BOCA RATON — A couple of days before winning his first Gold Glove award for fielding excellence Tuesday, Rays centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier sat alone in his Tampa apartment already plotting how he could play better next season.
He thought back to this time last year when he committed himself to improving over his previous work, catalogued a series of catches and throws he failed to make this season and came away convinced that there is more to come.
"I know I'm going to be better in 2016," Kiermaier said, "even though that might seem like a stretch because of how I played this year."
That bar is obviously pretty high, as Kiermaier, 25, kept adding to a loop of highlight-reel catches and throws (leading all centerfielders with 15 assists), combining speed, athleticism, instincts and aggressiveness in his first full big-league season to post one of the most impressive overall defensive performances.
"This is the most satisfying feeling ever," Kiermaier said at a Tropicana Field reception, replete with a Gold Glove cake. "It's such a great honor. … I was hoping throughout the whole year that I'd done enough that it would be difficult not to give the award to me."
Winning the Gold Glove, over the Blue Jays' Kevin Pillar and the Angels' Mike Trout, was the most significant of a series of honors and accolades that have come Kiermaier's way. He won the Fielding Bible award (determined by vote and statistics) and posted staggering totals in a series of defensive metrics, including a record 42 Defensive Runs Saved. He also had a hefty margin in the SABR Defensive Index that factors in for about 25 percent of the Gold Glove voting.
The Rays had the best view as the baseball world got to see just how good he was.
"He's a weapon," Rays baseball operations president Matt Silverman said at the GM meetings in Boca Raton. "He's a weapon on defense, he's a weapon to our pitching staff. He's someone who adds a different level of excitement to our game. He plays with his hair on fire. He makes incredible plays. And he makes some incredibly difficult plays look routine."
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"There's KK and then there's 29 other centerfielders," Rays manager Kevin Cash said at the Trop. "That's no disrespect to the other centerfielders, but we get to see him on a nightly basis. He's as special a player as we've come across."
Kiermaier's emergence is even more impressive given where he came from: a 31st-round pick out of Fort Wayne, Ind., who spent four years working his way through the minors earning a reputation as a defensive specialist and developing enough offensively to get the chance to play in the majors.
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"Kevin is proof that baseball is a game of opportunity and when he was given the chance, he took advantage of it," agent Larry Reynolds said at the GM meetings. "We are talking about a 31st-round draft selection, who has worked his tail off to not only get to the big leagues but excel at the highest level. It's a great accomplishment, well deserved and we are very happy for him. With this recognition, more people will take notice and realize just how good he is."
Kiermaier hopes to give them plenty of reason, talking about creating a legacy to show the importance of defense after winning the first of what he hopes will be a series of gold charms.
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"It's just such a cool feeling," Kiermaier said. "I can't thank the managers and coaches enough for selecting me. I really didn't think something like this would be possible, but here I am. Hopefully this is something that will continue to happen in my career."
Kiermaier is the fifth Ray to win a Gold Glove, joining third baseman Evan Longoria (who has two and was a finalist this year, losing out to Baltimore's Manny Machado), leftfielder Carl Crawford, first baseman Carlos Peña and pitcher Jeremy Hellickson.
"This is just crazy to me," Kiermaier said. "To get recognition from people like (Yankees manager) Joe Girardi, it puts a smile on my face. Deep down, I'm a lot more excited than I'm showing. This is all I've ever wanted to do in my life. This is such a cool thing."
Times staff writer Rodney Page contributed to this report. Contact Marc Topkin at [email protected]. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.