Kevin Kiermaier has come a long way since I first talked to him in the spring of 2014. At the time, his big-league experience consisted of two games — two very important games — as a defensive replacement with the Tampa Bay Rays. Already considered elite with the glove, he was seen as the club’s centerfielder of the future — assuming he could hold his own with the bat.
A little over a year later, in May 2015, I followed up with the uber-athletic former 31st-round draft pick. As he was coming off a rookie season where he’d slashed a better-than-many-expected .263/.315/.450, the resulting Q&A was titled “Kevin Kiermaier on Turning a Corner”.
The years that have followed have been a combination of prosperous and unkind. The now-28-year-old Kiermaier accumulated 11.3 WAR between 2015-2017, in large part because his defense has been nothing short of exemplary. Despite multiple trips to the disabled list, he led MLB with 89 Defensive Runs Saved over that three-year stretch. At the plate, he slashed a credible .262/.320/.426, with a dozen home runs annually.
Staying on the field has obviously been a major issue. Kiermaier has missed chunks of time with hand and hip fractures, and earlier this month he went on the shelf with a torn ligament in his right thumb. Prior to the most-recent injury, I sat down with Kiermaier to discuss his career thus far, with the main focus being his continued development on the offensive side of the ball.
Kevin Kiermaier: “The time I really started to take off was in the Arizona Fall League, back in 2012. I broke both hands playing in High-A that year. I got hit by a pitch on the second day of the season — that was my left hand — and after I came back, I broke my right hamate bone while foul-tipping a pitch. I missed five weeks, and then six weeks, and ended up playing (57) games all season.
“I was really frustrated, because I’d had a really bad year in Low-A the year before. I just didn’t figure it out. It was much the same in 2012. I was a really good defender, and a good base runner, but with two banged up hands I felt like I couldn’t even hit a ball to the warning track. I had no power.
“I felt healthy by the time I got to to the Fall League, and it was one of those things where I said to myself, ‘You know what? This is the make-or-break time of my career.’ I needed to go there and solidify myself, to show that I could play with some of the best prospects in all of baseball. I was a 31st-rounder (in 2010) and with the bad 2011 and then being injured in 2012, I felt I’d kind of fallen off the organizational depth chart.
“That’s when I (reintroduced) my leg kick. I’d had one in college, and I had two good years there, but I got rid of it in pro ball because I wanted to be like a true leadoff guy. I just wanted to get on base. But I didn’t hit for any power at all in Rookie ball, and same thing in my Low-A year. So I got the leg kick back, and I started to hit with authority to all fields. I hit .350 in the Fall League. That really got my confidence going.
“That next year, I had my best season ever in Double-A. Then I got moved up to Triple-A and did well there. That’s when I got called up for game 163 to make my debut, and the play-in game to see who the last Wild Card team would be. My next year was 2014 — my rookie year — and at that point I felt I just needed an opportunity to display what I could do in the big leagues.
“I was confident when we talked in (March) 2014. I knew that I was a long shot to make the team out of spring training, but I also knew that if I went to Triple-A and handled my business I’d eventually get a chance. An injury — I think Desmond Jennings had a sore hamstring — gave me that chance. I got called up on May 28th and had a good rookie campaign.
“I got exposed every now and then, but overall I was very happy with how things went. To be able to hold my own in the big leagues was great. I’m a better player when I’m confident, and I ride that confidence to this day. I go up there feeling like I can be dangerous at any point, which is the mindset you have to have. You can’t ever go up there feeling defeated, no matter who you’re facing or how things have been going for you lately.
“I didn’t feel like (2014) was another make-or-break year. My coaches and my teammates knew that I could play. They all knew what I could do defensively, so it was more, ‘Man, if this kid ever learns to hit, he’s going to be a great player.’ No, I haven’t set the league on fire — not by any means — but while there have been a lot of ups and downs, I have gotten better.
“I’ll always be known for my defensive reputation, first and foremost. I’m fine with that. But even though I was hurt last year, I had a productive offensive season (.276/.338/.450 in 421 plate appearances). I feel that I showed people that I can have an impact on the offensive side as well.
“Hitting isn’t easy. There are people who make it look easy, but I promise you it’s not. With the pitching nowadays … I mean, it’s hard. If you’re facing Craig Kimbrel, you either have to hit 99 or a hammer 86-mph breaking ball. Against guys like that you go up there and barely even see the ball.
“In order to be successful I need to feel athletic up at the plate. Back in Low-A, I had a few coaches try to change things up for me, and I felt like a robot in the batter’s box. That’s not me. When I step on the field, I feel like I’m the most athletic person out there — no matter who we’re playing — and once I got that athleticism back in my stance everything started taking off.
“There are a lot of people who want to help you, and while I’ve had some good hitting coaches, at the end of the day you have do what’s comfortable for you. That’s what allows you to have success. It took a little bit of time for me to figure that out. I was trying to please everyone, hitting the way other people wanted me to, but after I got back to doing my own thing … again, I began to turn that corner.
“I never had a hitting coach coming up through Little League, high school, or junior college. I always did things on my own. I feel I’ve done a pretty good job of making adjustments along the way. I’m stubborn in that respect. I want to make myself better; I don’t expect anyone else to make me better. That being said, I’ve loved all of my hitting coaches — some more than others — and I always take peoples’ opinions and ideas into account. But if I don’t like them, they’re going in one ear and out the other. I’m the one standing in that batter’s box, so I store what I want to store.
“I’ve been playing baseball, and hitting, my whole life. I first heard the term ‘launch angle’ maybe two years ago. Homers, line drives … I love them. Everybody does, but I’m not mad when I hit the ball hard on the ground. All I’m trying to do is barrel up the baseball, hit the pitches I’m suppose to hit, and lay off the pitches I shouldn’t be swinging at. Everything else will take care of itself.
“I can’t get invested in something like launch angle. Call me old-school if you want, but I’m not programmed like that. If it’s a hard ground ball, I could sit here and say, ‘Oh man, it would have been nice had I back-spun that ball’ — but at the same time, that’s baseball. The difference between a swing-and-a-miss, a ground ball, a line drive a home run … that can be a matter of millimeters, or centimeters. This game is hard enough already. Trying to break everything down in detail isn’t me. To be honest, I really don’t think about hitting all that much. I mostly just react and try to swing at strikes.
“I’m always trying to get better. And I definitely don’t take anything for granted. I appreciate the opportunities I’ve been given, and the opportunities I’ve taken advantage of, but I’m not content with anything I’ve done. There’s always more in the tank for me, as there is for everyone else in this room. I want to win with these guys. We all play to win a ring — that’s what drives me — and we haven’t been to the postseason since I made my debut. Getting back there is obviously easier said than done.
“On a personal level, what I really want is to stay healthy so I can put my talents on display for a full season. And one more thing. When I finally hang it up for good, I want everyone to know that I always played hard. I want everyone to know that I always gave it my all. That’s the one thing I can control.”
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.