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Dear Kevin Kiermaier: don’t slow down!

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Yes, his daring style creates injury risks, but KK needs to go all out to create that magic in center field.

Tampa Bay Rays v Toronto Blue Jays Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

Tampa Bay Rays center fielder Kevin Kiermaier has averaged just 97 games per season since the start of 2016. A broken wrist here, a broken hip there, the Rawlings Platinum Glover has certainly earned his reputation of being ‘injury prone’ thanks to his all out style of play. Fans, scouts and pundits alike have wondered whether he should take it easy.

But that’s, just, not his game. He is ‘The Outlaw,’ after all.

Despite a disappointing 2018, which included career lows in games played (88) and wRC+ (78), Kiermaier is still held in high regard relative to his peers. Recently, he was ranked the 10th best center fielder in baseball according to MLB Network’s ‘The Shredder.’ While his style of play gives him much of his value, especially in terms of defense and baserunning, it may continue to limit his time on the field.

And that’s perfectly okay.

Defensive value

One thing we should all know by now is that Kiermaier is the best defensive center fielder in the game. In terms of Defensive Runs Saved and Ultimate Zone Rating, he’s head and shoulders above the next tier of players since moving to the position full time in 2015, despite missing over 150 games combined over the last three seasons.

2015-2018 DRS among center fielders

Player DRS Innings in CF
Player DRS Innings in CF
Kevin Kiermaier 103 3624.0
Lorenzo Cain 51 4243.0
Kevin Pillar 48 5044.2
Ender Inciarte 39 3896.2
Billy Hamilton 36 4331.2

2015-2018 UZR among center fielders

Player UZR Innings in CF
Player UZR Innings in CF
Kevin Kiermaier 48.6 3624.0
BIlly Hamilton 33.8 4331.2
Lorenzo Cain 26.9 4243.0
Kevin Pillar 26.6 5044.2
Leonys Martin 24.3 2782.0

Expand that to all players, and Kiermaier remains at the top in DRS and third in UZR. In his injury shortened ‘18 season, he still managed to rank third in DRS and first in UZR. In other words, he hasn’t lost any ability, and his injuries haven’t seemed to accelerate his aging curve in any way on defense. On a Rays team where many players come to the field carrying three different gloves, everyone knows that center field belongs to Kiermaier.

Offensive outlook

Kiermaier’ bat looked to be on an upward trajectory coming into 2018 after posting wRC+’s of 97, 104 and 112 from ‘15-17. In what should have been the year he put it all together and became among the game’s elite, he instead had his worst offensive campaign to date, which included a 48 wRC+ in the fist half. After the break, however, he bounced back, producing at exactly league average to end the season, helped out by a 161 wRC+ in September.

For his career, he’s a league average hitter (101 wRC+) with decent power (.166 career ISO), which makes him extremely valuable at his position, especially considering his premium glove. At his best — when he slashed .276/.338/.450 in ‘17 — He’s similar to ‘17-18 A.J. Pollock (.261/.323/.477). At his worst (78 wRC+ in ‘18), he’s Peter Bourjos.

Projections have him back to or around the league average, with a 92 wRC+ on the low end (Steamer) and 99 on the high end (THE BAT). It’s difficult to see him getting back to the high end of his production considering his walk to strikeout skill set trending in the wrong direction three years running, but it’s also hard to imagine Kiermaier’s ‘18 season as anything but an outlier. Considering projections tend to be conservative, it’s reasonable to think slightly above league average production (105-110 wRC+) is within the realm of possibility.

Playing it safe

Every year, someone asks a question like this:

Why doesn’t KK tone it down a little bit? Surely, he doesn’t have to play so aggressively all the time, right?

In theory, he could benefit from maximizing his time on the field. For that matter, so would the organization as a whole — who signed him to a contract extension in ‘17, and the pitching staff — since his ability alone helps pitchers prevent runs.

But Kevin Kiermaier didn’t become what he is today by holding back and playing is safe. For better or worse, it’s what had gotten the former 31st round draft pick all the way to this point. And in order for the Rays to contend in ‘19, he needs to continue being the outlaw — even if that comes at the expense of some time off the field.

In this article from The Ringer, Ben Lindbergh chronicles Bryce Harper’s defensive struggles, citing (among other reasons) Harper’s hesitation on low liners hit in front of him and deep fly balls near the wall. If the cost of keeping Kiermaier on the field is diminished defense, it will take away much more value than it will add.

Imagine if Kiermaier decided to play it safe on this play, because it was the very first pitch of the season:

Or this one, because it was only the fourth inning of a day game following a night game:

If Kiermaier has ‘play it safe’ in the back of his mind in those moments, who’s to say it won’t keep him from making those same plays in moments when it counts?

Moments like this one, in the top of the 9th of a one run game with a man on 2nd against the defending champions:

Conclusion

If there is one position that is definitely not up for grabs in 2019, it’s center field. While it’s frustrating to see Kiermaier go down with his seemingly annual freak injury, we need not forget just how good he is when he’s on the field. The newly released PECOTA projections from Baseball Prospectus peg him as the team’s best player at 2.9 WARP.

Additionally, the Rays front office have done a better job than ever of building depth in the outfield. Tommy Pham, Austin Meadows and Guillermo Heredia are all capable of playing more than serviceable defense should a prolonged absence come.

If he brings the Rays anything in the neighborhood of 100-120 games of elite defense and league average offense, they’ll be more than happy. If he can manage to stay healthy and also find his 2017 bat in the process, they may have a dark horse MVP candidate.