Jun 30, 2014; Bronx, NY, USA; Tampa Bay Rays right fielder Kevin Kiermaier (39) rounds third after hitting a solo home run against the New York Yankees during the third inning of a game at Yankee Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Kevin Kiermaier's hot start: Small sample fluke or breakout star?

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It’s not too hard to miss Kevin Kiermaier if you aren’t a Rays fan. He doesn’t have a flashy power tool, never was a noteworthy prospect through the minors and plays on a team that’s been scratching and clawing out of last place. He does show great defense, with Baseball Prospectus ranking his the best in the minors coming into 2014. But elite defenders are a dime a dozen through the minors, and if you can’t hit it’s hard to get a slot in the lineup.

Kiermaier has always had decent results at the dish, with good contact skills, but a lack of usable power knocked his value down low. It was hard to project him to get more than a fourth outfielder role, with Desmond Jennings holding a lock down on CF, a brand new extension given to David DeJesus to play LF and breakout superprospect Wil Myers manning RF. But injuries happen, and they happened hard for the Rays. They had 60% of their starting rotation on the DL at the same time earlier, and Myers and Dejesus both had issues keeping their hand bones intact, found themselves on the shelf too.

Enter Kevin Kiermaier. It took him all of four innings in the majors this season to start turning heads:

Defense was guaranteed, and Kiermaier made that evident. But it’s not just about how smooth he is in the outfield. Sure, his actions there are straight lotion but that’s not what’s been grabbing Rays fans attention (insert cookie cutter attendance joke here) and spawning atrocious fan photos.

Going where few Rays dare tread, Kiermaier has been straight up raking. He’s hit eight bombs in just 46 games so far, was the third best player by fWAR in June and stayed in the top 20 through the last 30 days as well. His defense is outstanding as expected, with an insane 47.2 UZR/150. According to Inside Edge fielding numbers, which rank players based on the degree of difficulty on each play, Kiermaier has turned outs on 40% of plays in which the video scout ranked the probability as 1-10%. At absolute easiest, that’s four times league average. And his offense is equally nuts; a 160 wRC+ and a .272 Isolated Slugging Percentage (league average = .150).

His grind it out, full hustle style is contagious. He’s leading the Rays by example, and they’ve improved markedly since his permanent promotion. Yes, that implies the front office was sending down their best hitter earlier in the season.

He’s thrust himself front and center into the Rookie of the Year conversation, especially with Masahiro Tanaka‘s recent injury. Despite playing only half the games of White Sox sensation Jose Abreu, Kiermaier’s 2.5 fWAR is right behind his 3.0 mark for second place in the AL, and third overall (you may have heard a few things about Billy Hamilton, the top rookie). Yes, he’s been better than George Springer and his light tower power, Yordano Ventura and his warp speed fastball and the surprising Brock Holt and his dreamy hair.

So I think we can establish that Kevin Kiermaier is good, and his good-streak has helped spark the suddenly awesome Rays club that found themselves last in baseball just a few short weeks ago. Still, can he keep it up? His minor league numbers suggest that he can keep his average high, but he’s never been a power hitter. It’s not like guys just wait until the Show and then think “hey, I should just add .200 points to my SLG%.”

To tell how much his power outburst can stick, let’s look at how he’s improved. His HR/FB rate jumps out, at 20.5%. League average is 10%, and although hitters have more control on their rates than pitchers, that mark is awfully high for someone who has exhibited marginal power in the past. He’s benefitted as well from turning lots of gap hits into triples, and short bloopers into doubles (we could expect that to regress a little, but since there’s no raw data covering that it’s impossible to make any concrete forecast). His aggressive style has played a crucial role in the extra bases taken, but that will decline as he speed does, and speed is always declining.

Kiermaier projects ROS from ZiPS and Steamer to have his SLG fall below .400 which would be well below league average. It’s not hard to see why, as he’s posted low marks throughout his minor league career. Projection systems often have trouble with prospects because of the lack of minor league data that is recorded and released to the public, but will still be in the ballpark with their forecasts. But looking at his trends, maybe there’s something more:

Kevin-Kiermaier1

That’s a nice looking trend there. He hasn’t posted a SLG% below .400 since he was in High A, and his increasing power looks real. His average batted ball distance of 296 feet would rank him around the top 30 in this year’s leaderboards among the likes of Troy Tulowitzki, David Ortiz and Adam Dunn. It looks like he may not be able to keep all of this improvement, but he should keep a good majority of it. It’s pretty safe to think that the projections, although usually correct, are underestimating Kiermaier’s power. Plus, he’s just 24. Around this age is when power is starting to peak, so large jumps aren’t surprising and will tend to hold strong predictive value in regards to future performance.

ISO1

In conclusion, Kevin Kiermaier really is the stud that he’s shown so far. His defense is excellent, and will remain one of the top defenders in the league as long as his legs work, and opposing teams give him chances to make outs. Not only that, but he’s going to hit enough not just to force manager Joe Maddon to keep him in the lineup but to be an essential core piece of the Rays’ lineup.

Again, it’s not your fault if you don’t know who Kevin Kiermaier is. But watch a Rays game, and you won’t even have to read the nameplate to tell him apart. He had another great game yesterday, going 3-5 with a double. He’s the real deal and the ride is just getting started.

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