Kevin Kiermaier was already feeling pretty good about himself that Monday night in Chicago a couple of weeks ago when he made an impressive, albeit just unsuccessful, leaping bid to rob Jose Abreu of a home run, then later unleashed a blur of a throw to the plate to nail Alexei Ramirez and preserve the Rays' 5-4 win against the White Sox.
Then he heard something that really made him happy, teammate Grady Sizemore yelling over to him: "You're the best centerfielder I've ever seen!"
That's high praise coming from anyone, but particularly Sizemore. That's because he was considered one of the game's best centerfielders — a three-time All-Star who won Gold Gloves in 2007-08 — before injuries ravaged his career.
"That meant a lot to me," Kiermaier said. "That really made me happy."
As Kiermaier relayed the story the day after, he acknowledged that he didn't know if Sizemore was being sincere. And he admitted, for fear of bursting the bubble, that he wasn't sure he really wanted to know.
"I don't know if he meant it," Kiermaier said.
Sizemore laughed when Kiermaier's angst was relayed to him.
"Of course I meant it," Sizemore said. "He does things I've never seen a centerfielder do before."
What makes Kiermaier so good?
Well, you start with his legs. They allow him to cover so much ground so quickly, his speed the base for his growing list of spectacular running, diving and leaping plays. (As a fringe benefit, they allow the Rays to position their less mobile outfielders differently.)
But it's not all just raw athleticism. Kiermaier also has the instincts to make quick jumps, and he worked hard during his climb through the minors to make good reads off the bat.
"His jumps are tremendous," Rays manager Kevin Cash said. "The way he covers ground, his closing speed on balls in the gaps is like nothing I've ever seen. Balls are hit off the bat and you put your head down like, 'That's a double,' and sure enough, he ends up slamming up against the wall catching it."
Then you have to factor in his right arm, a weapon that makes him doubly dangerous as he erases runners from the bases. Cash says it's the best of any centerfielder, which, by definition, would include Mike Trout's.
An MLB.com StatCast breakdown of that Aug. 3 play in Chicago highlights Kiermaier's assets: He got a good break, taking his first step 0.298 seconds after the ball left the bat, reached a top speed of 18 mph in getting to the ball and threw home at a sizzling 96.1 mph.
Asking around the Rays' clubhouse for the best Kiermaier plays is time-consuming, because everyone has a list. "He wows us every night," Cash said.
Kiermaier has a compelling back story as a 31st-round draft pick out of Fort Wayne, Ind. He gets plenty of attention for his looks, especially his "dreamy" eyes. And he is fan-friendly and generous with his time for charitable endeavors. But he notes that he isn't that well-known nationally —yet — for his onfield abilities, but that is starting to change.
His defensive highlights have made him a regular among ESPN's Web Gems and other highlight packages. In Baseball America's Best Tools survey of AL managers, he was tied for first with Royals All-Star Lorenzo Cain as the top defensive outfielder and third for outfield arm behind Yoenis Cespedes and Leonys Martin.
Kiermaier's speed can be game-changing on the bases as well. He has made several outfielders look bad in taking advantage of their casual play by bursting out of the box and turning routine singles into doubles.
He has become more daring on the bases, stealing 12 bases in his past 76 games after only five in his first 143. And he led the majors with 11 triples entering Saturday, more than two other teams.