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Kevin Kiermaier is being used as the lineup's best hitter

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Minnesota Twins v Tampa Bay Rays Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images

Last week Kevin Cash announced they would be moving Kevin Kiermaier up to the two-hole in the lineup. The natural reaction is to say that Kiermaier’s speed should play well at the top of the lineup, but a guy with a .307 career on base percentage isn’t typically who you want to be batting ahead of your power bats.

The Rays don’t really have great options for what some call the most important spot in the lineup after they had moved Logan Forsythe to lead off, because he’s one of the few on the current roster with good OBP skills, and Longoria to third, where he is most comfortable.

Now that Steve Pearce and Brandon Guyer are gone Kevin Kiermaier is left as third highest OBP on the team at .317 this season behind Forsythe (.346) and Evan Longoria (.332) among players who have received at least 100 plate appearances.

OBP is a function of batting average and walk rate. To be a high OBP guy you need to be good in at least one of those categories, and ideally both.

Kiermaier is showing the skills this year that he could succeed in this role, and perhaps it is more reps in the two-hole that will make that shine.

What batting average should we expect from Kiermaier going forward?

Batting average is highly volatile year to year and this year is seeing the worst results on balls in play in Kiermaier’s career. He is batting .217 after two consecutive years of batting .263. This is due to a .242 BABIP (batting average on balls in play) after posting identical .306 BABIPs in 2014 and 2015.

Due to Kiermaier’s speed you would expect him to run higher-than-average BABIPs, but his batted ball profile doesn’t make for the best use of his greatest skills in his speed and hustle. He’s a fly ball hitter that doesn’t hit a lot of line drives or groundballs which are the biggest drivers of BABIP rates.

xBABIP likes Kiermaier for a .287 BABIP. That’s still much higher than his .242 rate this year. A .045 BABIP increase would see his batting average increase by .037 and would put him at .254.

A .254 batting average coincides with what Steamer and ZiPS projects for the rest of the season at .257 and .254 respectively.

There is some upside in Kiermaier’s batting average as in the past he has shown the ability to hit groundballs at an above average rate. In 2014 he ran a 52.6% ground ball rate and 47.8% rate last year. This year that’s dropped to 42.2%.

He’s also seen a spike in infield fly ball rate of 21.9% after posting 13.0% and 13.4% rates the last two seasons. Any gains in this area will be welcomed as they are essentially the same as a strike out.

Kiermaier is likely a .250-.260 batting average guy moving forward which is fine. Asking for anything more with the rest of the package that Kiermaier brings would be extremely greedy, but if he does make any improvements he could move from being really good to being a super star. That alone is worth the gamble in a rebuilding year.

Are Kiermaier’s new found walks for real?

Meanwhile, this year Kiermaier has shown much better plate discipline as he’s coming off a season where he walked only 4.5% of the time. In 2014 he walked a bit more but it wasn’t a strength as he walked 6.3% of plate appearances. In 2016 that number has spiked to 12.5%.

The numbers are ever more absurd when you split his season as before he broke his hand and after returning. In the first 137 PA of the season Kiermaier was issued a walk in 8.0% of PA, but since his return he’s walked in 17.5% of PA in 97 PA. Walk rates are one of the first stats to stabilize at 120 PA.

He’s swinging at less pitches as his swing rate is at 42.7% after 47.0% and 50.8% the last two years. League average is 46.4%, so he’s gone from more swing happy than normal to passive.

Pitchers aren’t throwing him strikes as often as he’s the percentage of balls thrown in the zone is at 43.4% where league average is 45.1%. The last two seasons he was thrown strikes 49.1% and 49.2% of the time.

So is his newfound passive approach related to not being thrown strikes or his unwillingness to swing? That’s an important question that will be answered as he adjusts when he’s thrown more strikes.

Kiermaier is being thrown the 24th least amount of strikes among batters with 200+ plate appearances this season. The players around him are either guys with big time power and draw elevated walk rates or guys that swing at balls out of the zone at an above average rate.

He’s not being thrown strikes and he’s not chasing so that’s a good indicator of walks, but are pitchers going to continue avoiding a guy that doesn’t have great power and a threat on the bases with his speed.

What to expect moving forward?

Since moving to the two hole in the lineup on August 2nd, Kiermaier is batting .257/.350/.400 and 110 wRC+. It’s only 40 PA, but nothing looks crazy out of line as his walk rate is 12.5% which coincides with his rate on the season. If he does that he’ll be fine at the top of the lineup.

If he stabilizes at a 10% walk rate you could expect a .255/.335/.415 line and that’s still fine for the top of the lineup. If it moves much below that, there should be better options going forward.

The newcomer Matt Duffy could also play well in the No. 2 role. For the Giants he batted anywhere from second through sixth, but he his most consistent appearances batting third. I think his batted ball profile could really excel in the two hole and will be Kiermaier’s biggest competition moving forward, though in the mean time will likely hit between Miller and Dickerson at No. 5.

Now is the opportunity to experiment with ways to utilize the roster.

Personally, I’d love for it to work out as a lineup with Matt Duffy, Kevin Kiermaier, Evan Longoria, and Brad Miller, with Logan Forsythe and Corey Dickerson knocking them in. That would allow you to make better use of Forsythe’s contact and power combination in the middle of the lineup as a run producer, with protection from Dickerson behind.

It might not work, but there are reasons to believe it could. This sort of experimentation begins, though, with Kiermaier hitting second.

Let’s see how it goes.