Tampa Bay Rays manager Kevin Cash has moved Kevin Kiermaier to the leadoff spot against right-handed pitchers and from an aggressiveness standpoint, that makes perfect sense. Kiermaier’s great speed makes him a threat to turn routine singles into doubles whenever outfielders makes indifferent plays on the ball. His six triples are tied for first in the American League, and he is one of the best in baseball at scoring from first on hits to the gaps. He is even stealing bases now, swiping 8 in 9 attempts on the season including 6 in his last 13 starts.
However, what teams need most from their leadoff hitters is not speed, but the ability to get on base. That is an area where Kiermaier needs improvement. As of this writing he’s batting .260, but with an OBP of just .298. That is after his recent hot streak–as late as June 5th, he was at just .271. That .298 mark ranks just seventh among the Rays’ nine qualifying hitters, beating only Asdrubal Cabrera and Rene Rivera. Even though Kiermaier doesn’t strike out much (17.3% of his plate appearances), his 41-10 strikeout to walk ratio is still alarming.
Kiermaier’s .315 OBP from his 2014 rookie season prompts some optimism that he could improve the remainder this year. Still, even if he did get on base at a .315 clip, he would still fall short of the expected OBP for a leadoff hitter. Cash obviously has access to all the statistics that we have, and he has even more analysis from the Rays’ crack team of baseball analysts. With that in mind, if Kiermaier has issues getting on base, why is he batting leadoff?
For much of the season, David DeJesus batted first for the Rays against right-handed pitching, and he was doing a very good job. While he lacks Kiermaier’s speed, he is excellent at drawing walks and getting on base ahead of the middle of the order. Steven Souza Jr. has seemed to settle in farther down in the lineup–it wouldn’t make sense for him to go back to batting second–but it would certainly be a possibility to have DeJesus, Joey Butler, and Evan Longoria be the top three in the Rays’ lineup.
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However, even if that would improve the Rays’ situation in the leadoff spot, it would hurt them elsewhere. If DeJesus would move to leadoff, then the Rays would need to have Logan Forsythe bat behind Longoria and presumably Souza would slot behind him. However, then the Rays would have four straight right-handed hitters from second to fifth in their order, an obvious opportunity for opposing teams to bring in their best right-handed relievers. The Rays could break that up with Kiermaier or Cabrera, but neither of them fits well in the middle of the order. If the Rays are going to get a lefty bat in there, DeJesus makes the most sense.
When James Loney returns, the Tampa Bay Rays could move DeJesus back to leadoff and Kiermaier farther down in the lineup, especially if his hot hitting doesn’t last. In addition, John Jaso may be the Rays’ best option for the first position in the order if he can finally get healthy. Until at least one of them returns, though, the circumstances down in the order make Kiermaier the Rays’ best option to lead off games. And whether or not he sticks there for the long-term, everyone is hoping that Kiermaier can learn to take the occasional walk.