Rays center fielder Kevin Kiermaier was nominated for the Gold Glove on Thursday. This is his third nomination (once in right field and twice in center); to win the award for the second straight year, he must confront stiff competition from fellow nominees Kevin Pillar and Jackie Bradley Jr.
Injuries limited to Kiermaier to just 105 games and 872 1/3 defensive innings last season. He missed two months with multiple fractures in his left hand after an ill-fated diving catch attempt on May 21.
When healthy, however, the Fort Wayne, Indiana, native was arguably the best defender at any position in MLB.
Coming off a historic 2015 season, leading MLB in Defensive Wins Above Replacement (dWAR) with a 5.0 mark — the highest of any outfielder in MLB history by Fangraphs, and fourth-best ever, per Baseball-Reference — Kiermaier once again led the league in 2016 (2.95 dWAR).
The 26-year-old also led the league with 25 Defensive Runs Saved (DRS), one season after posting the highest DRS total ever recorded with 42 runs saved in 2015. In fact, Kiermaier posted the third highest Wins Above Replacement (WAR) in the American League last season (7.3), behind Mike Trout (9.6) and Josh Donaldson (8.8), mostly due to his defense.
Not that he cares, based on what Kiermaier said to USA Today in Spring Training:
“I still don’t know how WAR is calculated, but I think, even though I’m not out there hitting 35 home runs and driving in 120 – and those guys are very valuable – I’m a game-changer out there. I’ll let those guys up there working on the computers value that whatever way they want. If people want to be bitter about where I was ranked, go ahead. The game’s changing. It’s not just about offense anymore.”
Kiermaier’s counterparts were no slouches, either. Toronto Blue Jays’ centerfielder Pillar – in over 420 more innings -- posted a dWAR of 2.6 and a DRS total of 21 runs. Pillar also finished with the highest defensive value rank (23.6) of all center fielders in 2016, according to FanGraphs.
The other contender, Jackie Bradley Jr., also made the list with a 6.9 defensive value but posted the worst dWAR (1.6) and DRS (11) among the three nominees.
It’s worth mentioning that Kiermaier, Pillar, and Bradley were the three nominees for last year’s Gold Glove, too. This year, however, Kiermaier’s injury-limited playing time may put him at a disadvantage.
No AL outfielder has won back-to-back Gold Glove awards after missing at least 40 games from one season to the next since Torii Hunter. He won the award nine consecutive years (2001-09) but in 2005 – following a 138-game campaign – he won the honor after appearing in just 98 games.
Major league managers and coaches decide on the Gold Glove and are not allowed to vote for their own players. A statistical component is also considered for the award.
Unfortunately, offense matters
Certainly the biases of Gold Glove voters have some impact of the award. For that reason, it’s been said that to win the Gold Glove, a player has to post respectable offensive numbers. Too many coaches and managers are unable to look beyond a poor offensive performance to reward stellar defense.
Kiermaier’s injuries clearly limited his offensive production, but he eclipsed his home run total from 2015 by two and was just three RBIs shy of the previous year’s total.
Pillar saw a slight offensive decrease from 2015, swatting five fewer HRs and driving in three fewer runs.
Bradley, however, had a breakout season for the Red Sox, which is why many voters will remember his name when they get their ballots.
- Pillar: .266/.303/.376, seven HRs, 53 RBIs
- Kiermaier: .246/.331/.410, 12 HRs, 37 RBIs
- Bradley Jr.: .267/.349/.486, 26 HRs, 87 RBIs
Going by the Jeter Rule, which is the logic that the best hitter often wins the award, Bradley (whose defensive stats are far inferior to Pillar and Kiermaier) would be the favorite.
But last year, all three men had similar numbers, so when considering Kiermaier’s statistically historic defensive season, the choice was easy.
- Bradley Jr: .249/.335/.498, 10 HRs, 43 RBIs
- Pillar: .278/.314/.399, 12 HRs, 56 RBIs
- Kiermaier: .263/.298/.420, 10 HRs, 40 RBIs
How can Kiermaier win?
While Kiermaier’s injury limited his production, he showed an improvement at the plate, especially after the All-Star Break. He slashed .236/.307/.447 with five HRs and 16 RBIs before the break and .251/.343/.391 with seven HRs and 21 RBIs after it.
The left-handed swinging outfielder also made great strides with his plate discipline. Kiermaier saw his walk rate nearly double from 4.5 percent in 2015 to 9.7 percent in 2016, while maintaining a nearly identical strikeout rate (17.9 percent).
He finished the season on a tear in September, slashing .302/.385/.500 with five HRs and 11 RBIs, boosted by a 4-for-5 performance on September 8 versus the Yankees, swatting two homers off C.C. Sabathia.
A lot of that damage came with Kiermaier batting second in the lineup, a position from which he produced a .278/.356/.434 slash line with seven homers and 19 RBIs. Down the stretch, Kiermaier’s presence at the top of order provided stability for Tampa Bay.
This shows Kiermaier wasn’t just a defensive mainstay, but an improved offensive player in 2016. His stint on the disabled list was devastating for the Rays defense, and also hurt the offense.
So when considering his characteristically great defense, voters should not dismiss his improved —albeit limited — offense.
This year, it’s clear that of the three center fielders, Bradley was the only one to advance significantly on offense. Kiermaier was also the only one to miss significant time with injury. Pillar essentially replicated his success from the prior season.
If Gold Glove voters are able to focus on defense, then the real competition should be between Pillar and Kiermaier. However, it is possible that Bradley’s superior offensive production will sway some voters. Winners will be announced on Tuesday, November 8.