Prior to the 2013 season there was one player in particular who went unheralded that might have deserved more attention. Early in his career he received accolades, but for various reasons dropped off the top-prospect radar in the Rays farm system.
His name is Kevin Kiermaier, and we all should have known better.
Recently lauded by Baseball Prospectus and Baseball America as one of the organization's top ten prospects, the Rays' speedy center fielder agreed to talk with DRaysBay about his career thus far, and his excitement for the coming season.
Heavily recruited out of high school, and a fall attendee at Purdue University, Kiermaier transferred to Parkland College, a community college in Champagne, IL, during his freshman year to find regular playing time. That same year, with Kiermaier as the starting center fielder, his team won the Junior College national championship and Kiermaier took home the MVP. He would be named an All-American the following season, and would set several school records.
Prior to his third year of college, Kiermaier faced a difficult decision. Purdue had offered him another scholarship to transfer back to the Boilermakers. It seemed to be his likely destination, but the Rays threw a wrench into that plan, selecting Kiermaier with a late pick in the 2010 draft.
Kiermaier had felt that if he was selected in the earlier rounds he would forgo finishing college, so when the Rays called on the third day of the draft and he was, "on the fence." Luckily for Tampa Bay, Kiermaier was determined to establish himself as a professional.
I was a 31st rounder and knew I was a lot better than that, and wanted to prove it as soon as possible. I knew that, being the 941st pick, I was expected to do nothing, and used that as motivation.
The Rays negotiated a $75,000 signing bonus to get Kiermaier on board, and he got to work. In his first season of Rookie ball, he batted .303/.380/.431 over 246 plate appearances while wowing with his defense throughout the instructional league season.
Baseball America did not publish a scouting report on Kiermaier prior to the 2010 draft, but following a strong showing in Princeton, they ranked him the 26th best Rays prospect heading into 2011.
In his first full season of Low-A ball, Kiermaier played 120 games with a suddenly uninspiring .654 OPS, and the Rays sent Kiermaier to his first of two off-seasons of fall ball, all the way Down Under, to work on his swing.
I was bad in 2011, but it was such a blessing in disguise. I got a little too caught up in what others wanted me to do at the plate. I tried to make the adjustments, but I wasn't slowing the game down, and everything gets a lot more difficult when the game seems fast.
So when I went to Australia, I told Michael Johns (my manager): 'Don't mention anything about hitting mechanics at all, I don't want to think when I'm up at the plate. Just let me try to figure this out on my own for now, because I have to get back to being comfortable in the batters box.'
The new approach paid off, and Kiermaier got his swing back. It's a compact swing, but one that keeps his front elbow separated from his body, which allows him to place the bat on the ball without resorting to an uppercut.
If there were any concerns about his hit tool prior to 2011, they were reinforced by the poor performance Kiermaier experienced prior to his adjustments, and he dropped off the top-prospect lists before he could prove himself in Australia.
Baseball America would leave Kiermaier completely unranked in their Rays writeup for 2011, but would still list him as the best defensive outfielder in the Rays minor league system. The coming season would be a make-or-break year for the young outfielder.
A new season came with a new opportunity and a promotion to High-A Port Charlotte, but fortune wasn't on Kiermaier's side. He was kept from regular playing time due to multiple injuries:
I broke my left hand getting hit by a pitch and was out for 6 weeks, then to come back and break my hammate bone in my right hand for 5 weeks. Every now and then, when I lift weights or do certain things I feel some discomfort, but nothing to be worried about.
Eight games in April, an injury. Six games in May and four in June, and a second injury. Kiermaier would go on a rehab assignment to the Rookie league for the next 36 days before his re-promotion to High-A.
It was a terrible experience, but I kind of became a student of the game, and watched pitchers a lot more during games, tried to pick up tendencies. I did get something out of it, but I hope to never have any setbacks like that ever again.
Back in action, Kiermaier was able to finish the season strong in Charlotte, then received a promotion to Triple-A to test his defense for a few more games. It was an early sign of just how confident the Rays were in his defense, and in its ability to translate to higher levels. Regardless, Baseball America would make no mention of Kiermaier in 2012.
The Rays sent Kiermaier back to a fall league to make up for lost time, this time in Arizona, where hit .348/.444/.493 for a 152 wRC+ over 23 games. He credits the improvement to yet another adjustment made, and to the more cerebral approach he learned during his time off.
In baseball, you have to be able to make adjustments on your own, or else you won't make it very far, if you always need someone telling you what you're doing wrong.
I went back to my college swing, and got my leg kick back in the fall league in 2012, and had a lot of success. I've been going good ever since, because I'm not thinking. I'm just reacting and feeling great, and I plan on continuing to let people know that I can produce offensively.
Heading into last season, Kiermaier was slated to join Montgomery, giving the Rays' Double-A affiliate four players that had center field on their resume: first round draft choice Mikie Mahtook, 2012 minor league break-out hitter Todd Glaesmann, the now unmentioned Kiermaier, and the presumed favorite Ty Morrison.
Morrison had been named the best defensive outfielder in the Rays system by Baseball America in 2012, and the year before had been tagged by the publication as the system's best athlete.
From the outside looking in, it might have seemed like there would be much competition, but the Rays had already made an organizational decision to move Mahtook and Glaesmann to the corners, and to grant Kiermaier the starting role in center field. Morrison would get games in center as well, and he even started five of his seventeen games there prior to injury, but Kiermaier described the atmosphere in the minors as one of clear communication from top to bottom.
Thankfully, the Rays made the decision to use me in center field, and Mikie and Todd were gonna play corner spots at the next level. They were all fine with it. We have great communication and never had any issues at all.
Center field was his. With the way Rays officials have spoken about Kiermaier's game, it's no surprise.
Talking with MLB.com's Bill Chastain, former Rays outfielder turned special assistant Rocco Baldelli described Kiermaier as a "well-above-average defender" in center field, "an above-average athlete," and a "plus runner." Here's a sampling of some other compliments from Baldelli:
- "When he's in the middle of the field, he truly does change the game the way that he plays it. He's got tremendous instincts [and] jumps."
- "He makes up ground when a lot of other players become a little hesitant. He actually takes off, and visually he appears as if he's covering more ground at the end of the play than you're used to seeing."
- "He's got an above-average arm, an above-average release. He plays aggressively. You would want all young players to watch the way he plays."
Kiermaier started 97 games for Montgomery before he was promoted to Triple-A, where yet another new experience awaited him. His defense continued to impress, but issues began to arise at the plate.
I felt like at times I was trying to do a little too much, and got pull happy in hitters' counts. I got away from my approach.
His feelings were true. Kiermaier had exhibited a great eye in Double-A, chasing outside the zone at a career low 7.4% of pitches over 417 plate appearances. After his promotion, that rose to 15.4% as he grappled with the presence of plus off-speed pitches which are less prevalent in the lower levels. But Kiermaier responded appropriately, raising his contact rates inside and outside the strike zone to career highs while playing in Durham.
Overall I'm happy with how I played in AAA. It's about making adjustments on the fly and I felt like I did that well.
Late in the 2013 season, a scout famously compared Kiermaier's toolset to Brett Gardner. I asked him if there was any certain player that he emulated with his game, but the answer was no.
I know what I can and can't do on the field, and everyone is different. I just always want to play hard and show everyone what I'm capable of doing out there on the field.
Kiermaier is the kind of player who knows exactly who he is.
Defense is my thing. I take a lot of pride in it, and love making plays. It's always been natural to me, but I put in a lot of work before the game each, and everyday, to maintain. To be at the top of my game. It's the little things.
What separates me from others, defensively, is my instincts and jumps. I'm always thinking ahead of any situation: what I'm gonna do when the ball is hit?
There are times when I see where the pitch is going, and where its gonna be hit at, and then my speed will do the rest.
Defense and speed is essentially what got me called up to The Bigs, so I have to work on those just as much as hitting, because I can't get away from my strengths, and gotta keep it that way for as long as I'm playing baseball.
If there is one facet of his game that Kiermaier knows he can improve upon, it's stealing bases. He was 21-for-33 last season, despite of 70-grade speed:
Stealing bases is my main thing I need to work on, and it's huge for me because speed is my game, and that hasn't translated great for me. I need to learn when to go and when not to go.
In Double-A, I was bad, but I tip my hat to the pitchers, because they were quick to the plate. And when guys are quick, it's tough to steal on. I had a bad stolen base percentage because I needed attempts.
I have been working on a better stance to improve my first step, and I know I'm going to swipe some bags this year at a successful rate.
An important aspect of stolen bases is not just knowing the pitcher's movement, but about your own perception of the environment. Kiermaier explains:
Once I got to Triple-A, I was 7-for-8, because guys were a lot slower. Guys didn't throw slower, but the time from when they made their first movement, to the time the ball gets to the catchers glove was slower.
Usually, if a guy is 1.3 seconds to the plate, I have a chance if I get a good jump; 1.4 and above, I should easily get there... easier said than done, though!
My main adjustment in Triple-A was trying to be really aggressive early, because once pitchers got that first pitch strike, they threw a lot of off speed. A lot of crafty veterans in Triple-A really know how to spot their pitches, and when I got a good one I had to take advantage.
It made my life a lot easier knowing I can still steal bases [again]. I'm 210 lbs and the strongest... fastest... quickest I've ever been, and I can't wait to get out on the field and start playing.
Leading up to the 2014 season, Kiermaier has been listed as the Rays' eighth best prospect by Baseball Prospectus, their tenth best by Baseball America, thirteenth by Fangraphs, and seventh by our community. But no one is as high on Kiermaier's upcoming season as the Oliver projection system:
The Oliver projection system, which is most highly regarded for its ability to project minor leaguers, expects big things from Kiermaier. His offensive production would be pinned at slightly below the major league average in a full season of play, but his overall contribution is projected at almost two full wins more than what current center fielder Desmond Jennings produced last year. Given his league average numbers on offense, and an equal number of stolen bases, this is nearly entirely based on defense.
These stats are merely projections, and they are an interesting suggestion of what his future performance could be, but these kinds of numbers aren't something Kiermaier is too concerned with when he steps onto the field.
I'm not into the stats, I just try to use my eyes to my advantage when the game starts, to try to find anything I can that a pitcher is doing -- what he likes to throw in certain counts, and how long he holds the ball for before delivering -- to get an advantage, [in the box, and] on the base paths as well.
We've only seen Kiermaier standing in center field at the major league level thus far. He was a defensive replacement, promoted only for Game 163. Nothing was hit his way, and he never had the chance to pick up the bat; however, given the Rays' confidence in him last September, he should get his chances in 2014.
I've always been an under radar type of guy, my whole life -- and I still feel that way, which is fine with me. I just want to take advantage of any opportunity that I get with my baseball career, and make the best out of it.
My goal is to be all of my pitchers' favorite Center Fielder of their career. I take pride in how I handle myself and I'm all about being a good teammate and always having a fun and loose, positive attitude.
I play for me, but I also play for my family. I want to make some money so I can pay back my parents for all they've done for me, and let them retire and relax the second half of their lives. That's what its all about. I love this game and I'm willing to do whatever it takes to have a nice, long, healthy career, doing what I love to do.
Kiermaier will be joining the Rays in spring training, and barring significant injury in the outfield, will likely start the year in Triple-A, later becoming a fan favorite for many years to come as he roams the light-burst logo in center field.
Many thanks to Kevin for taking the time for this interview. You can follow him on twitter @KKiermaier39.
Oliver projections and stats courtesy of FanGraphs.