Should the Yankees Sign Kevin Kiermaier?
By Patrick Gunn
November 14, 2023
The Yankees need left-handed outfielders. EJ Fagan and I spoke about various left-handed (or switch-hitting) candidates on yesterday’s episode of the Bronx Beat Podcast. A familiar name on the market would be available for a lower price: Kevin Kiermaier. He’s a free agent heading into his age-34 season and he’s coming off a bounceback year with the Blue Jays, posting his best OPS (.741) and his best bWAR (3.9) since 2017 (note: FanGraphs had him worth 2.2 wins above replacement). And I'm not the only writer who's thought about Kiermaier coming to the Bronx. So, is he a good fit in New York?
He’s one of the best defensive center fielders of this generation. MLB Savant/Statcast ranked Kiermaier as the 12th-best defender in the league last season. By Outs Above Average, Kiermaier is in the 98th percentile. Baseball Prospectus does have him out of their Top 50 in Deserved Runs prevented, but he’d still have been the fourth-best Yankee behind Kyle Higashioka, Anthony Volpe, and Jose Trevino.
Even without an elite arm, Kiermaier can make difficult catches look routine and still play a good center field in his mid-30s.
His success on defense is partially because of his speed. While he isn’t as fast as he was in his Rays days, Kiermaier still ranks within the 87th percentile in sprint speed at 28.8 feet per second. The only Yankees that ranked above the 80th percentile in speed last season were Estevan Florial (29.3 ft/s) and Oswald Peraza (28.7 f/s), although Anthony Volpe came close (28.4 ft/s, 79th percentile). The bottom line is that Kiermaier makes the Yankees more athletic in the outfield.
He did post his lowest strikeout percentage (21.1%) since 2019.
By all means, Kiermaier is a solid human being and could help add some energy to the locker room.
Health is a concern. Kiermaier has only played more than 130 games once and that was back in 2015. Since that season, Kiermaier has averaged only 98 games per season, a red flag for a Yankees team already dealing with injury concerns throughout the roster.
Kiermaier did have his best offensive season in years with the Jays, but that success may not be sustainable. His expected slugging percentage (.350) was nearly 70 points lower than his actual rate (.419) and his expected weighted on-base percentage (.301) was about 20 pointsl ower than his actual OBP (.322). Not to mention he still did not hit the ball very hard (86.7 average exit velocity, 33.2% hard-hit rate, 3.5% barrel rate).
A key point of regression should come for Kiermaier against fastballs. In 2023, he hit for a .314 batting average on fastballs, along with a .482 slugging percentage and .375 wOBA. That’s solid, but look a little deaper: his average exit velocity on fastballs was just 86.9 mph, his expected batting average was .270 (44 points lower than his raw) and his expected slugging percentage was just .362 (more than 100 points lower than his actual). All of that screams regression to his normal rate that’s just below league average. Also, FanGraphs only had Kiermaier at 104 weighted runs created plus last season.
If the Yankees’ biggest need this offseason was for defense, Kiermaier would be an obvious fit. He can still pick it in centerfield and would make the Bombers more athletic. But, the Yankees need hitting and power. Kiermaier does not offer either of those things consistently. Coupled with the fact that he struck out more than a quarter of his at-bats from 2020 to 2022 and his lengthy injury history and Kiermaier just does not make sense for what the Yankees need right now. This is less about the player and more about the fit, namely on offense. He could help a lot of teams with his defense, but Kiermaier probably should not be taking his talents to the Bronx right now.