“I had a good year last year, but this year I wanted to separate myself,” Kevin Kiermaier told me in August before a game with the Athletics. And separate himself he did, since he just won a Gold Glove after leading all defensive players in the SABR Defensive Index rankings, UZR/150, and Defensive Runs Saved. We talked about how he honed his craft on the way to the defensive triple crown, and it’s a little bit instincts, a little bit scouting, and a little bit athleticism.
This year, Kiermaier he’s one of the few outfielders to have had a nearly-perfect route (99% efficiency) according to Statcast. Some of that is just gut. “I just let my instincts take over out there, as well,” the Rays’ center fielder said. “That’s something I’ve always been blessed with, I just feel like I have a really good idea of where the ball’s going to be hit.”
But press him a little on that, and there are a few things he does in order to help get into the right routes. He reads the catcher’s signs, for one, so that he can anticipate better where the ball is going. “I can see them usually from center field, since I have good vision,” he said. “I can see what pitches are going to be thrown, and I feel like I can get a head start on what direction that ball is going to be hit.”
He spends batting practice trying to good reads on balls. He tries to get used to the park he’s in, the backdrop he’s looking into, and the way the ball is carrying. “I try to train my eyes to see where the ball is hit, especially on line drives, is it going to sink in front of me or carry over me,” he said of his practice. You can tell he knew this ball was going to die:
Another thing that has helped him run great routes has been familiarity with the pitchers. “I’ve been playing behind these pitchers all year and you can have a good idea of what they are doing,” he said of his staff. “Like Chris Archer, I’m not going to play pull to most people because if you’re going to pull 98, I’ll tip my hat on you.” He knows what their pitches are going to do, he can see the signs, and he tries to look into the plate to see the point of contact.
Sometimes, that gets difficult. “Sometimes, with the shifts that are on, I have to play absolutely straight up,” he admits, pointing out that it’s hard to see into the plate that way. “Most of the time I like to position myself on each side because I like to see the plate. I want to see the hitter clearly.”
All of this not only helps his routes, it helps his first steps. Look at this graph, made by August Fagerstrom, and you’d think he’s just a fast-twitch, tiny speedster dude.
He’s a little bigger than some of those fast guys, though. We were talking about stealing bases, but listen to Kiermaier talk about getting up to speed: “I’ve been a fast guy my whole life and never been really a great base stealer. You gotta steal first, first. It just takes me a little more to get to top speed. I weigh 215 pounds, and some of the super-fast guys weight 175 pounds, so it takes me a bit to get going. I’m ready for every pitch before it happens.”
Even when he’s talking about stealing bases, it comes back to defense.
I pressed him on the other facets of defenses, and talk did come to his arm. After all, he touched 100 mph more than any other outfielder in baseball this year. “I’ve been really good with my throws this year, and have put myself in the right position and right place to make good throws,” he said, once again talking about anticipation and positioning. Watch him shuffle his feet in order to get this ball in the right spot:
It turns out, being less aggressive this year has also helped him be better. “I made a couple over-aggressive plays and some of them were costly and I said this year, that’s not going to happen,” he said. “When to be aggressive and when not to,” was a big part of the learning process. “There are times when I feel like I can go and lay out for a ball but I’m not really 100% sure, and last year I would have dove and this year I’ve kind of learned, I can keep them to a single and I can live with that rather than two, three bags.”
Notice that Kiermaier doesn’t actually lead the league in making plays that the league makes 10-40% of the time. Looks like he’s learned to stay back on some of those in order to make sure he doesn’t give up a triple.
Kevin Kiermaier is wicked fast, has great eyesight, and a rocket arm. Those things he was born with. He expects greatness of himself on the field — “Any time I’m close to the play I expect to make it,” as he put it. The reason he delivers that greatness, though, is because he’s learned where to look, how to anticipate, when to go all out, and when to lay back.
With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.