Kevin Kiermaier exploded onto the scene mid 2014 with elite outfield range, a cannon for an arm, and a penchant for generating highlight reel plays. If anyone doubted that this level of defensive excellence could be sustained for a full season, 2015 gave them a definitive answer. Not only did KK prove to be the best defender in Rays history (according to Ultimate Zone Rating and Defensive Runs Saved), he also boasted the best season by both metrics in recorded baseball history (min. 1000 innings). His historic play earned him his first gold and platinum gloves awards.
Though known primarily as an elite (or the best ever) defender, KK is no slouch against right handed pitching. At 108 wRC+, Kiermaier was 8% above league average on offense vs RHP, but struggled vs lefties with 71 wRC+. This was at least an improvement (against lefties) over the 137/42 wRC+ he posted in 2014. His defense was enough to get him to the majors, but the improvement vs LHP meant the Rays could benefit from his everyday play in center field.
In 2015, compared to how other hitters perform with similar pitches:
Against Fastballs (1,211 seen), he had a very aggressive approach at the plate (-0.14 c) with an above average likelihood to swing and miss (20% whiff/swing). When he connected (168 tracked), he generated average power (89.5 mph average exit velocity) and sprays the ball to all fields (2.2° average spray angle).
Against Breaking Pitches (504 seen), he had a steady approach at the plate (-0.00 c) with a below average likelihood to swing and miss (25% whiff/swing). When he connected (61 tracked), he generated average power (86 mph average exit velocity) and is a pull hitter (18.9° average spray angle).
Against Offspeed Pitches (205 seen), he had an aggressive approach at the plate (-0.41 c) with a below average likelihood to swing and miss (24% whiff/swing). When he connected (43 tracked), he generated average power (86 mph average exit velocity) and is a pull hitter (21.1° average spray angle).
Brooks Baseball has him as an aggressive hitter with average power and roughly average ability to make contact. That sounds just fine for a glove-first center fielder. Here are his statistics from Fangraphs:
According to the Wikipedia page for Defensive Runs Saved (DRS), the best fielders typically save 15-20 runs more than the average defender. Kiermaier lead the majors with 42. The next best defender (Andrelton Simmons) had 25 DRS.
According to Fangraphs, +15 UZR is Gold Glove Caliber. Kiermaier led the majors with a 40.4 UZR/150. The next best defender (Jayson Heyward) had 22.3 UZR/150.
With more than 2000 innings played in a major league outfield, it's time to start considering if Kevin Kiermaier is the best outfield defender we've ever seen. I, for one, don't need any more convincing.
Two things that made him such a good defender, instincts and speed, translated into his league leading 12 triples. Those same skills also allowed him to do things like this:
That is a single for almost every other hitter in baseball, but Kiermaier seemed to make that play more than ten times throughout the season.
According to Baseball Heatmaps, Kiermaier's average batted ball distance did not crack the top 300 in 2015. So if he doesn't hit the ball very far, how was his .156 ISO (a measure of batter strength based on number of bases per hit) the 83rd best in baseball?
It's because of plays like these where his elite speed and instincts translate into extra bags when slower players have to settle for less. Oh and does that second baseman look familiar? If not, he will after this season. (Hint: He is now a Tampa Bay Ray!)
If you have 6 minutes to spare, watch those same skills on the defensive side in the highlight reel below. Let me say that more emphatically. You need to watch the highlight reel below.
Many of the plays in the highlight reel were made at the very edge of KK's range, meaning most defenders wouldn't have stood a chance to even attempt a catch.
A truly great defender makes a lot of difficult plays look easy, and KK looks comfortable for nearly the whole video. Amazing.
Even though Kiermaier has been worth 6.33 WAR per 600 PA over the first 900 PA of his career, Steamer thinks KK will take a step back from historic to merely elite defense. Though that would have a significant impact on his value, this looks more like his floor, with a much higher ceiling if he continues doing what he's been doing. PECOTA knows what's up and projected a more likely outcome for the best defensive outfielder in baseball.
Going into 2016 as a 25 year old, there's no reason to think Kevin Kiermaier is going to slow down. He should be a strong contender to lead the majors in triples and almost every defensive metric applicable to an outfielder.
There is also a very real possibility he takes a step forward by improving his efficiency and volume of stolen bases. With such a high floor set with his defense, it is easy to imagine Kevin Kiermaier patrolling center field for the Tampa Bay Rays until the next decade.