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Facing more shifts, Kiermaier tweaks swing

Veteran outfielder: 'I truly believe the best is yet to come'
@juanctoribio
February 11, 2020

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- Kevin Kiermaier was at a wedding on Saturday when his wife, Marisa, notified him that the Rays had traded Emilio Pagán to the Padres in exchange for outfielder Manuel Margot and catcher/outfield prospect Logan Driscoll. Because Margot has proven to be a stellar defender in center

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- Kevin Kiermaier was at a wedding on Saturday when his wife, Marisa, notified him that the Rays had traded Emilio Pagán to the Padres in exchange for outfielder Manuel Margot and catcher/outfield prospect Logan Driscoll.

Because Margot has proven to be a stellar defender in center field over his three seasons in the Majors, a lot of people, including Kiermaier, began thinking that the team's acquisition of Margot could mean that the Rays were looking to move the three-time American League Gold Glove Award winner.

But after exchanging text messages with manager Kevin Cash and general manager Erik Neander, who assured him the deal didn't have to do with anything else other than improving the club, Kiermaier relaxed.

"My stomach dropped. It surprised me," Kiermaier said. "You have natural thoughts that go into your head. 'What's the writing on the wall? What does this mean?' … That's just because I love being here, I love being part of this."

The reassurance felt good for Kiermaier, who worked on his body positions at the plate throughout the offseason and is looking to prove that he can improve on his offensive numbers. Kiermaier is an elite defender in the outfield, but the knock throughout his six-year career has been the inconsistencies at the plate.

"I've expanded my horizons and I've gone out of my comfort zone and went and saw someone to get better ideas of body position. And I've never really been open to that in the past, because I've proven that I can do things my way," Kiermaier said. "But I haven't scratched the surface with my potential and the main thing I struggle with is consistency. I know that everything I've done this offseason and I've put more work into my offensive side of the game, my swing approach, more than ever, and I cannot wait to get it started."

In order to become more consistent at the plate, Kiermaier, who is a career .249 hitter, spent the offseason working with a coach from another MLB team. He wouldn't say who the coach was, though it was approved by the organization. The focus of the workouts was on his body position and control, which could help him become more consistent at the plate.

If Kiermaier begins to use all fields more consistently, he could force opposing teams to stop shifting him as often as they have in previous seasons.

Last season, 22.6 percent of Kiermaier's total batted balls were pulled grounders, which ranked 38th among 175 hitters with 300 or more batted balls. In those at-bats, his production took a dip, hitting just .128 in 78 at-bats. Because of his lack of production on ground balls to the pull side, teams began shifting Kiermaier more often in 2019. After facing the shift 26 percent of the time in '18, that number increased to 34 percent in '19, the highest of his career.

"Teams pitched me a certain way as well to play into the shift," Kiermaier said. "I always tried figuring that out. Some teams coming and pitching me in to try and hit it that way, but others are throwing it away and hoping I cast around it and have that weak rollover, which I've done a lot throughout my career."

Using the entire field more consistently could impact Kiermaier's power numbers. In 34 pulled balls in the air in 2019, Kiermaier hit five home runs and finished with a 1.412 slugging percentage. But while the power might decrease with the new approach, his batting average and on-base percentage could increase.

Kiermaier hit the ball to straightaway center field or to the opposite field in 126 of his at-bats last season. In those at-bats, his slugging percentage decreased to .659, but his batting average skyrocketed to .325.

Whether the changes translate into success during games remains to be seen. Kiermaier, however, showed off his confidence as he arrived to camp on Tuesday. Now he just needs to back it up.

"I truly believe the best is yet to come," Kiermaier said. "Every [player] says [they're in great shape] at this time of the year, but I can say with a straight face that I feel stronger, faster, smarter and more athletic than I've ever been. I'm just ready to display that for the long haul ahead. It's up to me to go back it up, but I feel damn good."

Juan Toribio covers the Rays for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @juanctoribio.