This offseason was quite the whirlwind. We know the Tampa Bay Rays moved past some household names. We know that they could potentially move more players this year if they fall out of contention.
We also know that they signed a lucrative television deal right after all of this happened. Further, they’ve made tremendous progress on a new stadium.
This is clearly part of some kind of master plan.
The Rays, while poised to compete in 2018, are experimenting. For the last two years, they’ve tried the three true outcomes, high power, high strikeout approach. While it worked–The Rays broke the franchise single season home run record in 2016 and again in 2017–it also didn’t work, as they also set a franchise high in strikeouts (to be expected), and set a franchise low in doubles in ’17. Sure, the Rays his a lot more home runs, but it actually cost them total runs. Overall, the approach has netted them a 148-174 record.
In 2013, the last year they made the playoffs, they managed to score more runs while hitting 63 fewer dingers than in ’17. In 2009, when they set the still current franchise record in runs scored with 803, they did so with 29 less homers. Safe to say at this point that the approach hasn’t worked.
Because of this, the Rays have ditched the power guys and have gone with a catch the ball first approach, as evidenced by their complete lack of interest in guys like Jose Bautista this offseason. Preventing runs is now the philosophy, and the Rays project to be pretty good at this coming onto this for 2018. If the plan works, expect the Rays to be major players to spend big for 2019 and 2020.
But even with plus defenders at seemingly every position and on the bench, one man stands head and shoulders above the rest, and someone who is emerging as one of the game’s elite. Before I reveal that, though, It’s important we understand a stat called Wins Above Replacement, or WAR.
To simplify it, WAR is a catch all number that defines a player’s overall contribution. It includes their run creation (hitting and base running), and their run prevention (defense). It helps us compare players to each other, and it tells us how much better that player is than his typical replacement.
The ‘Win’ is defined by the total number of runs the player created and divides it by 10 (10 runs created = 1 win created). It also weighs positions by their difficulty for defense. The ‘replacement player’ is defined as an up and down minor league player, not the team’s top prospect necessarily, but more of a depth piece, the Jim Parques or the Dan Johnsons of the world. Guys who tear up AAA, but aren’t every day major leaguers.
With that said, let’s take a look at the 2015 American League Leaders in WAR:
- Mike Trout (9.4)- No surprise here
- Josh Donaldson (8.5)- The AL MVP
- Kevin Kiermaier (7.5)
So, Kiermaier was worth 7.5 more wins than a replacement player. For a little more context, he was more valuable in ’15 than Lorenzo Cain, Manny Machado, Jose Altuve, JD Martinez and every other player in the American League.
Now, there is one problem with WAR–it doesn’t tell the whole story. Just looking at the number itself, you don’t see where the player’s value comes from. When you think of a high WAR player, you probably think of a guy who excels not both sides of the ball, or at least a guy who mashes. Guys like Trout or Donaldson.
But Kevin Kiermaier, as we all know, shines because of his glove (and also because of his dreamy green eyes). His 7.5 overall WAR came despite a putrid .298 OBP. But in ’15, he led all of baseball in defensive WAR (5.0), 1.5 wins better than next best Andrelton Simmons, and almost twice as good as the next best outfielder, dusting Kevin Pillar’s 2.8 dWAR. This, of course, led to Kiermaier’s first gold and platinum gloves. Despite playing just 105 games in 2016, Kiermaier again led all of baseball in dWAR, this time by a smaller margin, en route to his second gold glove. In another injury shortened 2017 season, his dWAR was still good enough for top 5. His total WAR for those seasons were still all star level, at 5.5 and 5.1, making him more valuable than George Springer, who posted 4.4 and 5.0 WARs during the same span despite playing full seasons (162 and 140 games, respectively).
But what about his offense?
In 2017, Kiermaier seemingly turned the corner. He set career highs in home runs, batting average, on-base percentage, slugging, and OPS (obviously). What’s really interesting is that for the first time in his career, his oWAR was better than his dWAR in ’18. Finally, his OPS+ his risen steadily each of the last three years from 99 to 107 to a well above league average 117.
We already know that Kevin Kiermaier is an elite defender. In just 3 full seasons to this point, he’s already in the top 200 all-time in dWAR. We also know that he has the prettiest eyes in baseball. But, If he continues to improve offensively in 2018, we could be looking at an elite player on offense as well as defense. If he gets even better in 2019, We’re looking at the American League MVP.