2016 Hitter Reviews: Kevin Kiermaier
So far in this series we have taken in depth looks at how Corey Dickerson, Logan Forysthe, Evan Longoria, and Brad Miller fared during the 2016 season. Today, we’ll dig into the Rays dynamic center fielder Kevin Kiermaier. While, the glove gets most of the glory, Kiermaier has turned himself into a league-average or better hitter. If anybody had seen him being able to do this he would have showed up on any prospect lists, but most didn’t think the bat would play. Kiermaier has shown some evolution as a hitter over his career, and now looks like a guy with a sound approach at the plate who leverages his speed to inflate his power numbers. Being elite at a premium defensive position means that he doesn’t need to hit much, but doing so is what makes him one of the quietest superstars in the game. Let’s see how he compares to the other 481 players that had at least 60 plate appearances in 2016:
His approach is mostly down the middle without extremes. You can see that his hit distribution is fairly balanced between singles and extra bases. Part of this is the hustle double that sees just about everyone else running through the bag, but you also see some sneaky, over-the-fence pop. Kiermaier took big strides in his non-batted ball plate appearances that sees both his walk and strikeout numbers in the upper third of players, where usually you see some tradeoff. You should infer from this that he is comfortable working deep into counts. Not shown here, but he more than doubled his walk rate from 2015 without really changing his strikeout rate in any meaningful way. Adding walks is huge for a guy that has the speed you want to see at the top of a lineup. I’m only showing four players that were between 65% and 75% for both strikeout and walk rates. Kiermaier is joined by Cristhian Adames, Anthony Rendon and Kole Calhoun. Those last two are pretty solid big league hitters, and Kiermaier put up essentially the same Iso as Kole Calhoun. I think most would prefer the latter, but for fantasy, but imagine getting that stick on the best center fielder of our lifetime.
With the additional walks you can see that his on-base percentage ends up being the strongest component of his slash line relative to his peers. His average is a little below average, which hides that his Iso was a little bit above if you were to only look at his roughly average SLG. Surprisingly, Kiermaier had a bottom third BABIP last year. It isn’t something you would expect from a world class runner, but he could be Carl Lewis, and it would hardly matter if you hit more pop flies than virtually any other batter. Those pop ups really held him back in all aspects, but the liner and homer per flyball rates were right around the average. Taking a step back it is hard to say that Kiermaier was lucky at the plate, which might be something that tilts in his favor this upcoming year. Turning some of those pop ups into flyballs to the outfield would certainly help.
In the aggregate he showed an above average wOBA that, of course, pushes a little higher by virtue of playing in such a tough park for hitters. He also shows a fairly solid Good Approach, Good Result (GAGR) that is buoyed by his low rate of swinging at pitches out of the zone. He didn’t see many pitches in the zone, though that crept a little higher on first pitch. The idea is mostly that if a pitcher can get ahead then Kiermaier has been prone to expand his zone in the past. With the increased walk rate we may see pitchers challenge him within the zone more often in the coming season, which puts the onus on his balls in play seeing better results. I’m confident he will be able to make the adjustment, but their could be a lag period in there until he gets more aggressive.
Switching focus to his legs you can see that like many Rays he is a very good runner between the bases, but unlike his compadres he was also exceptional in stealing bags, and I think this is an area where you can expect more good things. In the past he showed hesitancy, but he showed more aggressiveness in this regard last year, and really, going back to later in 2015. He certainly has the speed so as long as he can continue to refine his selection on when to go I would expect to see him rack more pilfers. He also does a good job staying out of the double play by not hitting a ton of grounders, and flying like the wind.
Lastly, we see that he is an extreme pull hitter that will go oppo from time to time, but much less often than his peers. Additionally, and this piggybacks off of the pop ups, but you can see that he had one of the worst softly hit ball rates in the game. His hard percentage was right in the middle, but that is so much soft contact on rolled over ground balls and cans of corn to both fields, in and out. You can see why some folks doubted the bat ever becoming useful, but Kiermaier has found a way to scratch and claw a league average hitter profile out of his skillset.
One thing that holds him back is that he is one of the few everyday players in the pantheon of Rays players. You cannot afford to take him off the field when he is right, so he’s never going to get rest, but he’s also going to see a ton of same-handers. Seeing them with regularity can help, but he’s still quite a bit worse against southpaws. He saw them a quarter of the time in 2016, and while he looks very good against the fastball, he still saw non-fastballs around 40% of the time. Against those pitches he really struggled showing a whiff/swing rate of 42% on the breaking ball, and only putting one of the nine change ups that he swung on in play. I love the zone% and results on his fastball swings, but lefties are just going to carve him up with breaking balls at some point.
Against righties, he is a little better across the board showing strong results, again, on the fastball. The breaking ball hurts him a lot more than the change up despite similar usage. He will chase the cambio out of the zone more often, but he actually had a much lower swinging strike rate on the less bendy offspeed pitch. He’ll run into the breaking ball from time to time for damage, but he’s still mostly living off of his work against the heater. Kiermaier can do some stuff with a fastball from both types of pitchers, but the other stuff may never come along as far as you would like for an everyday player.
It is worth mentioning at this point that Kiermaier did break his wrist and missed roughly two months of the season. As you can imagine, coming back from a fractured wrist is pretty tough for people that make their living rotating that thing. It shows up most, however, in his swing rates.
Prior to the injury he was swinging around 45% of the time, but then he got hurt, came back as a much less aggressive self. I think that makes a ton of sense, and while it sucks, it might have been the best medicine long term to have him become a more passive hitter. To see more pitches, and not always go up there looking to hack at the first good pitch. Pitchers certainly noticed as they had to ramp up their rate of zone offerings, but then Kiermaier mirrored to become a more aggressive hitter as confidence in health improved. By the last third of the season pitchers were fleeing the zone, though Kiermaier was not able to adjust with them. Despite this over-aggressiveness he enjoyed his best stretch of the season. I’d infer that he was doing a better job of swinging at the right kind of pitches even if his zone and swing rates were that divergent.
Getting rid of the non-swings we can see that his in play and whiff rates did not show much fluctuation over the course of the season. However, he did see a drastic uptick on the results of his swings over the last third of the season. Perhaps that was due to him being fully healthy, as he did show a slightly higher ball in play rate, but I think a good chunk of this is either a) more solid authority with which he struck the ball or b) a little bit of good fortune when he was able to make contact.
We can focus on that specific aspect here by honing in on just the balls in play. Note that that excellent final stretch saw his best batting average on contact, but also his best SLG percentage on contact, as well. We have already seen that he isn’t some singles-only type of hitter so his overall line is dependent on the power, and you can see that pretty well during his best and worst periods. Let’s move on to heatmaps of each pitch/pitcher handedness in order of most pitches seen:
Righty heaters are mostly middle and away without too many in on his inner third. Kiermaier is prone to the chase both up and away, but he hardly ever swings and misses at pitches within the zone. You can see a solid band of production on that inner third, and most of the bottom third, as well. His over the fence power is all to the pull side, but he does shoot quite a few singles to the opposite field when he’s a hair late. The doubles are mostly down the lines, though he did split the gap a couple of times.
Right-Handed Breaking Balls
Righty benders are mostly away, though he’ll get back-footed from time to time. Any swing below the zone is likely to come up empty, though he does a pretty good job of protecting within the zone. You can see that he wrapped a couple of homers around the foul pole with a double down the line for good measure. Other than that he’s not putting this pitch in play much.
Lefties try to pound him away with the fastball, but you can see that they left it over the middle of the plate quite often, as well. Some of that might be just a slight drift over, because if they can get it under his hands or on the outer edge it will lead to some swinging strikes. When it does stay more in the middle or anywhere in the “T” he can do some damage. He’s still pretty pull heavy here, and many of his hits will end up going for extra bases.
Right-Handed Change Ups
The righty change is the plague to many lefties, and Kiermaier saw most of them in pretty good spots just below the zone and away. He’s apt to be early on these so you see a ton of hook, but again we see a good rate of his hits going for extra bases.
Left-Handed Breaking Balls
The lefty breaking ball was in a similar spot as the righty change, but you see a lot more swing and miss below the zone and off the plate. The few pitches he did put in play got whacked, but they were almost all mistake pitches that stayed down and in.
It will be interesting to see how pitchers attack him early this year. His passive approach in the middle of the season was more due to circumstances out of his control than any sort of conscious effort to become more selective. As the hand strength improved he went back to swinging more often even when pitchers vacated the zone at higher rates. If he’s chasing out of the zone often then he will lack for results, but if he can walk that line between passivity and patience I think there is a good chance he can keep the walks while still doing damage on those he does offer upon. Goosing the needle just a little more at the plate, in conjunction with his other-worldly defense, would leave Kiermaier as one of the best players in the game.