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Appreciating Kevin Kiermaier

The best outfield defender of his generation, he made the Rays interesting.

Tampa Bay Rays v Cincinnati Reds Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images

If Kevin Kiermaier had been drafted in the 31st round by New York or Boston, even Tony Kornheiser would have known who he was. But a player like that can get lost in a small market.

Kiermaier was never the best overall player on the Rays, and in a time when players are too-often reduced to their WAR totals, a Casual National Reporter who doesn’t follow the Rays beat might be forgiven for not thinking too hard about what they weren’t seeing when they weren’t watching. But those who kept their eyes open knew.

When healthy, KK was the best outfield defender in a generation. He was interesting. He was also charismatic. He will be missed.

Kiermaier made his major league debut in 2013 as a defensive replacement in the last game of the regular season, because the Rays wanted to get him playoff eligible.

We here at DRaysBay were hearing absurd whispers about him. Things like, “best defender in the organization” — this from a team that still had Evan Longoria at third base, Ben Zobrist roving everywhere, and Desmond Jennings (not long removed from his top prospect status) patrolling center field.

But Kiermaier was different. Faster, more sudden. He took off at the crack of the bat with a better first step than any center fielder I’d ever seen. The route wasn’t always perfect, because he was already sprinting while most defenders were still getting their read. Kiermaier could adjust.

Outfield defense isn’t about looking suave, it’s about catching fly balls.

Kiermaier was also different on the balls he couldn’t catch. He ran circuitous routes to grounders so that he was approaching with momentum behind a potential throw. Even when there was never going to be a throw.

Every scoop was at full speed. Sometimes he missed the scoop, mostly he didn’t. Maybe he’d have been better if he could turn down the urgency when there was no play to be made. There’s a reason Joe Maddon coined the term “overboogie” just for him. But maybe it was the urgency that made him more than just another fast dude.

Eventually teams learned that the whispers weren’t hyperbole and stopped running on KK. Not as soon as one might have thought. Small market, I guess.

The “just a 31st round draft pick” chip on his shoulder is part of Kiermaier’s creation story, but it’s actually hard to figure how he slipped that late.

It’s not just that KK is fast, he’s powerfully built, too. He was a good safety in high school, and might have played college football if he wasn’t so set on baseball. That same athlete, if you had put him at a power five school and let him try to hack it in two sports? Scouts would have noticed. Doesn’t matter how raw. D’Vontrey Richardson was a 5th round pick.

So yes, Kiermaier has always been an underdog, but that’s because the oddsmakers had it wrong. We didn’t know him in 2010 because we weren’t paying enough attention to the high school circuit in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Says more about us.

It’s a cruel trick of expectation setting that Kiermaier’s first 364 major league plate appearances were his best offensive season. As a 25-year-old he hit .263/.315/.450, walking 6.3% of the time and striking out 19.5% of the time. That made him 17% better than league average.

MLB: Toronto Blue Jays at Tampa Bay Rays Mary Holt-USA TODAY Sports

That type of hitting, with KK’s level of defense, should have put him on the fringes of the MVP conversation for years to come. Of course, he never hit quite like that again. And he only managed to play a “full season” once in his Rays career.

Those two things are connected, of course. Kiermaier was often playing through pain, and even when he was healthy, his injuries cost him development and adjustment time as a major league hitter. That groove was always just out of reach. You could hear his frustration in interviews. His answers to questions about his hitting felt raw and vulnerable. They brought the chip on his shoulder into sharper focus, but I thought the bravado sounded false, awkward, maybe even desperate.

To many fans, he became a guy without an approach, especially against lefties. A guy who seemingly refused to adjust. Probably unfairly, we blamed him for never again reaching those heights from his rookie year.

It was 2019 and the playoff-bound Rays were ahead of the Dodgers, 5-1.

Ji-Man Choi has never been accused of lacking an approach at the plate, but although he was up in the count he had a problem — he couldn’t see left-handed pitcher Caleb Ferguson’s fastball.

Ferguson placed 94 mph on the inner edge, and, though Choi timed it right, he wasn’t able to pull his hands in enough. Awkward swing.

So Ferguson doubled up on the pitch, and this time Choi’s swing was even worse, coming out of his shoes, missing in two planes.

Now 2-2, Ferguson went back to the fastball up and on the inside once more, but this time he missed, leaking his pitch toward the center of the plate. No matter, Choi was seriously overmatched.

Kevin Kiermaier was three batters later in the lineup, the next lefty Ferguson would face. Maybe he talked to Choi in the dugout. Maybe he was just paying attention. He knew Ferguson must have been feeling pretty good about how he’d overpowered the Rays’ first baseman, pretty confident in his fastball. So KK went up looking for it.

It wasn’t a great fastball. It was further over the plate than it should have been, and not all the way up. And one good guess doesn’t make an approach.

But to me this is the enduring image of KK at the plate. No, he didn’t always look comfortable, especially against lefties. There were other fastballs up-and-in that got by him, and there were sliders down and away he should have laid off but couldn’t. But when it all lined up, when he was healthy, when his mind was right, when he got his pitch, man could he turn on a fastball.

Over the years, Kiermaier became one of the more vocal leaders in the Rays clubhouse, so when five Rays pitchers elected not to wear a starburst logo on pride night, he was also asked for comment.

“It’s one of those things. My parents taught me to love everyone as they are, go live your life, whatever your preferences are, go be you,” Kiermaier said. “I can’t speak for everyone who’s in here, obviously, but this is a family-friendly environment here at a big-league ball field. … We just want everyone to feel welcomed and included and cheer us on. No matter what your views on anything are.”

This statement matters.

Part of the purpose of a Pride Night at a baseball stadium is to communicate that people from all parts of the LGBTQ+ spectrum are welcome and accepted, in the stadium, in baseball, and in the world.

It matters that the Rays clubhouse leader — a man who also hunts fish with a bow and arrow — says he wants everyone to feel welcomed. It matters that he frames that welcome in terms of being family-friendly. That queer people are the family to be friendly to, not some bogeyman one has to shield his family from.

Kiermaier reminds us that America is not just a culture war with predefined sides. One can spear a carp and talk like a jock, and yet also want gay kids to feel at home at baseball games.

MLB: Boston Red Sox at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

There’s a set of Rays fans who claim that Kevin Kiermaier is a future Hall of Famer. Or maybe it’s just one Rays fan who says it over and over.

The first time I heard this assertion, I laughed. It’s absurd. Kiermaier never had a Hall of Fame peak, and with his persistent and significant injuries, it’s unlikely he’ll have an exceptional career tail. Also he’s a defense-first player with a league-average bat. If Andruw Jones can’t make it into the Hall, Kiermaier isn’t in the discussion.

But then I couldn’t stop thinking about the claim. What makes a Hall of Famer?

For at least four of his 17 years in the majors, Andruw Jones was among the top few players in the world. Arguably the greatest defensive center fielder of all time, and his hitting was consistently above average. He hasn’t been voted in yet because (a) some voters don’t seem to understand the importance of defense and (b) he was never again good after the age of 30, and some voters care deeply about career stats accumulation.

But did anybody watching Andruw Jones play every day in 1998 doubt his greatness? Was there anyone watching in 2005 who didn’t believe Jones was destined for the Hall?

With hindsight we judge players by numbers spread over 20-year careers — a vantage point from which the actual baseball is imperceptible — despite the fact that we experienced those same careers in moments.

Kevin Kiermaier is taking his platinum glove to Toronto, while the Rays will have Jose Siri, about as similar a replacement as one could imagine, manning center field in The Trop.

It wasn’t all glorious, one might have wished for more. But the Rays fans who were paying attention, if they didn’t blink, saw moments of brilliance from Kevin Kiermaier that one couldn’t find anywhere else in baseball.

I’ve still never watched a Hall of Famer play for my team, but I do know what one looks like.