Newspaper article International New York Times

In the Draft, No.941; on Defense for Rays, No.1 ; Center Fielder Kiermaier, a Gold Glove Finalist, Is a Ball-Hawking Baseball Rat

Newspaper article International New York Times

In the Draft, No.941; on Defense for Rays, No.1 ; Center Fielder Kiermaier, a Gold Glove Finalist, Is a Ball-Hawking Baseball Rat

Article excerpt

Rays center fielder Kevin Kiermaier, taken in the 31st round in 2010, is probably the best defensive player in the major leagues.

Kevin Kiermaier will always remember the number 941. That was his overall draft position in the 31st round in 2010. Essentially, 30 teams passed on him 30 times before the Tampa Bay Rays gave him a chance to play in the pros.

"I just couldn't believe it," Kiermaier said. "Once I showed up to rookie ball, I'm working with these guys who got $800,000 or $1.5 million. I'm like: 'You know what? Those guys can't do what I can do.' So at that point, it was all about the opportunity and how I was going to make the best of it."

Not surprisingly, Kiermaier is the only player ever drafted with the 941st overall pick to reach the major leagues. Some players drafted lower -- or not at all -- have made it, too. But Kiermaier stands alone for his spot, and he is shining.

Kiermaier, a center fielder, is probably the best defensive player in the major leagues. At Baseball-Reference.com, he is the leader in defensive wins above replacement. At Fangraphs, he has the best Ultimate Zone Rating. At ballparks everywhere, he easily passes the so-called eye test.

"It's just the amount of ground he covers," Rays Manager Kevin Cash said. "He allows us to do some unique things in the outfield. He takes away doubles, triples, gap shots."

Cash noted that Kiermaier tended to play back, allowing him to scale walls while also catching many balls in front of him.

"And then you factor in his arm," Cash added. "He's got the best arm in baseball from a center-field aspect. You generally don't see that combination of a center fielder with that strong an arm. He's got the arm of a right fielder playing center."

From center field, Kiermaier said, he can see the catcher's signs and make a reasonable guess of where a fly ball will probably be hit. Sometimes, he said, he starts his pursuit an instant before the hitter makes contact.

Tom Couston never noticed that when he scouted Kiermaier at Parkland College in Champaign, Ill. …

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