CLEARWATER — He was, in his words, terrible last year. He was also, based on analytics, one of the most valuable centerfielders in Major League Baseball.
This is the incongruity of Kevin Kiermaier. He’s always better than you realize, and never as good as he wants to be. It has led, at times, to a tempestuous romance.
Trust me, he’s heard the snark. The complaints that he’s either too brittle or too hardheaded to stay out of casts and operating rooms. He will not argue, but he also will not apologize.
“I’ll dwell on that my whole life, all that time I’ve missed with injuries. What might have happened if I had stayed on the field more?" Kiermaier said. “But I can live with myself because I wasn’t being passive or lackadaisical. I was playing the game the way it’s supposed to be played.
“I just came out on the wrong end a few times."
For the record, there’s nothing wrong with Kiermaier’s body. It’s just the way he tends to throw it around. He’s broken a bone in his left hand playing centerfield and in his right foot while at the plate. He tore a ligament in his thumb sliding into second base, and fractured his hip sliding into first base.
All told, he’s lost 170 games to the disabled list the past three years.
And, in between, he’s been one of the most dynamic players in the game.
“He’s the best in centerfield, and I don’t think it’s close," said Rays pitcher Blake Snell. “I mean, Jackie Bradley Jr. is unreal. (Kevin) Pillar is unreal. But to me, there is no one like KK. Now, with how hard he plays, he’s going to get hurt. There’s no way around that. He really will run through a wall for you. But that’s what got him here, and it’s what will keep him here."
Kiermaier is, however, at a bit of a crossroads in his career. Later this week will be the two-year anniversary of his six-year, $53.5 million contract that remains the second-largest in Rays history.
And despite all the time he’s missed, the data-driven website Fangraphs.com says Kiermaier is still outperforming his growing salary. And yet, the clock is beginning to tick. He will be 29 next month, and still is trying to make his mark as a complete player.
That means A) playing 150 games and B) being a more effective hitter.
This is no surprise to Kiermaier. He recognizes he took a step backward offensively in 2018. His ratio of walks was down and strikeouts were up. He swung-and-missed at a higher percentage of pitches than ever before, and that trend has disturbingly gone in the wrong direction now for several seasons.
The problem, as Kiermaier sees it, is that he has gotten away from the hitter he once was.
“I think back to my 2017 season when I hit 15 home runs in 90-something games," Kiermaier said. “Going into that off-season I felt really good about myself, thinking I could hit for more power. I let power get to my head a little bit, especially after coming off the injury last year. I tried to make up for lost time with every swing. All that did was send me back to the dugout.
“I can’t make power my focal point. I’m going to occasionally hit for power, I know I’m strong enough to do it but I have to have a less-is-more approach. l need to hit the ball to all fields, hit the ball where it’s pitched. That was my main focus this off season, having my bat stay through the zone a little bit longer and being able to use all fields a little more."
It’s often said in the clubhouse that the Rays are a different team when Kiermaier is in the lineup, and that’s not just some vague impression. When he’s on the disabled list, the Rays have a .441 winning percentage since 2016. When he’s healthy, they are at .516.
You might think the Rays would be tempted to smother him in bubble wrap, but manager Kevin Cash said taking the aggressiveness out of Kiermaier would betray the player he is.
“You watch him hit a ground ball, he busts it down the line every time. That’s just him," Cash said before Monday’s game against the Phillies. “It’s probably best for us to stay out of the way, and keep our fingers crossed that none of the freak things happen."
A couple of hours later, Kiermaier hit a bloop that barely cleared the infield behind second base. The ball couldn’t have travelled much more than 150 feet. And yet there was Kiermaier, turning it into a double with a headfirst slide into second base. All in the fifth inning of a spring training game.
Whether you cringe or applaud at least we know this:
That’s how Kevin Kiermaier plays.
Contact John Romano at [email protected]. Follow at @romano_tbtimes.