When Jason Kipnis burst upon the scene with the Cleveland Indians in 2011, experts and scouts predicted he had 20-homer upside. Part of this was based equally on an early four-game homer streak during his second big league week, and on his final full minor league season, in which he hit 18 home runs total, playing at three different levels, including the International League and Triple A Championships. Kipnis split the regular season in High A and Double A, before getting bumped to the Clippers just for their playoff push, in which he hit for the cycle in the IL Championship clincher, then went 3-for-4 with a homer in the Triple-A Championship game win.
That’s right, in Kipnis’s final two games of his 2010 Minor League season, he played in his first Triple-A games of his life, went 7-for-10 in two championship clinching games, and was a single short of the cycle in both games.
Expecting 20 home runs didn’t seem like a stretch, so why did it take him so long to do it in the Major Leagues?
It’s important to note Kipnis did hit 14 and 17 home runs in his first two full Major League seasons, and seemed to be on his way to more home run power after his 2013 break-out season. In 2014, he suffered a right oblique strain in late April, costing him a month on the DL, forcing him to change his swing on an almost daily basis. This lost season proved to be a blip on the radar of his career, as he came back in 2015 with arguably his best season to date.
If there was one concern, it was his drop in home run power in 2015 in comparison to his 2013 season, his last healthy full year. There was also a concern Kipnis lacked the consistency of a truly great hitter from the beginning to the end of the season. In 2013, Kipnis capped off a Player of the Month June with a .419/.517/.699 slash, to go with four homers and 25 RBI in only 27 games. He finished off the year with 17 homers, but only four of those homers came after the All-Star break, and only two homers came after July 20 of that year, and he was hitting third. In 2015, after an injury-riddled 2014 season, he followed up with another POTM award in which he had a .429/.511/.706 slash, with four homers and 17 RBI in 29 games. He finished the year with nine homers total, and only three homers after the break. The important difference here was he was hitting lead-off. It’s also important to note his overall extra-base power remained fairly consistent, with 36 doubles in 2013, 43 doubles in 2015, and 41 doubles in 2016.
But 2016 was considerably different, both in home run power, and in consistency, although he did have a bit of a September drop off. Kipnis’s 2016 was sublimely good as his 4.8 fWAR and 4.1 bWAR both indicated the second baseman was the second best player on the team (tied for second on fangraphs with Jose Ramirez). When you take into account the clubhouse presence Kipnis has provided, you can make a case there isn’t a more important player on the team.
Yet Kipnis’s numbers were clearly overshadowed by the flamboyance of Jose Ramirez, the franchise-player-like MVP run of Francisco Lindor, the Party at Napoli’s, and another power surge which saw Carlos Santana hit 34 home runs.
It’s here where I want to note a wild card in this discussion that should to be taken into account. In 2015, 4,909 home runs were hit in the big leagues, and a MAJOR jump was taken in the entire league in 2016, with 5,610 home runs. In Progressive Field alone, there were 149 home runs in 2015, compared to 201 home runs in 2016. Because we’re talking about 2013 as well, there were 4,661 homers hit that season, and 165 in Progressive. While we could really jump down a rabbit hole regarding why this 2016 jump happened overall, we’ll leave that for another day, and just acknowledge that some of the Kipnis jump may be simply attributed to an unknown factor that equally impacted the league. Was it a tighter wound ball, or just a difference in climate? Who knows, but clearly, something was different.
It’s equally important to note here that there is a major organizational philosophy that has begun to seep through the system since the team acquired Michael Brantley, and drafted Kipnis. While I clearly don’t think Brantley or Kipnis are singularities, they both became All-Star caliber players based not only on talent, but effort behind the scenes as well. Both can certainly be pointed to as the beginning of a “groupthink” that the Indians front office has helped develop over the past five seasons. Brantley and Kipnis are both “students of the game.” I know this is a gray area which drives some fans mad, but if you’ve ever watched either player in the background between games, you quickly realize their ethic to become better is taken to another level.
Brantley is the son of a Major League baseball player and coach, and spends hours watching video so he can create an approach for every pitcher he faces. Kipnis has shown time-and-time again he can re-invent himself. During that 2010 Minor League campaign I mentioned earlier, the 23-year old not only dominated three leagues, but did it while learning a new position at 2nd base. While outsiders were saying that he would never be an above average infielder, he was busy being an above average infielder. While this is an area on which he continually has to work, he does. Look at his defensive differences from year-to-year, leading to last season, in which he was one of the better defensive second baseman in the league. Both Brantley and Kipnis are also extremely malleable when it comes to where they hit in the order, and this is something we have to consider here as well.
While contact is a key factor in this philosophy, understanding what and when a pitcher is going to come at you with a certain pitch, and at a certain point in the order, is equally important. Brantley is the king of finding the “market inefficiency” of each at bat, whether it be swinging at first pitch fastballs because he’s playing percentages, or taking as many pitches as possible, if the case sees fit. So why am I talking about Brantley in a Kipnis piece? Because it’s clear Kipnis takes on a similar approach, as do several other players on the team. The last two seasons really bear this philosophy out.
How pitchers approach Kipnis
In an interview with Zack Meisel this past August, Kipnis spoke a little bit about his fairly simple mentality about how he’s approached the season.
“(Last year) I just set up all of the pitchers in the league, just working on [hitting pitches] away. So, I used all of their adjustments to my advantage. Now, it’s like, ‘OK, everybody’s going to be pitching me in this year, so let’s turn and burn and hit more home runs.'”
When asked if he was worried about pitchers reading this point, and adjusting, Kipnis was ready for the question.
“Then I go right back to it and the average goes up. Here come the doubles. I use your guys’ adjustments to my advantage and set up all of you overthinkers.”
It seems a simple context, but most hitters struggle making adjustments either one way or another. Kipnis did it to perfection last season, and overall, while there was the jump in home runs, and drop in average, everything else stayed virtually the same. Equal with the power surge came an improvement overall defensively as well, but that’s for another day.
In a broad sense in 2015, Kipnis was taking what the pitchers gave him. Now let’s take a look at Kipnis and his past three healthy seasons, to see if we can determine an alteration of philosophy.
His 2013 hit spray chart:
His 2015 spray chart:
His 2016 spray chart:
Just perusing the difference between both 2013 and the combined 2015/2016 seasons, you can see Kipnis truly was utilizing all sides of the field with his power. Nine homers were to his pull side in left, seven homers were opposite field shots, and one went dead straight away.
In 2015, Kipnis hit only one homerun to the opposite side of the field, and that was just over the wall next to the foul pole. In 2016, again, only one homer was a true opposite field shot to the power alley, while the rest of his 22 homers were either dead straight away, or pull shots.
So did he pull more pitches from season-to-season? Did he hit the ball in any discernible way differently?
From 2013 to 2015, you can see his ground ball rate went up vs righties, and his fly ball rate went down, but then from 2015 to 2016, his ground ball rate went down dramatically both versus lefties and righties, and his fly ball rate skyrocketed vs. righties, while it stayed virtually the same vs. lefties. We’ll get into the whys of that in a minute.
Where things really get interesting is his pull numbers, especially vs. left handed pitchers. It’s clear that following the 2013 season, Kipnis has begun to pull left handed pitchers at an extreme rate, increasing his pull% by almost 12 percent total. This makes sense, as lefties are clearly trying to jam him inside, in which Kip is taking the pitch where it’s given. His pull numbers vs. righties dropped from 2013 to 2015, but then increased back to normal from 2015 to 2016. Likewise, the opposite field numbers match the pull%.
In 2015, Kipnis saw a significant drop in hard hit balls vs. right-handed pitchers, then saw that number increase dramatically in 2016. While he hit a few balls harder than 2013, overall, the numbers don’t look all that different than in 2013.
So, why did we see Kipnis more-or-less morph back into the hitter he was in 2013?
The batting order
The first consideration here is where Kipnis hit in the order, in 2013, 2015 and 2016. While Kipnis was sure pitching would come at him differently in 2016 because of the pitch-type he looked for in 2015, a lot of this could be attributed to where he hit in the order.
You can make a case there isn’t a more important player on the team.
As the lead-off hitter, obviously, the priority was to get on base any way possible. His OBP at the top of the order was a scintillating .385 in 2015, and overall, it was a career high .372. It took a drop in 2016, to a still respectable .343, but clearly he shifted from a “get on base” mentality, to a drive runners in mentality. This also clearly was a product of his belief pitchers were going to pitch him inside.
The only concern here is if Kipnis becomes “pull happy.” You can see where in regards his home run power, this is clearly the case, but when you look at his overall numbers, it appears to be a guy who is both trying to take what pitchers are giving him, and taking into account his role in the order. The fact his overall numbers bear a striking resemblance to years past, I think it’s safe to say that batting order is the primary factor in his home run power.
When you just look at the differences in home runs from 2013, through the 2015-2016 seasons, the one concern I can get out of my head is Kipnis has become enamored with pulling the baseball. The bonus is even with this a likely occurrence, it hasn’t affected any other part of his game to the extent it needs to be a worry. In other words, with Kip entering his age 30 year, he’s still in the wheelhouse of his prime, and his hard contact is, if anything, moving up. It appears as though he’s just understanding the zone better, and launching pitches that are easier to drive.
So it’s not likely a concern in the end, but it still is worth watching though, as the season starts.
What does the future hold?
Last season, the Indians had two clear lead-off hitters in Rajai Davis and Carlos Santana. Davis led off mostly against lefties, with Santana the primary lead off hitter overall, and certainly against righties. What was interesting overall is Davis struggled against lefties throughout the year (don’t tell Aroldis Chapman that). With Davis seemingly gone, it remains to be seen who takes over at the lead-off spot for Davis. Will Santana lead-off all season, or will another fill the role?
Regardless, Kipnis likely won’t be that player, since his lead-off platoon would be Santana’s. We could see a scenario in which a guy like Jose Ramirez moves into the Davis lead-off platoon, or even a guy like Francisco Lindor, with Kipnis likely staying in the two hole. With Brantley’s health currently an unknown, it’s hard to gauge where Kipnis ultimately hits in the order. The only lock is that Edwin Encarnacion will be filling up that clean up spot in the order. Past that, the door is still open with a group of players a malleable in a line-up as Kipnis, Ramirez, Lindor, Santana, and a healthy Brantley are.
I still feel like players like Yandy Diaz can make a major impact because of his high contact rate, and this is another guy who can clog up the upper part of the line-up because of a high on-base percentage. The wildcard to me though, is Greg Allen, who I believe is a top three prospect in the entire system. He’s a lead-off hitter, and the sooner folks jump on board this bandwagon, the smarter they’ll seem. If you plug this guy into the lead-off role at some point, he’ll succeed, and allow Kipnis to continue driving the ball, and driving in runners, at any spot past the lead-off slot.
The one thing that remains likely is regardless, Kipnis will continue to adjust, fitting whatever role is needed.