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We don’t need to talk about Kevin — just yet

Kiermaier’s struggles appear to be part SSS and part shaking-off-the-rust

MLB: Tampa Bay Rays at Miami Marlins Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

One of the strengths of the 2018 Tampa Bay Rays, which has allowed that to remain a .500 team despite moving on from several key contributors from the 2017 squad, has been the lack of weak spots on the roster.

As Jeff Sullivan showed in a recent article on how little negative WAR the Houston Astros have had to take on in 2018, only two teams (said Astros and the Atlanta Braves) have a lower combined negative fWAR from their 2018 roster than the Rays. As Sullivan put it, “Teams like the Rays and Pirates have managed to avoid playing many legitimately bad players…”

The only Rays to have a value below replacement level this season have been: Carlos Gomez (-0.8), Kevin Kiermaier (-0.3), Rob Refsnyder (-0.3), Jesus Sucre (-0.1), Andrew Kittredge (-0.2), Vidal Nuño (-0.1), and Hunter Wood (-0.1). Among that crew, easily the most surprising name is the second one.

Kiermaier was being pegged as the new Face of the Franchise before the season, and he is coming off arguably his best offensive season (career-high HRs; second-highest wRC+) in 2017.

His 2018 season has been a bit of a disaster so far, however. He has already missed two months due to a thumb injury, continuing a string of seasons in which significant time is lost to injury (he’s played more than two-thirds of the season only once in his career so far). In the games he has played (26 of them so far), he is slashing just .143/.243/.224. The center field position that seemed like it would be a defined strength for the Rays before the season started has been a weakness in 2018.

Before we look at a few of the differences in Kiermaier’s profile this season, let’s get the main caveatout of the way. We are looking at barely over 100 plate appearances. We have 463 games before 2018 showing that Kevin Kiermaier is an outstanding baseball player. That is far more useful than the 26 games of 2018, even if those 26 games are the most recent data we have.

That being said, let’s dig in a bit.

Plate Discipline

Let’s start off here, since plate discipline numbers tend to stabilize a bit faster (oh crap, that’s Russell Carlton rapping outside my window, tsk-tsking me), and I’ve always been a big believer in plate discipline as the most important of all the metrics we look at.

Here’s what KK has looked like in 2018 vs. the rest of his career:

Kiermaier plate discipline

Timeframe O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing% O-Contact% Z-Contact% Contact% SwStr% BB% K%
Timeframe O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing% O-Contact% Z-Contact% Contact% SwStr% BB% K%
2018 28.6 69.0 44.6 53.3 77.1 67.9 14.3 9.9 32.4
Career 30.2 69.3 47.2 66.0 84.8 78.0 10.4 7.0 20.3

To me, that looks like some severe SSS theater, with a hint of “shaking off the rust.” KK is swinging at pitches at basically the same rate, he’s just not making contact at the same rate. The odds of KK’s overall contact rate dropping 10 percent overnight seem infinitesimal.

KK may realize his contact rate is down a bit, as his swing rate is also a bit lower. It’s also nice to see the coinciding bump in his walk rate — that sort of patience in the face of a slump is telling. Pressing is the last thing one wants to do in these situations.

Batted Ball Profile

Part of the issue is KK just isn’t making quite as much contact, but how about when he does make contact?

Well, the story isn’t much better.

Kiermaier batted ball profile

Timeframe GB% FB% LD% HR/FB% Pull% Oppo% Soft% Hard%
Timeframe GB% FB% LD% HR/FB% Pull% Oppo% Soft% Hard%
2018 55.7 32.8 11.5 5.0 33.9 21.0 30.6 29.0
Career 48.2 32.2 19.6 11.6 43.1 22.5 24.0 28.4

Kiermaier’s groundball rate is up; his line drive rate has plummeted; and his soft-hit rate is at a career-high. Combine that with a 5.0 percent HR/FB rate that is even lower than before his power burst in 2017, and it’s not surprising that KK is carrying a miniscule .082 ISO.

However, I would posit that even more than SSS, this may be a case of still shaking off the rust (or, in a twist off that theory: maybe still being a bit hurt).

Struggles with the Cheese

One of the noticeable differences in KK’s profile is both the rate at which KK is seeing fastballs (42.5 percent in 2018 compared to 35.0 percent for his career), as well as his success, or lack thereof, against those fastballs. For his career, by FanGraphs’ Pitch Values statistics, he has averaged about +4.5 against fastballs. This season, in just 111 plate appearances, his weighted value against fastball has been -4.8. That figure would be among the worst in baseball, and again: Kiermaier has about a third of the plate appearances that many of his competition have, and this is a cumulative metric.

Take a look at this comparison from Brooks Baseball:

Throughout his career, KK has certainly done better against hard pitches lower in the zone (as most batters do), but the difference has never been this stark. Looking at that second chart makes it obvious we are still dealing with a very small sample, but struggles against high fastballs also seem to scream “not quite back” to me.

Also, circling back to the chart in the previous section, his pull rate is noticeably lower than his career rate, and his soft contact is much higher. Those seem like tell-tale signs of someone just not quite back from a thumb injury.

Rushed Back?

KK was sent to the DL April 15, returning June 19, “just” nine weeks later. I put just in quotations because although nine weeks is a significant amount of time, it’s also three weeks faster than his original prognosis. In fact, Kiermaier won’t reach his original 12-week date until this upcoming Tuesday.

So keep all that in mind when watching him over the next few weeks.

We’re still talking about barely over 100 plate appearances in his season, total. He returned earlier than expected from his injury, and we have plenty of past data to tell us that this is one of the best players in baseball.

Let’s agree to give him some time.