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Kevin Kiermaier needs to prove he’s more than a great centerfielder

It’s a rare thing, indeed, to have a defense-first fielder

World Series - Tampa Bay Rays v Los Angeles Dodgers - Game Six Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

On a team where it can be difficult to commit to buying a player jersey over fears of looming obscolesence, Kevin Kiermaier has been a steadfast fixture. The long-standing face of the franchise, Kiermaier has delivered sensational play after sensational play from his place in center field, and has undoubtedly been one of the best defensive centerfielders in the game over the last decade.

What makes Kiermaier interesting, and even unique in a sense, is that his dazzling defensive ability is truly his bread and butter. Traditionally speaking, there are two roles on a baseball field where you can expect a team to allow for a defense-first/bat-second mindset: catcher and shortstop. They are positions where defensive ability is naturally prized above offensive production, and positions that are difficult to fill with really quality players.

Kiermaier is a rare example of a defense-first centerfielder. A player whose outfield prowess and skill are so dominant that his team will generally overlook a lackluster season at the plate because of what he brings in terms of defensive advantage.

First let’s dive into where Kiermaier excels. The 30-year-old has three Gold Gloves and one Platinum Glove to his name, but in spite of his face of the franchise status, he has never gotten close to an MVP season, nor made an All-Star squad (the latter of which, granted, owes to fan votes and not skill).

He is consistently above average in his defensive statistics, having never posted a seasonal DRS below 10 (his best year, 2015, he had a DRS of 38); and his UZR has likewise always been positive, posting between a 4.9 and and 18.7. It’s easy to see at a glance that even in seasons where his bat has slumped, Kiermaier has never been a defensive liability.

In terms of the recently adopted Jump metric, which measures an outfielders’ response time to difficult plays, Kiermaier again shows his value, as the stat seems designed to reflect well on his skills. For quite some time he was number one in this stat, and remains in the top ten, but it bears noticing who is right behind him on this list.

Kiermaier is likely not at an immediate risk of losing his centerfield job to Manuel Margot. Margot’s overall offensive numbers are no more impressive than Kiermaier’s, both are below-average in terms of wRC+, and Margot’s defense is still a positive, but not to the same level as Kiermaier. That said, it’s still interesting to see Margot’s increasing outfield prowess, and will be worth it to see how he develops defensively.

Where Kiermaier struggles the most — aside from staying healthy — is at bat. He has a career wRC+ of only 97, and in the shortened 2020 season hit only .217/.321/.362 over 49 games. It might be easy to suggest that’s the small sample size of a shortened season, but in the 2019 season, over 129 games, he hit .228/.278/.398. He hasn’t been an above-average hitter since 2017 when he had a wRC+ of 113 and hit for .276/.338/.450.

He showed some spark in the World Series, hitting .368/.400/.737 which was much-needed over those six games.

For the 2021 season, Kiermaier has already had a quality start to spring, with 10 hits in 10 games, hitting .435/.458/.696. Sure, it’s spring training, so take it with a whopping grain of salt, but it still shows some overall promise. If Kiermaier can maintain some of the spark he has shown early in spring while also continuing to do what he does best, then it will be a good year ahead.

If, however, he reverts to his old ways and struggles at the plate, it’s not unlikely we may seem him splitting the centerfield position with Margot — who played that position in San Diego — more frequently.