just play as good as I can and stay healthy and everything will take care of itself after that. I have no idea what’s going to happen, but I’m very optimistic about 2014. My body feels great and I can’t wait to get back on the baseball field.
Thanks again to Kevin Kiermaier for making this interview possible and we hope you all had a good time reading. If you missed it, Part 1 of the interview is here.