Kevin Kiermaier is the best defensive player in the game.
He has been incredible at times this year, pulling off mesmerizing catches that other players could only dream of making. Heading into play yesterday, FanGraphs pegged him with a DRS—or defensive runs saved—of 5, which is tied for the 3rd most for all outfielders.
Then things like this happen.
Kevin Kiermaier straight up whiffs as he goes for a grounder. He didn’t get his glove down in time, letting the ball go straight by and all the way to the wall. The runner on base scored easily, while the batter was able to circle the bases as well.
Kiermaier has made this play time and time again and has usually gotten an assist out of it as his cannon for an arm typically throws out any runner attempting to score or advance on him.
#Rays Kiermaier's 3 errors this series matched his total in previous 144 games/140 starts. He has 4 this season. Made 2 last year— Roger Mooney (@RogerMooney50) May 11, 2017
However, this has gone from a rare occurrence to more of a daily thing with Kiermaier, as a similar incident happened only a couple of days ago during a game against the Royals at Tropicana, where Kiermaier had another ball skip past him. The deja vu-like result was a triple and ultimately another Royals run.
Earlier this year, Kevin Kiermaier was close to making another one of his routine awe-inspiring catches when he once again just whiffed on the ball.
It’s hard to tell when this started for him, but it appears to be around when he was pulled for an illness during the middle of the game on April 23. Since returning from that illness, he hasn’t been the same, whether it be at the plate or in centerfield. Kiermaier has a 12 wRC+ over his last 72 PA dating back to that game on April 23rd.
Costly errors are problematic no matter who commits them, but Kiermaier has emerged as both the heart and face of the franchise, and while we want to consider this problem dispassionately, we have to admit that our hearts are breaking just a little bit.
So, what’s going on here?
Theory 1: Nothing’s going on, this is random, it’s expected regression. Move along, nothing to see.
This is the highly-logical, but probably too highly-logical response. Kiermaier has once again been performing well in terms of defensive runs saved, but in just one series he managed to exceed his error total from last season. There’s nothing normal about such a cluster of terrible plays from a reliable fielder.
Theory 2: Kiermaier is adjusting to the turf.
This theory holds some water. Two of his three big misplays this season have come with the ball skipping along the turf towards him. While Kiermaier has made plays looks so easy for so long in Tampa Bay, it is easy to forget that there is a lot of natural reaction that comes from years of fielding grounders off the turf both during games and practice. If the new turf is indeed juuuussst different enough to create some fast or funky bounces that could certainly explain a good chunk of Kiermaier’s struggles.
However, it wouldn’t be able to explain his misplay of the line drive noted earlier, or the fact that Kiermaier just hasn’t quite looked Full Kiermaier this season. It also wouldn’t explain why none of the other outfielders are having the same troubles. Corey Dickerson can sometimes look like he’s getting directions from an out-of-date Mapquest printout on his routes to fly balls, but I can’t remember any ground balls skipping under his glove. Same with Souza.
The turf may very well be the explanation the Rays and their brass give for the time being, but I’m not sure I’m fully buying it.
Theory 3: Kiermaier has the yips.
The full Steve Sax. The Chuck Knoblauch of diseases. This is too terrifying to acknowledge.
For those who don’t what ‘The Yips’ are, here’s a brief explanation
The Yips is no mythological plague. For reasons unknown, players can encounter a mental hurdle that flat-out won't permit them to complete one of the game's mundane on-field tasks. Infielders suddenly can't find the first baseman's glove on routine throws. Catchers can't execute the simple task of returning the ball to the pitcher. - Zack Meisel / MLB.com
Theory 4: The plot of the movie Space Jam.
As noted above, these defensive troubles seemed to begin right around the time he was removed from a game on April 21. Earlier in that very game, Kiermaier had made an incredible play on a Brian McCann would-be double (and maybe more), leaping at the wall to make the catch.
Swackhammer, having the Rays’ game on in the background at his evil theme park, saw the catch and decided he needed a baseball team to complement his basketball team. (This theory takes place in an alternate universe in which the Monstars won, and Michael Jordan is an employee for Swackhammer at his evil theme park).
Swackhammer and his Nerdlucks ended up sneaking into the Trop in the sixth inning of that same game, and one shot up Kiermaier’s nose, stealing his centerfield powers. Kiermaier left that fateful April 21 game feeling ill. Yeah, I’d feel ill if a two-foot alien slimed its way into and out of my body too. Now, we haven’t yet seen this happening to other stud defensive outfielders like Kevin Pillar and Billy Hamilton, but I think it’s only a matter of time. Keep your eyes peeled for suspicious and wobbling “men” in trench coats at the Trop. And be on the lookout for Bill Murray and Larry Bird on local Florida golf courses.
I think there’s something to this.