Kevin Kiermaier is set to enter his tenth season as a Tampa Bay Ray. For the second winter in a row he has been the subject of trade rumors. This makes some sense as he’s entering the final guaranteed season of the six-year extension he signed in 2017. He’s set to make $12MM in 2022 and the Rays have a capable replacement with Brett Phillips, with Josh Lowe waiting in the wings.
Kiermaier is one of the longest-serving players in Rays history, and represents a bridge between the first generation of winning Rays teams (his 2013 teammates included Alex Cobb, David Price and Evan Longoria) and the current generation. You can say his play — strengths and imperfections alike — personifies the “Rays Way”.
Kiermaier has made a name for himself as one of the most dominant defensive players in the modern era. Other centerfielders may have elite speed, jump, arm strength, or accuracy, but do any have all four of these attributes?
DRS only dates back to the 2003 season, but over the course of the 19 seasons tracked Kiermaier places in the top ten regardless of position at +132. The top ten consists of Adrian Beltre (+200), Andrelton Simmons (+197), Yadier Molina (+175), Jason Heyward (+147), Albert Pujols (+138), Nolan Arenado (+136), Kevin Kiermaier (+132), Russell Martin (+131), Mark Ellis (+130), and Chase Utley (+123). Kiermaier has made this list despite only playing 6,213 innings defensively and is the only player with fewer than 10,000 innings at a position to make the top ten.
UZR dates back to the 2002 season. UZR credits Kiermaier with +71.4 runs which would rank 19th. The only center fielder ahead of Kiermaier is Andruw Jones with +118.2 UZR.
This is the area of the field that Kiermaier excels and over the past handful of years he’s settled into a +10-13 DRS and +7-10 UZR range. This is a slightly step down from his peak in 2015-2017, but he’s still an impact defender.
At the plate
Kiermaier has never been an impact player at the plate; just how much of an asset or liability he has been is a topic of discussion among Rays fans.
It likely would shock most Rays fans that for his career Kiermaier has been roughly a league average hitter. He’s put up a .249/.310/.410 line and 98 wRC+ over 3,130 plate appearances.
Kiermaier’s gotten there by being good from 2014-17 where he put up a .262/.319/.431 line and 107 wRC+ over 1,734 plate appearances. In 2018-19 he put up very lackluster results with a .223/.280/.386 line and 79 wRC+ before rebounding over the last two years with a .247/.326/.381 line and 99 wRC+.
Kiermaier’s strikeout rate is up recently, but so is his walk rate. This has helped his OBP push above .300 and make him a far more productive member of the offense. He’s generated less over the fence power, but an increased line drive and groundball rate has led to a higher BABIP. I’m less convinced about the value of his balls in play, but the nearly 4% walk rate increase means he’ll need less of the BABIP to stick in order to provide more offensive value.
Hall of Fame?
This weekend online discussions posed the question of whether Kiermaier is on a Hall of Fame career trajectory. My instant reaction was there was absolutely no way. The offense isn’t up to the very high bar that is a Hall of Fame career. Then I dug into the numbers.
Kiermaier’s path to the Hall relies on his defense, in a way remiscent of Ozzie Smith. Smith was a mediocre hitter putting up a .262/.337/.328 line and 90 wRC+ over 10,778 career plate appearances. Unfortunately current defensive metrics weren’t used far enough back to have a reasonable way to compare them with numbers and not just reputation. And of course KK won’t even be an afterthought if the voters don’t go for Andruw Jones, the front runner in UZR by a CF by a good margin. Jones wasn’t a great hitter but he put up a 111 wRC+ and hit 434 homers.
For Kiermaier, the defense and baserunning has gotten him to 21.4 fWAR and 30.7 rWAR. The difference mostly comes from fWAR using UZR to evaluate defense and rWAR using DRS. This comes out to just over 4 fWAR/600 PA and just under 6 rWAR/600 PA.
This is a very good rate of play and if we were talking a full career that spanned nearly 20 years this would get you in the conversation. And there’s the problem: Many players have had fantastic starts to their career but if they fall off a cliff in their early to mid 30s they just don’t get the counting stats to get the votes. Kiermaier needs another 8+ years in the majors of mostly doing what he’s done to get there. A player who counts on elite speed and agility might not, however, have 8+ great years left.