The Tampa Bay Rays desperately need a bat. That is the storyline now, just as it has been for the last several years. Kevin Kiermaier can’t help the Rays too much with that. He is an exciting player who excels at taking extra bases and leads the American League in triples, but he is just a serviceable hitter who was out of his element when the team tried leading him off. However, we don’t appreciate the significance of Kevin Kiermaier being just a decent hitter. In the estimation of some, he has done enough to become one of the best players in baseball.
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We hear about Kiermaier’s defense all the time, and Tuesday night’s game was the latest example. He made an incredible throw from centerfield to gun down a runner at third and also made a great diving catch. Even the Phillies fans in the crowd couldn’t help but be impressed. And if the eye test wasn’t enough, the numbers list Kiermaier as the best defender at any position in baseball. No one is higher than him in Defensive Runs Saved or Ultimate Zone rating as he leads baseball in Defensive WAR according to Baseball-Reference and Def according to Fangraphs.
However, it isn’t just the fielding that is so great–it is his overall value as a player. Baseball-Reference values his offense enough to put his overall WAR figure at 4.2, not only the best on the Rays, but the sixth-best among position players in the American League and 10th-best in baseball. The only players ahead of him are Bryce Harper, Mike Trout, Paul Goldschmidt, Lorenzo Cain, Manny Machado, Josh Donaldson, Jason Kipnis, Buster Posey, and Brandon Crawford. That is some company for Kiermaier to be in.
Fangraphs isn’t quite as bullish and gives Kiermaier 3.0 WAR, 11th in the AL and the 24th-best mark in baseball. That is also an impressive mark–when your detractors still consider you a top-25 player, you are doing well. The craziest part of everything, though, is how little we think about just how good Kiermaier is. We know about the defense, but we lose track of just how much Kiermaier gives the Rays between that and his solid–though far from spectacular–offense. He has become a star right below our noses.
There is some reason to believe that Kiermaier will regress. Few players can produce even decent results at the plate with a strikeout to walk ratio as bad as 61-12, and Kiermaier continues to hit for a surprising amount of power. On the other hand, Kiermaier’s speed gives him a bigger margin for error, and a lot of his “power” comes from turning singles into doubles and doubles into triples. Maybe he will get a little bit worse, but it’s not as though he needs to be a big power guy in order to remain an excellent player.
Then we have the areas where Kiermiaer still has room to improve. He has taken a big step forward in the stolen base department this year, going from swiping 5 bases in 9 tries last season to 9 in 10 attempts in 2015. He has the speed to steal 25 or 30 bases if he continues making strides with regards to reading pitchers. Kiermaier will also get more chances to play against left-handed pitching because his defense is so good, and there is reason to believe that he can produce more than a .586 OPS against them given his minor league numbers.
Finally, even though Kiermaier is such a great defender, his decision-making could still get better. Fangraphs only gives him a -0.6 rating in terms of the way he uses his arm even though he may have the strongest arm of any outfielder in baseball. If he can eliminate some of the overaggressive throws that allow runners to advance unnecessarily, the rating systems will only bump up their evaluations of him a little bit more.
Kevin Kiermaier is far from a perfect player, but don’t lose track of the fact that he is the best position player the Tampa Bay Rays have and one of the best in baseball. He also looks primed to stay in that echelon because he has as many ways he can improve as he does red flags. His defense is incredible, and while you don’t see the same sort of consistency from his bat, he has hit enough that his overall package of abilities can be matched by few others.