Fantasy Baseball: Kevin Kiermaier Is Poised for a Breakout

The dynamic Tampa Bay Rays' outfielder has already made a name for himself with his glove, but this could be the year that his work at the dish finally puts him on the fantasy map.

If standard fantasy baseball leagues accounted for defensive statistics, the Tampa Bay Rays’ dynamic center fielder Kevin Kiermaier and his .986 career fielding percentage would be considered unquestionably elite.

As a hitter, though, Kiermaier has yet to put together a true breakout campaign, which explains why the young outfielder is being drafted near the back end of the overall top 200, per FantasyPros early average draft position (ADP) data.

A breakout seemed to be in the offing for the young defensive maven in 2016, but a broken left hand took a two-month chunk out his season. The injury was a letdown for the Rays and fantasy owners alike, considering that Kiermaier otherwise posted his best offensive year to date, stroking 12 homers and swiping 21 bags in just 105 games played.

Can a healthy Kiermaier make good on his promising 2016 and finally turn in a fantasy breakout in 2017?

Positive Underlying Trends

Perhaps one explanation for the depressed market on Kiermaier heading into 2017 drafts is that many prominent projection systems are taking a conservative approach with the young outfielder. Steamer, for instance, pencils Kiermaier in for 15 homers and 20 steals in just under 600 plate appearances, conservative totals that are roughly akin to the 12-homer, 20-steal season he put up in almost 200 fewer plate appearances in 2016.

This bearishness on Kiermaier is somewhat puzzling when you consider that many of his underlying hitting metrics from last year were quite strong. Kiermaier posted career highs in both hard-hit rate (31.4 percent, compared to 24.6 percent the previous year) and fly-ball rate (37.6 percent, compared to an average around 30 percent over his first two full seasons), perhaps suggesting that his 20-homer pace in 2016 was not a sample-size anomaly. Boosts in hard-hit rate and fly-ball rate are always welcome.

It wasn’t all positive power growth for Kiermaier, though. These rate spikes did come with a near doubling of his infield-fly-ball rate, with his 25 percent clip the worst mark in the majors.

As Kiermaier makes more efforts to get under the ball and boost his power, it seems fair to expect this infield-fly rate to continue outpacing the roughly 13 percent rate he maintained over his first two seasons. Still, that league-worst rate could be a mere case of growing pains for Kiermaier. After all, his plate discipline metrics do suggest that he has a strong batting eye.

His overall swing rate (Swing%) was lower than league average last season, as were the percentage of pitches he swung at that were outside the zone (O-Swing%) and inside the zone (Z-Swing%). When swinging at pitches outside the strike zone, he made contact with those pitchers (O-Contact%) far more often than the average player, but he was below average in terms of making contact when swinging at pitches in the zone (Z-Contact%). Overall, his contact rate (Contact%) was basically league average, and his swinging-strike rate (9.4 percent) was a bit better than average (10.1 percent).

2016 O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing% O-Contact% Z-Contact% Contact%
Kiermaier27.9 % 66.1 % 43.4 % 68.8 % 84.2 % 78.3 %
League Average 30.3 % 66.7 % 46.5 % 63.9 % 86.3 % 78.2 %

It’s hard to find much to nitpick in these numbers. Kiermaier was good at laying off pitches outside of the zone and good at making contact on those pitches when he did bite. He was not as overly choosy as his below average swing rate would suggest, considering he offered at pitches within the zone at about a league average rate.

The below average contact in the zone is perhaps a little worrisome, but his low swinging-strike rate should lend assurance that Kiermaier isn’t in the habit of getting fooled on hittable pitches.

All told, there’s reason to bet the over on the conservative Steamer home run total. Last year’s 20-homer pace doesn’t seem beyond the pale for Kiermaier, assuming his high-intensity fielding style doesn’t force him to miss extended playing time.

A Bargain in the Steals Market

It’s strange to see early drafters pump the breaks on Kiermaier when the market for mid-to-late-round steals has proven so ravenous. After all, specialists like Billy Hamilton and Dee Gordon have found themselves accruing ambitious ADP slots despite their soft-hitting, one-dimensional profiles.

Look at how Kiermaier’s Steamer line and FantasyPros ADP compares with those of other mid-to-late-round players who are projected to tally between 20 and 25 steals.

Player ADP Plate Appearances Homers Runs+RBI's Steals Average
Jean Segura 62.3 639 13 138 24 0.273
Odubel Herrera 119.7 643 12 132 20 0.273
Jose Ramirez 123.3 582 11 133 20 0.287
Eduardo Nunez 134 506 10 104 25 0.268
Elvis Andrus 162.3 553 6 114 21 0.277
Kevin Kiermaier 191 595 15 132 20 0.261
Tim Anderson 210 625 11 128 21 0.269
Carlos Gomez 226 560 17 131 20 0.253
Manuel Margot 280 526 7 98 21 0.259

Quite astonishingly, the market values Kiermaier as being more akin to unproven speed specialists like Tim Anderson and Manuel Margot than to more established and well-rounded players like Eduardo Nunez and Jose Ramirez.

Looking at the numbers, Kiermaier belongs in the latter ground, and that’s if we take the conservative Steamer projection at face value. But is it totally out of bounds to consider Kiermaier’s ceiling as fairly close in value to the line we see here from Jean Segura, albeit with a few more homers and a slightly lower batting average? Not bad for a player you can get nearly 130 picks later, although Segura's value is boosted by the position he plays.

Don’t Be Afraid to Reach

Indeed, even a rather conservative projection seems to position Kiermaier as one of the best all-around values in the late-round speedster class.

And if Kiermaier does indeed assume the leadoff duties for the Rays in the wake of Logan Forsythe’s departure to Los Angeles, a boost in runs scored and steals could be in the cards.

Fantasy owners who are priced out of the early spree on stolen bases could do much worse than reaching later for a piece of Kiermaier.