Indians

Finding Jason Kipnis: Part 2

Kipnis launches his sixth spring training home run in six games.

Jason Kipnis was coming off of arguably his worst season as a major leaguer in 2017. He missed 72 games and was on the DL three different times. He lost his starting spot at second base and found himself getting bounced around the line-up as he tried to get back on track offensively. He ended up in center field, couldn’t find his swing in the playoffs, and was at the center of nearly every Indians trade rumor over the 2017-2018 Hot Stove Season.

Did Kipnis have to change his game to return to form in 2018, or were his struggles based on injury, the lack of prep to get ready for the season because of said injuries, and having to re-learn center field, on-the-fly, two weeks prior to the ALDS?

Kipnis didn’t have to wait long to begin proving that he was both healthy, and ready to put the 2017 season behind him. In six Spring Training games, Kipnis has six homers and 12 RBI, leading the Cactus League in both categories. He’s leading the Grapefruit League too, not that it matters. Is Kipnis truly taking off, or is he experiencing a spring training bounce based on pitchers who aren’t quite ready yet?

On January 3, 2017, I took a fairly deep dive into Kipnis’s big power jump in 2016. Kipnis had made some clear adjustments based on how pitchers were approaching him, and how he set those pitchers up in previous years. On top of that, Kipnis changed his approach based on where he hit in the line-up.

Finding Jason Kipnis: Part 1

The 2015 lead-off experiment

To understand Jason Kipnis in 2017, it’s important to note his two seasons prior.

In 2015, Kipnis was the Indians primary lead-off hitter. After a rough 2014 season, Kipnis found his niche in a spot that Terry Francona was desperate to fill. And fill it he did.

courtesy of fangraphs

courtesy of fangraphs

courtesy of fangraphs

Kipnis became the primary leadoff hitter for the Indians that year and looked every bit the part. Kipnis set a career high .372 OBP overall in 2015, and upped that to .385 while leading off. Interestingly enough, Kipnis set a career low in flyball percentage, at 28.1%, and was clearly taking the advice of Lou Brown, but it worked. Perhaps there was some luck involved, as his .356 BABIP would suggest, but Kip had clearly changed his game to fit the role in which he was playing on the team.

courtesy of fangraphs

If you look at his spray chart, things get even more interesting. His flyballs were predominantly hit to the opposite field, with the exception of his home runs, which were all pulled to the right, suggesting that Kipnis was jumping on an inside pitch. His line drives were separated fairly evenly to all fields, while his ground balls were mostly to the pull side.

But when you pare that spray chart down to Kipnis’s hits and outs, the picture gets a bit more clear.

courtesy of fangraphs

Kipnis’s hits were utilizing the entire field, suggesting that he was taking what the pitcher was giving him to get on base, unless he was swinging for the home run, in which he was taking the occasional inside gopher pitch over the right-field wall.

In several interviews, Kipnis discussed how pitchers were pitching him away, and the only thing he did to adjust was to take the pitches where they were and capitalize when they made mistakes. Seems pretty simple.

Now obviously you can dive into this a lot more, taking a closer look at lefty, righty splits, and zone swings, and where he was pitched, and we could go on-and-on, but the cursory look tells the story of a healthy Jason Kipnis, given a clear lead-off role, and fitting into that role. We’ll dive into this a bit deeper in a bit when we look at his overall trends.

Kipnis hitting second…

In 2016, Kipnis moved to the two slot in the line-up, and almost predictably, his profile changed again.

courtesy of fangraphs

courtesy of fangraphs

courtesy of fangraphs

Obviously, Kipnis saw a huge spike in home runs, as well as an overall flyball spike, while his groundball percentage dropped six percentage points overall. His OBP and average took a bit of a drop, but with a more reasonable .324 BABIP, this appeared to be the sort of Jason Kipnis we could come to expect. Kipnis’s fWAR only dropped a point, from 4.9 to 4.8, and he continued to play a really solid second base. No, he’s never been spectacular, but Kipnis has always been one of the hardest workers on-the-field, and this continued.

When talking about his offense in August of 2016 while talking with Zack Meisel, Kipnis noted his change in approach, which was based on what was given (and likely his spot in the line-up. Yeah, he avoided the term, “launch angle” then too.

“Last year (2015) 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.’”

Again, the spray charts tell the story.

courtesy of fangraphs

In a general sense, this doesn’t look a whole lot different than his 2015 spray chart, other than the obvious home run surge. But if you look closer at the fly balls, you’ll notate more to the pull side. The line drives are definitely more pull side, and the grounders are actually a little more spread around the diamond. Does this suggest that perhaps his worst swings are his ground ball swings?

Probably.

courtesy of fangraphs

Visually, it’s clear that many of his hits in 2016 became pull side hits, suggesting pitchers were likely pitching him to the inside, either in adjustment to his 2015 season, or perhaps just an adjustment in where Kipnis was standing in the box. Either way, he was looking to lift that ball more, likely because he was seeing more pitches that he could drive.

An overall picture, prior to 2017…

Now before I jump into 2017, I want to take a quick look back at his last three outstanding season, in 2013, 2015, and 2016. I’m avoiding 2014 for the time being, because in that year, he struggled with injury throughout the season. An early oblique injury kept him from performing at the top of his game, even though he barely missed any time. It’s also important to note that Kipnis hit mostly in the third slot in 2013, with an occasional turn hitting second.

You can see that 2013 and 2016 mirror each other pretty well with regards to how hard he hit the ball. The major difference in those two seasons is that Kipnis saw a surge in fly balls, with his percentage jumping almost 7% against righties, and 1% against lefties. It’s not surprising that Kipnis also saw a jump in homers (17-23), and doubles (36-41). While 2015 is the outlier, it’s clear that he was trying to do different things as a lead-off hitter. While some may knock the strategy, in terms of fWAR, it was his best season.

Just remember that 2015 saw some wonky numbers regarding hard and med% hit baseballs, but in the end, it was a clear shift in Kipnis’s philosophy, and while BABIP suggests there was some luck there, his BABIP fluctuation wasn’t much. In 2013, it was .345, in 2015 it was .356, and in 2016, it was .324.

So what about 2014?

Kipnis suffered an oblique injury at the end of April that he struggled with throughout the year. In September of 2014, he then suffered a hamstring injury. In other words…Kipnis spent the year with an injury that saps your strength.

Because of his struggles, Francona moved him all over the line-up.

courtesy of fangraphs

courtesy of fangraphs

courtesy of fangraphs

Without getting too detailed here, he hit in nearly every slot and played a bunch of games in four different spots. He wasn’t hitting the ball, wasn’t hitting the ball very hard, and Francona couldn’t find a place for him.

Sound familar?

So what about 2017?

WFNY’s Gage Will wrote a piece earlier this year detailing Jason Kipnis’s likelihood to return to form in 2018. In that piece he noted a drop in Kipnis’s exit velocity:

courtesy of baseball savant

Unfortunately, exit velocity didn’t exist until the 2015 season, so we can’t compare Kipnis’s 2017 season to that unfortunate 2014 season, but you can see that the 2017 season saw a sizable drop-off from both 2015 and 2016. While one could point to age, it’s more likely that the shoulder injury in the spring kept Kipnis from getting into shape, or lingered throughout the year. Once he injured—and re-injured his hamstring in the summer—his year was virtually over.

If you look at Kipnis’s overall batted ball trends, you can see that there are some similarities that are worth considering, in both 2014 and 2017.

courtesy of fangraphs

First and foremost, Kipnis’s hard% profile dropped to his lowest since 2014, and on top of that, his soft% was an all-time high, 22.1%. When you compare that to his 44.1% flyball rate, you end up with a lot of lazy fly balls that don’t amount to much. While his groundball rate was the lowest of his career, it’s clear that an unhealthy Kipnis wasn’t generating any power thanks to that shoulder. This is similar to his 2014 season, minus the skyrocketing FB rate.

Without the 2014 exit velocity information, it’s impossible to notate this for sure, but you’d have to believe that it took a hit because of the oblique.

On top of that in 2017, Kipnis had the disadvantage of not having spring training, which for a player with his work ethic, just doesn’t jive with his production.

Sure, age becomes a factor, but 2017 was such a major outlier, that you have to think it’s less a factor than the simple fact that Kipnis was hurt on-and-off all year, and couldn’t ever really prep for a season that saw him, once again, hit in a variety of spots.

courtesy of fangraphs

courtesy of fangraphs

courtesy of fangraphs

And that doesn’t even account for the fact that Kipnis had to change positions once he was finally healthy…in September…for the playoffs.

But the connection is easy. When Kipnis is injured, he struggles. When he’s not, he’s an all-star.

What about 2018?

It’s easy to just say that Kipnis will perform well. While I could sit here and preach to you about how I hate projections (I do) because they’re never really right, most have him rebounding at least to a 1.5 to 2 WAR player. Obviously, age plays a factor in injuries, but as we’ve seen this spring, a healthy Kipnis is a bountiful Kipnis.

And that’s the big question. Can Jason Kipnis stay healthy at 31, playing second base? Will he stay at second base all season?

This should all be a factor going forward.

While I’ve been a huge proponent of roster flexibility since Jose Ramirez became a part of the Indians organization, I’m not sure that Jason Kipnis is the player to do it with. Over his career, he’s been a workhorse. He figured out second base when nobody else believed he would. But over time, when he hasn’t been able to work on a specific role, mostly because of injury, it hasn’t turned out well offensively.

Put Kipnis at second, and forget about him. Let him do his thing. If you have to move anyone around the diamond, do it with Jose Ramirez. Do it with Yandy Diaz. But Kipnis can be an anchor of this offense once again. Can he be that 5 fWAR player? I believe he can be, in a perfect world. Is the 3 fWAR+ player that Gage Will predicted be more in the ballpark? Possibly. So I’ll split the difference.

Now The Athletic’s Travis Sawchik’s gave a few good reasons why Kipnis could move around the diamond a bit, and I suppose in a pinch, I could buy into that, but I still think the best Kipnis is the Kipnis that is given a slot and performs in that given slot. In his most successful seasons, both offensively and defensively, he’s had a specific slot in the order, and played second base. Keep doing that.

Expect a 4+ fWAR, 20 homer season from the Indians’ second baseman. He has a chip on his shoulder, and a bounce in his step, as his six homer in six game start to his spring would suggest. Sure, second can be hard on a player, but I’m not set to bet on fragility quite yet.

The time to move Kipnis in the outfield full-time has passed. If you were going to commit to a full-time outfield move, he should be playing there right now…learning the position, so he can maximize health, and not take away from his offense as the season progresses.