Tampa Bay Rays: Kevin Kiermaier Nearing Historic Defensive Season

By Peter M. Gordon

After a season of spectacular play in center field, Tampa Bay Rays fans have come to expect a web gem every game. Even his teammates have come to expect them. After Kevin Kiermaier made a sparkling over the shoulder catch to rob Ben Revere in the first inning of Saturday’s game against the Blue Jays, manager Kevin Cash told a reporter from the Rays’ website, “Yeah, that was like no big deal to us. “Twenty-nine other center-fielders, it is.”

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Even Kiermaier’s biggest fans may not realize that he is approaching a historic defensive season. John Dewan, author of the Fielding Bible, tracks a statistic he calls Defensive Runs Saved. That’s the number of runs a good fielder saves over an average fielder. A Gold Glove fielder is usually +15 in Defensive Runs Saved.  Writing for Bill James Online, Dewan says that Kiermaier is already at +37 DRS in 2015. That not only is far above the best number ever recorded by a center fielder, but also the second-best all-time at any position. Braves shortstop Andrelton Simmons saved 42 runs in 2013 and earlier this month, DeWan expected Kiermaier to pass that number by the end of the season.

Kiermaier’s defensive prowess, combined with his recent offensive outburst, have him ranked fourth in the American League in Baseball-Reference WAR for position players at 6.8. Only Mike Trout,  Josh Donaldson, and Lorenzo Cain are ahead of him, with Manny Machado just behind. If Kiermaier played in New York or Los Angeles, he’d be a star of the first magnitude. As it is, he has become a Rays fan favorite and perhaps the most valuable player on the team.

Logan Forsythe is currently 10th in the AL in WAR, with 5.1, just ahead of Miguel Cabrera. The only other AL team with two position players in the top ten in WAR is Toronto. Why then, is Toronto winning the AL East and not the Rays? Simply put, it is because Toronto has more quality players. After Forsythe, the next Ray on the WAR leader board is Evan Longoria at 32nd. Toronto has three other players ahead of Longo and three more between Longoria and the next-best Ray, Brandon Guyer.

Surprisingly, the Rays’ pitchers perform worse on the AL WAR scale than their position-player counterparts, combining for 17.0 WAR compared to 19.7 by Kiermaier, Forsythe, and company. Looking at that number leads to two interesting points: bad luck may have prevented the Rays offense from looking as good as it should be on the whole, and the Rays’ plummet from the top of the division might be attributable to the unexpected failure of the pitchers in the second half. It is unfortunate that Chris Archer and Jake Odorizzi have fallen back to earth and the bullpen has been unable to hold leads right as the offense has found its form.

Next: Tampa Bay Rays: The Search for RBI’s