On Trading Jason Kipnis

For a 102-win team, the Cleveland Indians are a team in flux. Seemingly too deep at many positions while dangerously thin at others, the Indians are faced with a collection of decisions which are uncomfortable; representing choices between one core member and another. In 2013, the Indians reached the postseason for the first time in more than five years, and they did in great reliance upon four position players Jason Kipnis, Carlos Santana, Yan Gomes, and Michael Brantley. The pitching staff was anchored by Ubaldo Jimenez and Justin Masteron; two starters whose time in this league has or will quickly expire. If there is a lesson in this it may be that time time is fleeting, and the best laid plans of front offices only succeed as far as luck will allow. Kipnis, Gomes, Santana, and Brantley was the core that Indians fans believed would bring them special moments, and just maybe a World Series Ring. With each under control through 2017, the future seemed limitless, and in a way, it was.

While Gomes and Brantley would continue optimism in 2014 with each posting All-Star caliber seasons, Kipnis spent the season playing through injury. From 2015 to 2017, Brantley would suffer multiple serious injuries sapping his production, and Gomes, injuries as well as decline leading to being more competent starter than impact player, in a flash, the core which fans dreamed upon was brittle and disintegrating as the most stable producer, Santana hit the free agent market. Now, this team would reach a World Series, cementing a legacy of sorts but during that World Series run Brantley was not on the field, Gomes struggled with the Mendoza line, while Santana and Kipnis contributed as complementary pieces to a core lead by Jose Ramirez, Francisco Lindor, Carlos Carrasco, Corey Kluber, Cody Allen, and Andrew Miller. Now the Indians are faced with increasingly difficult decisions balancing loyalty and continuity against the needs of the new core led by Ramirez, Lindor or the future with Ramirez, Lindor, Mejia, and Zimmer.  In this troubling context, Jason Kipnis enters 2018 without a suitable position for the Cleveland Indians.

This is where the Michael Brantley adds even more clouds to Jason Kipnis’ future. Brantley while a sub-optimal deployment in left field because of injury risk and general mobility fits there best with his bat being less valuable if used at first base or designated hitter because of positional adjustments.  Therefore, it is in the Indians best interests to attempt to deploy him in left field. While Kipnis has spent nearly his enter career in the Indians system sans the 2017 playoffs at second base, the Indians, rightfully so, seem to be committed to a double play combination of Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez. The Indians have a messy decision as Kipnis does not have the arm to play third, nor the athleticism to match Zimmer in center field. This leaves three options, Brantley and Kipnis pair up to cover left, first, and designated-hitter with Encarnacion, the Indians break up their best middle infield defenders, or the Indians trade Jason Kipnis.

The difficulty with trading Kipnis is evaluating what sort of return could be achieved as well as the goals of a Kipnis trade. First a positive consideration, in two out of the past three season Jason Kipnis has eclipsed 4.5 WAR, and has eclipsed 3.5 WAR four times in his career which is thoroughly impressive. Further, while Kipnis is not young, he only turns 31 in 2018.

The most influential part of trading a player is often the contract cost attached. Here are the Indians remaining obligations to Kipnis: 2018: $13.5M, 2019: $14.5M 2020 Team Option: $16.5M ($2.5M buyout). Including the buyout, the Indians have two years and 30.5 million committed to Kipnis over the next two years. When dealing for a player, substantive assets are only given up if the team acquiring expects to receive surplus performance value above the cost of the player’s salary. In this case, that would mean Kipnis would need to provide performance value above basically $15 million per annum to be traded unless the Indians at some of his salary.

During his residency at Fangraphs Matt Swartz found that second base was the cheapest position in terms of cost per win, at $5.2 million between 2012-2016. However, the overall cost per win estimate for the 2017 offseason is $11.1 million. Splitting between the two, lets place the cost per win at $8 million, though that is likely too high because second base is so much more affordable than other positions. Therefore, set the number at $6.5 million which means that in order to break even Kipnis would need to post roughly 2.5 WAR in 2018, and as the costs increase in 2019, perhaps just 2 WAR would suffice. Thus, in order to create surplus value for the contract Kipnis would need to post at least 5 WAR total over the next two years but perhaps closer to six. And that is just for a small surplus gain.

Now, the question for a team is the probability that Kipnis could post between 5-8 WAR over the next two season to make this a worthwhile gamble. Kipnis value is largely carried by offense with a career wRC+ of 109, and value as a baserunner. His wRC+ of 82 in 2017 was a huge delineation from his mean performance and was largely the consequence of a mammoth BABIP decline. Kipnis xBABIP suggests that we should expect some small positive regression but his overall contact quality simply took a downturn in 2017. Two pieces spiked, Kipnis’ soft ball hite rate which was a career high and his infield fly ball percentage which nearly doubled his career average. For Kipnis to post another plus offensive season he simply has to reduce soft contact back to previous levels.

Perhaps more interesting about Kipnis, is that his soft hit rate collapse and BABIP issues may have evolved from a failed launch angle adjustment. Kipnis increased his fly ball percentage by 11 percent, a massive jump which could likely only be the product of a mechanical adjustment in point of contact. While fly balls can increase ISO, shifting too far up the degree of launch angle create popups and soft outs which radically decrease BABIP. It appears that Kipnis shifted too far in the direction of fly balls and diminished his line drive frequency.

There are other potential underlying causes of the contact quality decline, one being a hamstring injury which sidelined Kipnis for a large chunk of games in 2017 but drawing a line between this and the contact quality decline is more creative than dispositive. This is the difficulty for Kipnis and other teams potentially evaluating a trade for Kipnis. Do they believe the root cause of his mediocre 2017 season was a failed offensive adjustment that is easily remedied or the product of an injury which could resurface. Perhaps it is both, and second baseman certainly tend to age more punitively than other positions. However, Kipnis provides reasons for optimism and an offensive bounce back. How other teams value Kipnis is difficult but one should be far more optimistic that Jason Kipnis will post 5 plus WAR over the next two seasons than Michael Brantley will ever reach 4 WAR (or better) again.