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Kevin Kiermaier vs. Kevin Pillar: Not Really that Close

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Even with Kevin Pillar’s amazing play, Kevin Kiermaier is still king of center field.

KK Diving Catch
There is no giveth, only taketh away (Photo Cred: AP Photo/Chris Meadera)

Our Rays have enjoyed playing spoiler to the struggling Blue Jays as they just finished off a series win with a commanding 8-1 victory yesterday.

Whenever these two teams play it's always a good series for two reasons, the first being the Rays have had success against the Jays, and the second being the stellar centerfield defense on display by both teams. Kevin Kiermaier and Kevin Pillar are must watch TV. Acrobatic catches and rocket-fueled outfield assists. These division mates make them on a daily basis.

Although both are terrific defenders, though, comparisons are inevitable. Both are speedy centerfielders with tremendous defensive ability, who play in the same division and share the name, Kevin. Which is better?

Let’s take a look.

Last year it was almost unanimous that Kevin Kiermaier was the better of the two with his otherworldly and record breaking 42 Defensive Runs Saved (DRS). Pillar was no slouch with a respectable 14 DRS, but it wasn’t close based on defensive metrics. Offensively they were much closer as the table below shows. Overall, Kiermaier nudged Pillar to the tune of a 5.4 WAR to Pillar’s 4.3 in 2015.

PA HR SB BB% K% wRC+
Kiermaier 535 10 18 4.5% 17.8% 97
Pillar 628 12 25 4.5% 13.5% 93

This year, Kiermaier missed considerable time to injury, but since returning is thriving in the two hole, becoming the far more dominant player at the plate as he has a 104 wRC+ to Pillar’s 79. Kiermaier is producing an above average wRC+ thanks to a much-improved walk rate (above 10%) which is significantly increasing his overall value. While both players offer some offensive value, they have made their name playing terrific defense.

Inn DRS ARM UZR UZR/150
Kiermaier 759.1 19 2 10.2 25.8
Pillar 1140.2 17 1.1 19.3 28.1

To date, Kiermaier leads Pillar with 19 DRS compared to 17, despite Kiermaier playing in 381.1 fewer innings.

Dividing out DRS by innings played we see that Kiermaier has saved a run for every 39.9 innings he has played this year. Pillar meanwhile has saved a run for every 67 innings he has played. If KK continued his rate of DRS over the same amount of innings as Pillar, he would have saved 28 defensive runs (9 more than Pillar).

KK’s 39.6 also paces other outfielders with 20 or more DRS - Adam Eaton (59.7), Colby Rasmus (42.85) and Mookie Betts (42.7).

Next, I want to look at UZR comparisons, but while considering the inconsistencies in small sample sizes of UZR as stated in Alex Remington’s piece about UZR. All defensive metrics really deserve a disclaimer, as they have been known to swing significantly over small samples. They are not perfect measurements of performance, even when they do offer a way to compare players, but that is most problematic with UZR:

"There are serious sample size problems and UZR often has major fluctuations from month to month and even year to year. Because of that many people prefer to look at three-year UZRs in order to have stable data."

With that in mind, we should analyze the past three seasons of UZR data for Kiermaier and Pillar. And again, it’s not even close.

Kiermaier bests Pillar with a 57.9 UZR over 2762.5 innings to Pillar’s 37.7 UZR over 2794.4 Innings. Kiermaier’s superior UZR is pretty telling. Kiermaier has saved 20 more runs than Pillar over a similar inning count.

Kiermaier also has scored a 2.0 ARM compared to Pillar’s 1.1. Fangraphs ARM stat stands for Outfield Arm Runs, and is defined as "the amount of runs above average an outfielder saves with their arm by preventing runners from advancing." ARM is used as a component of UZR.

So Kiermaier saves runs at a much higher rate than Pillar and also has a stronger arm which was on display last series against the Yankees when he threw a bullet home that reached 99 MPH according to Statcast (2nd fastest outfield assist this season).

So far this season, he has compiled a 3.1 WAR to Pillar’s 2.8 which once again is phenomenal considering his missed time due to injury.

Conclusion

The Rays clearly still think Kiermaier is the better defender as they took a small jab (possibly) at Mr. Pillar with the below tweet, that they sent out three days ago.

In this fun comparison between two divisional defensive elites. I agree with the Rays thinking that KK is still the undisputed best centerfielder in baseball.

Kiermaier’s offensive improvements have pushed his value through the roof, making him one of the best players in baseball when healthy.

In no way am I trying to detract from what Pillar can do in the field (he is an amazing player), but Kiermaier is simply more.