The life of Jason Kipnis as an Indian has been a roller coaster with more highs than lows. His walk-off single in his debut followed by a stunning home run affair at Fenway Park during his first week in the majors piqued interest quickly. His two All-Star game appearances have been well-deserved. You recall his line-drive-that-could-have-been in Game 7, only to drift foul. Quickly a fan favorite because of his hustle, a status which was amplified by Manny Acta’s affectionate nickname ‘Dirtbag’, Kipnis has earned a lot of leeway with the fan basis during his struggles.
Even so, the last 13 months have seen a fan base sour on the soon to be 32-year-old. After posting 4.5 or more wins above replacement in 2015 and 2016, Kipnis fell victim to the injury bug in 2017. Shoulder inflammation at the onset of the season and a recurring hamstring issue later in the campaign limited him to only 90 games. When he did play, Kipnis was as ineffective as his injury plagued 2014, with a matching 82 wRC+. Despite being effectively healthy, early 2018 returns don’t offer much hope for a bounce back season.
When coupling Kipnis’ slow start this year with his horrific 2017 outputs, concern about his outlook moving forward is not misplaced, especially when considering the aging curve of second basemen. After hitting the 30 year old benchmark, second basemen tend to see a sharp decline in associated skill sets. This holds true for all positions but second basemen tend to take that turn more quickly than most, perhaps due to a position that involves getting beat up quite a bit more than others. Deciphering whether the rapid decline is due to age or health is a fools’ errand, though, as it is likely the result of a combination of the two, with a healthy dose of tough luck sprinkled in.
We know where things went wrong in 2017. An overload of soft contact led to a a below average 0.414 slugging percentage. Weak fly balls littered his profile, as indicated by a career high infield fly ball percentage near twelve percent and a launch angle spike that was not accompanied by the required exit velocity gains. Further exacerbating this contact problem was a walk percentage under eight percent, which did nothing to help him in the on base percentage department. In a vacuum, it’s easy to draw the line to proclaiming Jason Kipnis a broken asset.
Delving into what has hampered Kipnis in 2018 muddies those waters even more, however. It’s easy to look at his bottom feeding 0.530 OPS and sky high 23 percent strikeout rate and immediately dismiss any potential for future gains. It’s steadfastly apparent that he’s just not connecting with the same authority, with average exit velocity marks of 85.8 and 86.6 miles per hour in 2017 and 2018, respectively, compared to 88.7 and 89.1 miles per hour in the two previous years. Look past that, though, and you will encounter some encouraging gains in relevant statistics.
First, Kipnis has been victim to some well-placed fielders. While his struggles have relegated him to a lousy 0.238 weighted on base average, his expected weighted on base average is 80 points higher (.318). In non-statistically accentuated speak, the balls he is putting in play should be going for hits far more often per their average exit velocity and launch angle. This is important because it offers evidence of misfortune.
Second, Kipnis has mitigated the infield fly ball disease that plagued him last season. This is, in part, due to a lower soft contact percentage and a hard contact percentage that closely resembles his peak hitting years. This has transferred itself into a barrel percentage, relating to the portion of his plate appearances that result in optimized exit velocity and launch angle, that exceeds any of his other Statcast Era outputs.
In differentiating between dissolving skills and injuries, some inferences are required to fill in the blanks left by a lacking sample size. 472 plate appearances over a 13 month stretch, most of which featuring a hampered Kipnis, aren’t enough to write him off. Monitoring the exit velocity results over the next few months will offer further insight. If he can navigate his way back toward the 89 miles per hour beacon, regression towards the mean on the luck side should guide him back toward success.
Tough luck has cratered the Kipnis stock, which appears to have bottomed out. Buy Kipnis shares now, as regression alone will make you a dime or two. Tracking recent exit velocity outputs offer a notable path towards higher gains, as in the last couple weeks we have seen him generating appropriate contact authority figures. This offers an outlook that is a little less messy and higher on the prospects of a return to relevance.