Should Kevin Kiermaier Start Against Both Lefties and Righties?
By Joe Saunders
In his first extended stint in the big leagues, Kevin Kiermaier turned in a very good 2014 season for the Tampa Bay Rays. His defense was elite, his hustle on the basepaths was impressive, and he made tremendous strides at the plate. Now, heading into the 2015 season, Kiermaier is on track to be the Rays’ Opening Day right fielder and will start against right-handed pitching.
However, it isn’t a sure thing that the lefty-swinging Kiermaier will see time against lefties as well. He had difficulty against them in his first big league stint, and given that the Rays need all the offense they can get, they may not have the time to wait for him to figure left-handers out. Looking at the numbers, should Kevin Kiermaier get that chance for regular time versus both lefties and righties?
Kiermaier’s 2014 season was undoubtedly a great year for him as was good for a 3.8 WAR. Much of that came from his defense, which was among the most impressive in the league for any outfielder. His UZR/150 was an outstanding 56.6 in 526.1 innings in right field and he was credited with 14 defensive runs saved. He was no slouch in centerfield either as he fielded to an 8.5 UZR/150 and 1 defensive run saved in 298.1 innings.
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At the plate, meanwhile, Kiermaier produced a line of .264/.315/.450 with a wOBA of .333 and a 119 wRC+. He hit 10 home runs, drove in 35, and also stole 5 bases. However, Kiermaier did most of his damage against right-handed pitching. He hit .280 versus righties with all but 3 of his extra-base hits and 9 of his 10 home runs on the season. Against lefties, Kiermaier only hit .203 and almost all of his hits were singles. Obviously this is a small MLB sample size, but those numbers are still concerning.
There were always concerns over whether Kiermaier would hit enough to become an everyday player and it’s pretty natural to see a left-handed hitter like him struggle against same side pitching in his first big league season. His minor league numbers against lefties suggest that he is capable of being decent against them as he posted a career line of .246/.345/.319, but we can’t overly excited about that either.
The main question the Rays face with Kiermaier is whether his glove has enough value to offset his struggles when playing against left-handed pitching. To answer that, let’s start by seeing projections on how Kiermaier will hit in 2015. Here are some regressed platoon projections for Kiermaier, set in a neutral park:
Against RHP: .316 wOBA, Against LHP: .279 wOBA
When comparing Kiermaier to the rest of the Rays’ current roster, he is projected to be worst hitter on the team against left handed pitching if you don’t count whoever wins the backup catcher role. That certainly does not make him an ideal player to start against left handed pitching for a team that finished last in the American League in runs scored last season.
If Steven Souza starts the season on the big league roster, then the Rays would be best served going with an outfield of him, Desmond Jennings, and Brandon Guyer against left-handers. Despite Kiermaier’s great talent in the field, all three of those outfielders would be far superior hitting lefties while still likely providing good defense.
However, due to the fact the Rays don’t have many options at DH when facing lefties, either Guyer or Souza will likely end up as the DH against them. That means that Kiermaier will be playing against lefties mainly because his glove is better than nearly all of the Rays’ alternatives. There is also a realistic chance that Kiermaier will improve against southpaws and post better numbers than he’s projected to.
Without Souza, the Rays don’t have a ton of options to play in outfield against lefties. Giving Nick Franklin a shot against lefties while playing left field could be a possibility, but Franklin would have to vastly out-hit Kiermaier to make up for his worse (albeit still fine) defense. Franklin does deserve chances to play against lefties, but it seems like Kiermaier will have the first crack at more regular time.
Given that we are putting Souza on the roster, we are talking about the scenario where the Rays trade David DeJesus and have Juan Francisco as the last man on their bench. Francisco is another left-handed batter who is weak against left-handed pitching, so he isn’t an option. On the other hand, if DeJesus was on the roster, he needs to be platooned more urgently than Kiermaier, giving the 24 year old an even higher probability of starting against lefties.
Of course, knowing that Kiermaier may be weak against lefties, the Rays could have a player like Tim Beckham as the last man on their roster instead of Francisco. However, it is far from obvious that Beckham’s bat would beat Kiermaier’s glove and that having Beckham would be worth losing Francisco’s power off the bench.
Right now we have talked about Kiermaier seeing most of the time in the ninth spot in the Rays’ batting order against lefties, with Franklin occasionally replacing him. The Rays do have one more option, which would be playing Rene Rivera at DH (although a little farther up in the order). Rivera delivered strong results against lefty pitching in 2014, and all three of Bobby Wilson, Curt Casali, and Luke Maile are righty hitters as well.
It isn’t clear that Wilson’s good big league numbers against lefties in a small sample are to be believed, and Casali and Maile will both likely begin 2015 at Triple-A. At the very least, though, it is nice for the Rays to have another possible arrangement that would allow Kiermaier to sit more against lefties if he does not prove to be up to the task.
Given the Tampa Bay Rays’ current roster, Kevin Kiermaier will be starting against righties and will likely play most of the time against lefties as well. Kiermaier will receive the opportunity to be a defense-first player against pitchers from both sides, although Franklin and the two-catcher lineup represent alternatives if he falters against left-handers. As the season progresses, we should have a better idea about whether Kiermaier can be an everyday player for the Rays or fits best in a platoon role.