Should the Indians bench Kipnis?: Between Innings

I hate the National League Western Division. The Cleveland Indians (44-39) have had their issues in 2017 but never more pronounced than when facing the Arizona Diamondbacks (0-3), Colorado Rockies (0-2), Los Angeles Dodgers (1-2), and San Diego Padres (0-2). Add in a series loss against the Cincinnati Reds (1-2), and the Indians have a chance to finish with the worst interleague record in league history (2-11 currently with 2-13 the worst shared by the 2010 Pittsburgh Pirates and 2012 Rockies). The Tribe stayed true to form on Wednesday by only scoring two runs in a game they acquired 14 hits with four of them coming with runners in scoring position as they lost to the Padres, 6-2.

Francisco Lindor led the way on the offensive end for the Indians with two of his three hits resulting in RBIs. One of which he played some pinball wizard off of Padre starter Luis Perdomo.

Diving further in on Jason Kipnis

The best baseball topics are often the ones thrust upon the writers by the legions of fans discussing topics. When WFNY’s Mike Hattery dove into the hitting profile of Jason Kipnis on Wednesday, there were a calvacade of comments on many tangents on Kipnis- on Disqus and Twitter alike. The Indians then revealed that Kipnis is dealing with soreness in his neck all season and would not start the game due to it (he would unsuccessfully pinch hit). Therefore, much like Josh Tomlin should do on days when Trevor Bauer or Mike Clevinger start, I am going to piggyback off of Hattery’s good work and the community discussion.

Is second base or third base the more important defensive position?

The question is an important one revolving around Kipnis because Jose Ramirez is the current starter at third base who has proven to be a capable (and potentially elite) partner with Lindor on double plays from the right side of the infield. If Kipnis either moves off second or needs an extended time to recover from his ailments, then finding the proper balance at second and third base becomes imperative.

There are many ways to determine importance of a defensive position in baseball. Let’s start with the thoughts of Bill James, who created a defensive spectrum among his early works that attempted to rank the positions.

Indians World Championship drought era: Designated hitter – First baseman – Left fielder – Right fielder – Third baseman – Center fielder – Second baseman – Shortstop – Catcher – Pitcher

Era up to Indians last World Championship: First baseman – Left fielder – Right fielder – Second baseman – Center fielder – Third baseman – Shortstop – Catcher – Pitcher

The basic premise being that positions at the right end of the spectrum are more difficult than the positions at the left end of the spectrum. Players can generally move from right to left along the spectrum successfully during their careers.

Notice the flip-flop between second base and third base? It is noted it happened due to double plays being more common and less bunts down the third base line. Does this 30 year old standard still apply when some teams are placing superb fielding athletes such as Manny Machado, Nolan Arenado, and Jose Ramirez on the hot corner?

Digging through defensive ratings (DRS, UZR, and Def) and offensive ratings (wRC+, Off) on Fangraphs shows a definitive leaning among MLB clubs. From 2000 to 2016, second basemen only out-paced third basemen on offense twice. In those same 17 years, third basemen only out-paced second basemen three times on defense. Better defenders are winding up at second with better sticks landing on third, which shows MLB clubs still value that defense up the middle.

The Hardball Times helped describe why this is the case. It was noted that the amount of baseballs hit to third, short, and second base are almost the same in quantity as seen in the below graph.

Kevin Dean demonstrated that it is still true in today’s game.

Are MLB teams wrong then for putting their better defenders at second? Well, no. There is more to it than how often balls are hit into a particular zone. Not all batted balls turn into outs. Balls hit to third can have a higher exit velocity due to a greater trunk rotation (follow the kinetic chain down to find a faster bat put to ball) from right-handed batters pulling the pitch, which is how the Hot Corner got its name. Also, all velocities of balls have a slightly higher chance of leading to a hit due to the throw from third base being further than the throw from second base (if we assume the same depth of positioning of the fielder- not always the case).

Here is the chart that shows less balls hit to third base zones lead to outs as can be seen from the lower peak.

It makes sense that there are MLB teams that are more willing to hide a poor defender with a good bat at third base than second base in today’s game before we even added the benefit of double play ability. There is also a big advantage to teams that can field quality defenders at both positions due to the high variance of defenders at third base as outlined by StatsByLopez.

What should the Indians do at second and third base?

There are many options the ballclub could do. They could, but shouldn’t (and won’t) trade Kipnis. They could keep status quo. They could put Kipnis on the DL to see if more time rehabilitating his shoulder and neck with coach Ken Knutson in Arizona helps him regain his offensive (and defensive) propensity of the 5 fWAR player we know he can be.

The tricky part for an outsider is that the decision almost exclusively rests on the health of Kipnis, which is one piece of information an outsider rarely has. The question of what happens to Kipnis doesn’t matter though unless we first discuss who would replace him. Eric Stamets and Kevin Shaffer are among the possible choices to include at either third or second base, but it would be a stretch to support them as viable for 2017.

There seem to be four main options to consider.

Jose Ramirez at third base, Erik Gonzalez at second base

Jose Ramirez is the Indians best overall player, 2017 MLB All-Star starting third baseman. Keeping him at the position he is currently thriving to ensure we don’t somehow mess things up makes sense.

Erik Gonzalez has acquitted himself in MLB well. He has a current slash of .289/.304/.467 that is decent enough though in only 47 plate appearances. Only two walks is a bit troublesome and his minor league statistics show that he might be hitting at his ceiling. Still, he is a capable defender and would not require a roster move.

Jose Ramirez at second base, Giovanny Urshela at third base

Urshela could also likely handle second base, but is anyone really concerned about the uber confident Ramirez making the transition? If there is a current player on the Indians who could handle a mid-season position switch and brush it off as if it didn’t affect anything, then that player is Jose “Bat Flip Punk” Ramirez.

Urshela has had time at the MLB level and there are no concerns about his defense being able to play. He is the best available infield defender for the Indians to pick up. In fact, he might be the best infield defender on the Indians. The trouble with Gio has always been his bat. But, if we are picking between Kipnis and Urshela, then is there a current difference? So, shouldn’t we lean defense?

Jose Ramirez at second base, Yandy Diaz at third base

The Spring Training diatribes complaining about a lack of defense from Diaz proved to be mostly false. He isn’t quite at the level of Gonzalez (and nowhere near Urshela), but he is quite capable and made a number of nifty plays. The exciting portion of Diaz is he is the most complete package prospect in this list as he carries with him elite bat speed that creates elite exit velocity. Much to the chagrin of hitting enthusiasts everywhere though, his launch angle is pointing downwards, which leads to many groundball outs. His .203/.268/.219 with the Tribe spoke volumes, and he has still struggled to create extra base hits in Columbus.

Diaz could well be a future anchor for the Indians in the future, but his swing (or approach) appears to need a bit of work first.

Should we just play it out with Kipnis at second?

John Grimm explained this option in detail. Let’s give him the full credit for his thoughts. Or you could follow the thread on Twitter here:1

The Kipnis injury’s worrying, but Exit Velocity says ‘he has hit worse’ – not *necessarily* that he *is* worse going forward. Let’s assume that he is now a true talent 75-80 wRC+ guy RoS {rest of schedule}. That’s still better than the offensive projections of either Urshla or Gonzalez. Diaz, you could make an argument for. The projections do take into account the possibility of injury, but if you think that’s insufficient a 93 wRC+ and 100 wRC+ are similar enough that I could tolerate ‘he’s actually more injured than the projections think. I wouldn’t make that argument, but a pessimistic view of Kipnis’s medicals could make that argument.

Then, defense. Kipnis doesn’t look good. His chief defensive deficiency cost Cleveland yesterday’s game. It looks not spectacular. But he’s been a tolerable second baseman throughout his career. I remember reading after 2014 that Kipnis was an irredeemable defensive lug. And lo, in 2015 and 2016, he got better! And now he’s worse. Variance! I’m not going to call him above average, but he’s tolerable and there’s a huge gap in offense between Kipnis and Gonzalez or Urshela. Gonzalez is not likely to make that up. Gio requires an optimistic take on the most optimistic take on his defense to do so.

Diaz doesn’t seem much different from Kipnis, barring the positional difference/worse expected batting line. In that, if you look at the projections and MiLB numbers rather than his MLB 2017 line, that’s a pretty alright ballplayer. And I trust those things more than most do. If you’re going to DL Kipnis, play Diazfull-time at second while he’s out. The only condition for moving J-Ram to 2nd is if Kipnis is with another organization. I don’t want his defense screwed up by a mid-season lark.

Could you trade Kipnis? Sure. But as much as we rag on newspaper regressive types for undervaluing Carlos Santana, Kipnis gets the same here. There’ve been a bunch of memes that arose: “he’ll never hit in the 2nd half,” “his defense belongs in the outfield,” “was 2013 a blip?” All the while neglecting, I think, that prior to Lindor, he was probably the most successful draft pick since CC, with little competition.

Last word
Unless the Indians are convinced that Jason Kipnis is still playing injured and that it is affecting his overall batting line, then the obvious answer is to keep the status quo and play out the string. But, if the Tribe does need to make a move, then it is good that the depth of the overall system has some intriguing options to try out.

  1. Light editing for readability here. []