No, Mr. Kiermaier has not suddenly gained telepathy, telekinesis, flight, or super strength. That last one is the closest to reality, though. His new “power” is more power, that is, hitting the ball farther and harder than he did before. You see, Kiermaier is known primarily for two things: defense and speed, in that order. He is one of the best defenders in baseball, but has previously been mostly below average on offense, at least in his only full season, 2015.
In 2016, he has pulled his wRC+ up to 107 and is running a solid 0.180 ISO. He hit only 10 HR in 535 PA in 2015 and already has 12 in 371 PA this season. So his power is clearly up. However, in a partial season in 2014, his power was slightly higher than even this year. Here’s a table with the relevant stats comparing the three seasons.
What’s interesting to me about all this is that he never showed much power in the minors. His first taste of MLB action produced a career high in ISO. Of course, that power disappeared in 2015 before mostly returning in 2016. Has he made real changes this year that we can count on going forward?
Let’s evaluate Kiermaier’s power. Before we get to that, I should point out that his walk rate in 2016 is far above his previous two seasons. That doesn’t relate directly to power, but it certainly boosts his offensive value and fantasy value, because more times on base means more chances to steal. He’s up to 19 steals on the year. With steals becoming more and more scarce, that alone makes him valuable.
Ok, we’re going to look at three things to try and evaluate his power surge. First, we can look at how pitchers are pitching to him. Second, his average exit velocity is a sign of a true power burst. Finally, home run and fly ball distance is another good bit of evidence for legit power.
Pitchers tend to throw pitches in the strike zone more often to hitters with low power. For example, two of the highest Zone % in baseball belong to Josh Harrison and Martin Prado who aren’t power hitters. This method isn’t perfect because pitchers aren’t always rational (Mookie Betts, Ian Kinsler, DJ LeMahieu, and Dustin Pedroia also are in the top 10 in Zone %), but in general it shows who pitchers are afraid of.
Kiermaier’s Zone % is at a career low. His numbers in his three seasons: 42.4%, 47.1%, 40.8%. You can see that in 2015, when his power was down, pitchers challenged him much more. Pitchers are clearly avoiding the zone against him this year. His Zone % is the 18th lowest in baseball. He is clearly not the 18th most feared hitter in the game, but this shows pitchers acknowledge his power. He is near Anthony Rizzo, Adrian Gonzalez, Chris Davis, and Nomar Mazara on the Zone % leaderboard (>350 PA). They aren’t throwing him balls because he likes to chase out of the zone. His swinging strike rate is league-average and his O-Swing % (chase rate) is better than average.
Moving on to exit velocity (courtesy of Baseball Savant), his 89.1 mph mark this year is about average for the league. The leaders are at 95 mph and the laggards are at 82 mph or so, putting him squarely in the middle. He is around James McCann, Trayce Thompson, Juan Uribe, Jon Lester!, Colby Rasmus, Brian Dozier, Hernan Perez, Francisco Lindor, and Byung-ho Park on the league list, so it’s a mixed bag. Kiermaier’s exit velocity in 2015 was a mere 87.8 mph, so he has clearly made improvements from that low.
Kiermaier’s home run and fly ball distance (287 ft, but only for part of the season before baseballheatmaps.com stopped updating) is also in the middle of the pack. His full season average hit distance (grounders, line drives, fly balls, homers) is 208 feet is below league average. Ditto for his 389 ft average home run distance. He’s running a 91.4 mph average exit velocity on line drives and fly balls, which is once again you guessed it, slightly below average.
Putting this all together, Kevin Kiermaier is clearly not a big power bat. He will probably top out at 17-20 HR over a full season, which would just get him into the top 110 or so in baseball this year, given the power increase across the league. However, he is more powerful than he was in 2015 and has recaptured what he had in 2014. This, combined with a higher walk rate (partially fueled by his power causing pitchers to throw him fewer strikes) has increased his fantasy value. An outfielder with 15-20 HR and 25 steals is extremely valuable.
Keep in mind that his batting average sits at 0.247 right now after two seasons at 0.263. His BABIP is down at 0.273, which is awful for someone as fast as he is. Part of that is because he hits a ton of fly balls, which is assisting his power surge. The other part is simply bad luck. I expect him to be at least 0.310 next season in BABIP, which should boost his average back into the 0.270 range. That would give him a 0.270/0.350/0.430 type line in addition to the counting stats I mentioned earlier.
I should have also mentioned that he has been batting second much of the season and is running a career high 32% hard hit rate. He was available on the waiver wire in my 14-team dynasty league and in several other leagues I’m involved in. He could help down the stretch this year and certainly has sleeper value in 2017. Tschus!