The past two years, Kevin Kiermaier has taken the baseball world by storm. There's his cannon of an arm that has hurled baseballs at speeds of over a 100mph. Then there are his awe-inspiring "he can't possibly get there" catches. It's as though he's daring hitters to try to get a hit to center. 2015 ended with his receiving what should be the first of many Gold Glove awards.
However, the one question mark that faces Kiermaier is whether he'll be able to contribute sufficient offense to make him more than just a good defensive center fielder. He never really hit all that much in the minors with his glove propelling him through the system. But he emerged as the rare hitter who looks better in the majors than he had in the minors, putting up a well above average year in 2014, then a close to league average year in 2015.
If Kiermaier continues to develop his offense tools, he will be an asset indeed. What can we expect from him moving forward?
His OBP and SLG, as well has BB% all dropped in 2015 compared to his rookie campaign. No doubt major league pitchers adjusted to Kiermaier. Major league defenders, as well, learned that Kiermaier busts it out of the box the moment he makes contact, cutting down on hits he can "steal" by hustling.
Whatever the case, it seems Kiermaier has a new approach in 2016 that could help sustain his offensive production, as well as allow him to start everyday against LHP, against whom he has a career wRC+ of 65. So far in 2016, Kiermaier has a 107 wRC+ against LHP, suggesting that he's doing something differently.
What might that be?
The Rays haven't faced very many left-handed pitchers this year and the sample size is incredible small, but just taking a look at the numbers, plus observing Kiermaier's at-bats against southpaws, it appears that he isn't swinging all that much.
After Sunday's game, Kiermaier had walked four times in 19 plate appearance against lefties. In contrast, he's walked just three times in near three times the plate appearances against right-handed pitching. Small sample size? Yes, but these are enough at bats at least to generate a hypothesis that KK is adopting a more patient approach against same-handed hitting.
Overall, Kiermaier has actually dropped his swing percentage three percent from last year at time when the team philosophy has stressed aggressive at-bats. However, he is still swinging at nearly the same percentage of pitches in the zone, he has just improved his plate discipline and is laying off pitches out of the zone.
To further illustrate, compare this below:
In 2015, you can see Kiermaier had trouble laying off pitches either away or below the zone against left-handed pitchers, as well as anything above the zone. So truly, you can see there were plate discipline issues happening.
Moving onto, the again, very small sample size of 2016 against southpaws.
Kiermaier is only swinging at pitches that are punishable and he is mostly spitting on anything else unless his either protecting the plate or way ahead in the count.
Will he be able to continue this approach as the season wears on? I believe it just depends on how often he is still able to make hard contact against left-handed pitchers (an unsustainable 58.3% currently) making hurlers be more careful about where they pitch him, thus allowing Kiermaier to be selective and continue to work counts and draw walks as he has been doing.
However, even if Kiermaier begins to fumble against left-handed pitching, his glove certainly still warrants him playing every day. Moreover, Kiermaier has been continuously excellent against right-handed pitching through out his career, evidenced by a career 122 wRC+ against RHP, as well as a 131 wRC+ so far this year over 57 plate appearances.