The Blue Jays have already gotten their money's worth from Kevin Kiermaier
The Blue Jays are getting more than they bargained for from Kevin Kiermaier, who signed a modest one-year contract in the offseason.
When Kevin Kiermaier signed with Toronto Blue Jays this past offseason, excitement surrounding the outfielder was understandably muted.
The 33-year-old was coming of a 1.1 fWAR season where injuries limited him to 63 games — and it was worth wondering how a player whose value was so tied up in defence and base running would perform at his age.
His one-year, $9-million contract sent the message that the Blue Jays thought he was worthwhile a roll of the dice, but not much more. In his first 35 games with Toronto, it's fair to say Kiermaier has obliterated expectations, hitting .327/.387/.522 and producing 1.6 fWAR.
Not only is that fWAR better than his total in two of his prior three seasons, it's already excellent value on his contract. According to FanGraphs, Kiermaier's on-field contributions this season have already been worth approximately $12.8 million.
Before we sing Kiermaier's praises, there are a few important caveats to put on his early-season excellence. There is no doubt luck has been on his side. His BABIP sits at an inflated .391 and his xwOBA of .319 is below his actual number (.393). We are also looking at a sample size of 125 plate appearances, which is on the smaller side.
As of Wednesday, his offensive numbers are extremely similar to Vladimir Guerrero Jr.'s, which is a solid indication that he's playing over his head.
What we're seeing right now is undoubtedly odd, and it's not fair to expect this level of performance to continue.
Understanding that, it's still clear that Kiermaier is doing some interesting things offensively early in 2023 — while maintaining his standard of defensive excellence with an Outs Above Average mark (+4) in the 96th percentile.
The first thing that jumps off the page with the outfielder is his success at making contact. Since turning 30, Kiermaier has consistently posted strikeout rates above the league average — but he's putting the ball in play at an impressive clip this year.
There hasn't been a single 35-game stretch since 2020 where Kiermaier has struck out less than his start to 2023.
That number is critical for a player who has a pretty strong chance of turning balls-in-play into hits thanks to his elite speed. He's also done an excellent job of not wasting batted balls via infield flies in recent years after struggling with that earlier in his career.
As a result, Kiermaier's BABIP since 2021 is .338 — the 29th-best total among 329 MLB players with at least 500 plate appearances over the last three years. His balls in play are valuable, and he's producing more of them.
Kiermaier also deserves credit for teeing off on four-seam fastballs in a way he hasn't previously.
Never known as a dangerous fastball hitter, Kiermaier's +8 run value against four-seamers is tied for 10th in the major leagues. He's only whiffed on the pitch 11.9% of the time after living in the 20s for most of his career.
It's a little early to say with confidence that Kiermaier has found a new gear against baseball's most common pitch, but it's notable that he's struck out against it just once in 2023 with almost as many hits (18) as he had last year (20) in almost twice as many plate appearances.
Kiermaier is a candidate for some serious regression, but he's also showing notable improvement in a couple of areas. Inevitably there will be slumps in the months to come, but anything short of an utter collapse will ensure Toronto won't have an iota of buyer's remorse.