With both teams donning stars and stripes to celebrate Independence Day, the Cleveland Indians lost to the Padres by a score of 1-0. Perhaps most striking is second baseman Jason Kipnis continues to bat lead off, stranding four runners in one evening alone.
For Kipnis this is a microcosm of what has been a frustrating season strewn with unproductive plate appearances and an inability to execute double plays because of a mediocre transfer as well as a squirt gun arm. The second part of that sentence has alway been the case as Kipnis has always had arm and transfer issues at second. Indeed, Kipnis deserves praise for becoming an average defender at second having transitioned from playing outfield in college. He’s a relentless worker who has earned a ton of fans while embodying such an ethos. Yet Kipnis’ small defensive issues were always covered by tremendous offensive production—except for 2014 and the first half of 2017.
In 2014, Kipnis’ worst season as a big leaguer, he was suffering from an oblique injury which sapped his mobility and offensive production to a replacement level season. In 2017, Kipnis entered the regular season with similar concerns as he was shut down for nearly a month this spring with a strained rotator cuff. In reviewing Kipnis’ early offensive production it appears that the injury which plagued him to begin 2017 has its grips on his contact authority.
Kipnis is running his lowest BABIP1 since the injury plagued 2014 season, a mark of .245 with an xBABIP2 of .267. While there is some suggestion of positive regression, Kipnis is performing significantly worse than his career BABIP of .315.
Time for the three major inputs to contact quality: Exit velocity, launch angle, and contact dispersal. Indians twitter analyst Gage Will noted the exit velocity decline:
Despite what STO pregame guy would have you believe, exit velocity matters. A 3mph is HUGE. pic.twitter.com/oxFrZQ29Os
— Gage (@GageWill13) July 5, 2017
For a visual representation of Kipnis’ exit velocity decline review the following rolling averages chart.
Kipnis is also have significant launch angle issues, while elevating the ball is generally better, Kipnis is hitting to many high-degree fly balls which are better known as the hitters great enemy—popups. Another problem for Kipnis who has long been a pull-dominant hitter is for whom opposing teams have begun to shift more frequently than in past seasons. In 64 of his 196 plate appearances in 2017, Kipnis has been shifted which is a shift rate of roughly 32 percent, whereas Kipnis was shifted roughly 24 percent of the time in 2016.
It should be noted before continuing that in one area Kipnis has outperformed his career average is isolated power. It’s also worth noting that he has done so to only marginal extent, and his ISO is down 30 points from his 2016 season.
Kipnis has a threefold problem, contact authority, contact launch angle, and an increasing number of shifts. The scale of the exit velocity decline is most concerning. I will immediately note the disclaimer that I operate with no medical license or inordinately technical understanding of the human body. However, with an enormous exit velocity dropoff and a launch angle differences, I suggest that Kipnis’ rotator cuff injury may be limiting his offensive production. Further, if this injury continues to nag his body over the course of the season it is difficult to expect a significant uptick in production unless the problem is redressed.
One thing I do know: He has absolutely no business hitting lead off during these struggles.