Kevin Kiermaier is Jake Odorizzi’s Best Friend

It is a bizarro right field in Tampa Bay this season. Wil Myers seemed assured to follow up his .293/.354/.478 rookie half-season with a top 40 outfield season, at the very least. Instead, Myers hit just .227/.313/.354 in the first third of the season and then landed on the 60-day DL with a wrist injury. Meanwhile, the bulk of the optimism that surrounded Kevin Kiermaier before he was promoted in mid-May was related to his defense. Two months and a .308/.359/.538 triple slash later, Kiermaier has been a much better Wil Myers than Wil Myers has been.

This post is not about Kevin Kiermaier. August Fagerstrom and Ben Duronio said it all in their recent real baseball and fantasy articles, respectively. This article is about Jake Odorizzi.

Odorizzi is owned in just 38 percent of Yahoo leagues, and that is not too surprising. He allowed 18 runs over his first five starts of the season. When a pitcher has a 6.85 ERA in April, it can take a little while for his full season numbers to reach respectable, even if he pitches like Clayton Kershaw from then on. Odorizzi has not been Kershaw, but he has been pretty good. With his seven innings of one-run ball on Monday against the Brewers, Odorizzi has dropped his ERA to 3.80 for the season. Even if that is where his ERA stabilizes, Odorizzi will be a fantasy-relevant pitcher because of his strikeouts. He has 129 strikeouts for the season, 20th most in baseball.

Meanwhile, I am not sure 3.80 is where Odorizzi’s ERA will stabilize. That’s because I do not believe Odorizzi’s early-season vs. mid-season splits are coincidental. In addition to Wil Myers’ difficulties at the plate, he was disastrous defensively to start the season. His minus-10 Defensive Runs Saved are somewhat hidden ahead of outfielders like Ben Revere (minus-13), and Matt Kemp (minus-22), who have all had a full season to continue to cost their teams runs with poor defensive play. However, Myers was one of the 10 worst defenders in baseball prior to his injury.

Myers did all of that damage over the first two months of the season, when Odorizzi and the Rays were at their worst. Myers was responsible for half of the Rays minus-20 Runs Saved through the end of May, which was the fourth worst total of any team in baseball and a far cry from the elite defensive teams Tampa won with over the previous six seasons. The Rays are known for their defensive shifting, and they continue to be one of the heaviest shifting teams this season. That has helped shelter starters like Chris Archer and Alex Cobb from their poor defensive play, but Odorizzi is not so fortunate. He has the third lowest groundball rate among qualified starters, and so he is particularly affected by the outfield defense behind him.

Lowest GB%, Qualified Starters
Pitcher GB%
Chris Young 23.8%
Marco Estrada 33.2%
Jake Odorizzi 33.7%
Jered Weaver 33.8%
Yu Darvish 35.2%

Enter Kevin Kiermaier. Kiermaier made his first start of the season in right field for the Rays on a May 31 start by Odorizzi, and he has been the primary right fielder for the Rays ever since. A natural center fielder, Kiermaier has been exemplary in right. He has saved nine runs there since his debut, which trails only overall Defensive Runs Saved leader Jason Heyward at the position in that time. He and center fielder Desmond Jennings, who also saved nine runs this season, can cover a lot of ground. Since Kiermaier took over in right field, Odorizzi has had a 3.22 ERA. The list of pitchers who have struck out nine and a half batters per nine and allowed an ERA below 3.50 this season is short and sweet.

Starters with K/9 > 9.5, ERA < 3.50
Name K/9 ERA
Felix Hernandez 9.8 1.99
Corey Kluber 9.8 2.77
Clayton Kershaw 11.3 1.76
Chris Sale 10.0 1.88
Yu Darvish 11.3 2.90
David Price 10.1 3.08
Max Scherzer 10.4 3.37
Zack Greinke 9.6 2.74

If Odorizzi can sustain his recent level of performance, then he would figure to join the elite class of fantasy starters. The question, then, is what happens when Wil Myers returns? Myers is scheduled to take batting practice on Friday and could return to the club in mid-August. That will allow Odorizzi’s owners to squeeze a few more starts out of him with an elite defensive outfield, potentially including a start against the Cubs, who have scored the fourth fewest runs in baseball this season.

However, when Myers does return, do not rush to sell Odorizzi. The Rays have relied primarily on Brandon Guyer in left field over the last month, and his .272/.333/.361 triple slash, while hardly terrible, has not held a candle to what Kiermaier has done. Even if Guyer and Kiermaier are comparable offensive players, Kiermaier’s excellent defense should keep him in the lineup. It would not be a big surprise to see the Rays move Myers to left to keep his bat in the lineup while also accommodating Kiermaier at the more demanding defensive position. That would be perfect for fantasy owners, who could then return Myers to their lineups without losing the hot Kiermaier. Most of all, it would be perfect for Odorizzi, who looks very much like a top 30 starter with Kiermaier in the outfield.

We hoped you liked reading Kevin Kiermaier is Jake Odorizzi’s Best Friend by Scott Spratt!

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Scott Spratt is a fantasy sports writer for FanGraphs and Pro Football Focus. He is a Sloan Sports Conference Research Paper Competition and FSWA award winner. Feel free to ask him questions on Twitter – @Scott_Spratt

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