2019 Cleveland Indians Preview, Indians, WWW

What Will Be Jason Kipnis’ Legacy In Cleveland?: While We’re Waiting

Jason Kipnis WFNY MLB Preview
Welcome to the WFNY 2019 Cleveland Indians preview series. Since we are an unconventional group, we are here to give you an unconventional preview. Some might be breakdowns of positions. Some might be position group battles. Some might be in depth character studies of the intricacies of the art of bunting…just kidding we hate bunts and you should too. We will be here every day for the next two weeks leading up to Opening Day, looking at some of the players and positions of this world-class Indians team. 
Links to previous previews: Welcome home Carlos – Everyone should be rooting for Leonys Martin – Will Jake Bauers make us forget Yandy Diaz? – Who’s replacing Yan Gomes?  – Too many outfielders? – Ten questions that need answered – Who’s in the bullpen? – Jose Ramirez is an assassin – Opening Day Eve 

In the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 7—you know, that Game 7—Jason Kipnis sat in the batter’s box against Chicago Cubs relief pitcher Aroldis Chapman. Chapman, a volatile, flame-throwing pitcher with a well-documented history of off-field troubles, was being rented out by the Cubs. Kipnis, an up-and-down, scrappy infielder who has traversed between All-Star fan favorite and injury-riddled frustration throughout his career, had the makings of a Rudy-like hero. Chapman had largely been untouchable, but Indians’ outfielder Rajai Davis produced the biggest home run in team history just minutes earlier.

During Game 4 of that same series, Kipnis hit a seventh-inning home run off of Travis Wood in a game that sent the Tribe to a 3-1 series lead. He was a part of one Game 7’s more exciting moments earlier in the evening when he got on base on a ball hit just in front of the plate, getting to second base on a wayward through from Cubs catcher David Ross, and scoring from that very spot on a wild pitch moments later.

Those moments—the hustle, the determination, that toddler-like willingness to get dirty—were what had defined Jason Kipnis to that point, so it was only fitting that he would not only be put a place for them to occur but execute on them when needed the most.

But here was Chapman burrowing his left hand into his glove, staring home, yearning to make up for what had led to the game’s tied score. Only he unfurled an 85-mile-per-hour slider that came at Kipnis belt-high, inside half of the plate—unequivocally, the perfect pitch for someone of Kipnis’ ilk to crush deep into the night. The long-time Indian threw his bat at the ball, driving it to deep right field. The Progressive Field crowd went from tense to jubilant as the ball sailed east—to deflated as it dropped just to the right of the foul line, secured by one of the countless fans in a Cubs jersey.

Four pitches later, Kipnis went down swinging. The Cubs took the lead in extra innings, and the Indians would not be able to muster the magic one more time.

Sports have a weird way of providing fans with arbitrary benchmarks. We treat All-Star games in baseball and basketball as mid-way points when they are decidedly not in the middle of the season. We treat every offseason as a reset button despite age and mileage lurking in the shadows. We view quarterback changes as if the entire 53-man roster is revamped.

With Jason Kipnis, however, it’s tough to deny that that game—that Game—feels like the last time we saw the Jason Kipnis who was taken in the second round 10 years ago. Kipnis represented the Tribe in the All-Star game in both 2013 and 2015. During the ’15 campaign, he boasted an OPS+ of  120. In 2016, during the Indians’ run to the World Series, Kipnis was a mainstay as it pertained to production and availability, playing in career-high 156 games, putting up an OPS+ of 109, worth just a hair under five wins.

Since the 2016 season, however, Kipnis has played in just 237 combined regular season games, battling a variety of injuries. He’s produced OPS+ totals of 81 and 89, respectively, and has seen his placement among the top of the team’s lineup slide down to the bottom while his place in the field has been under constant experiment and debate.

As Kipnis’ career has worn on, a litany of variables has served as hurdles to perennial production. Jose Ramirez’s ascension among baseball’s greatest active players has all come with a constant reminder that the MVP votes are all coming while the second baseman is playing third base to compensate for Kipnis’ relative lack of versatility. Not helping matters are three items specific to him as a player:

  1. Jason’s ability to hit left-handed pitching has evaporated. After producing a slash line of .282/.326/.464 (.790 OPS) against lefties in 2016, he hit just .222/.292/.354 (.696) against southpaws in 2018.
  2. He managed just one hit in three postseason games last season, personifying the team’s collective offensive struggles in October.
  3. Terry Francona’s insatiable desire to keep Kipnis at the top of the lineup. In his 167 plate appearances in the second spot in the team’s batting order in 2018, Kipnis hit a paltry .181/.259/.282 (.541).

Now, only one of these issues is truly in Kipnis’ control as Francona did his second baseman zero favors last season, but so it goes. A player who was roughly three feet from becoming the go-ahead run in Game 7 of the World Series became known more for an incredible lack of production while batting in a key spot in the team’s lineup while forcing a teammate who is better defensively at second base to the hot corner.1

The result: A player who was once known as being emblematic of Cleveland—blue-collar lunch boxes and what not—drawing some of the most ire of any players on the roster this side of Josh Tomlin. Fans want to cheer for Jason Kipnis. He’s the ultimate try-hard in a city that embraces effort like it’s currency. It’s gotten so bad, however, that the water carrying cabal has been forced to tweet told-you-so rhetoric each time the veteran does simple things like getting on base during a spring training game.

[Insert Chris Rock ‘that’s what you’re supposed to do’ joke here]

All of this—the early-round draft pick; the multiple All-Star nods; the so, so close heroism in Game 7; and the two-year slide that followed—all comes down to this season. While the team has yet to take the field for Opening Day, multiple stories have been penned with the underlying narrative of this being No. 22’s final season in Cleveland. The Indians, who have lofted Kipnis’ name into the trade market for two straight seasons, hold a $16.5 million option on him for 2020, but it’s unlikely they’ll exercise it because #EnjoyHim.

On February 15, Kipnis told Paul Hoynes “I feel healthy. I feel strong. I put in the work this offseason. I was motivated every single day to have a good year for us and myself. I know how much I love playing this game so I’d like to play it past this year. A good year could go a long way in doing that.”

Just a few weeks later, Kipnis sustained a hip injury that could derail his start to the 2019 season, so much so that the team has added veteran infielder Brad Miller.

If all of this sounds like things have little chance of righting themselves, recency bias is a bitch. There are, however, reasons to be encouraged. His line drive and hard contact rates at home in 2018 show that the pop is still there. His .158 ISO was the fourth-best total of any second baseman in the American League. And as many have pointed out, Kipnis’ BABIP (effectively a measure of luck) dropped 43 points last season when compared to his career average.

For all of Kipnis’ issues against left-handed pitchers as of late, 14 of his 18 home runs last season came off of right-handers. While $14 million is a ridiculous amount of money to pay a platoon infielder, if put in a position to succeed, Kipnis could provide value. If last season’s issues against lefties were attributed to any sort of bad luck, all the better.

That Kipnis’ foul ball in Game 7 of the 2016 World Series was as memorable of a moment as Davis’ home run speaks not only to fandom in Cleveland but just how much legacies can be tied to seconds or inches. Jason Giambi hit 440 home runs in his career, but type “Jason Giambi Home Run” into Google and you’ll get this as the first result.

Sports can be unfair at times, and how we define legacy may be the most unfair of them all. Michael Jordan, teammates and style of play notwithstanding, will always have six rings. Dan Marino, stats and accolades notwithstanding, will always have none.

The good news for Jason Kipnis is that he doesn’t need to bury a game-winner over Craig Ehlo or help Jim Carey save a stolen Dolphin to leave Cleveland on a good note. Hell, he doesn’t even have to drop a ninth-inning slider into fair territory. He just needs to do enough to make fans forget about the last two seasons. He needs to stay healthy, get back on base, play solid defense, and get unnecessarily dirty every once in a while. In essence: In a city that has an owner who continues to force economics down the fan base’s throats, he needs to be worth it.

Of course, if it just happens to produce a YouTube moment in the late innings of Game 7 along the way, that would be one hell of a bonus.

  1. It could be argued that this last part is fine because who else is going to play third base, but I’ll gladly discuss the malpractice this front office has committed as it pertains to third base (outside of Josh Donaldson for a hot minute) for the last decade any time you wish. []