Recent headlines about the Cleveland Indians have centered on the fantastic integration of prospects. Positive contributions from Oscar Mercado, Zach Plesac, Adam Civale, and Bobby Bradley have been essential during the Tribe’s torrid month of June adding to an already young roster. However, there are no obvious replacements in the system to some positions being held by lagging veterans. The answer is either to make a trade or for those veterans to improve their production.
Jason Kipnis has been the most prominent of those veterans mentioned as his numbers have been below average for several seasons. The month of June opened with one of the worst weeks in his career as he went 0-for-18 with no walks, no hit-by-pitch, and only an RBI sacrifice fly to even reach as a positive contribution to the ballclub with his bat. Perhaps the only reasons his starting position even survived that stretch was his veteran leadership on the team,1 Mike Freeman not being considered an intriguing option, and Yu Chang battling injuries and a lack of production of his own in Triple-A Columbus.
In the 13 games since that first week, Kipnis has a slash line of .362/.415/.6172 as he has reminded Tribe fans of the dirtbag second baseman from earlier in his career. The sample size is small, but the thought of Kipnis taking back a potential positive legacy that is currently defined most by a ball that landed inches foul in Game 7 of the 2016 World Series is a captivating sub-plot to what might be his last season in an Indians’ uniform.3
The compelling narrative aside, there is some reason to believe an adjustment was made to help account for the increase in productivity. That reason being Kipnis told Zack Meisel of The Athletic he has made a swing adjustment to help fix a mechanical flaw he believes was holding him back.
There is data on the results of his batted ball profile to back up his statement. Through June 6, Kipnis had a 86.7 mile per hour average exit velocity with a 10.7 average launch angle. After June 6, Kipnis has had a 86.5 mile per hour average exit velocity with a 16.8 average launch angle. It is not suprising he was not able to increase the speed of the ball off his bat. Generally, increases in physical strength or gross swing changes from terrible patterns would be required to do so.4
The production results have been eye-opening. Weighted on-base average (wOBA) is a useful tool to measure a hitters impact to the offense. The average wOBA in Major League Baseball for 2019 is .319. Through June 6, Kipnis had a .251 wOBA with his expected wOBA of .311 also falling short of a league-average bat. Since, his wOBA has jumped to .433 with his expected even higher at .447.
In layman terms, his swing change has resulted in a higher percentage of his batted balls winding up in the type of contact that creates hits. The figure below shows that Kipnis is hitting more line drives and hard-hit fly balls (barrels, solid contact, and flares/burners) with less ground balls and pop-ups. More good contact has led to better production.
Baseball is a game of constant adjustments. After years of struggling to find something that would help him regain his past productivity, Kipnis has tinkered himself into a hot streak. He might continue on this path, or it could be a blip. If he is able to sustain even above average abilities at the plate though, it makes the Tribe lineup much more potent with possible fixes more readily apparent for other areas of concern. The potential for a storybook closure on his nine-year Tribe career makes the rooting interest that much stronger.
About that youth
Here is a possible lineup construction with ages that might be seen soon with only two players above age 30:
Possible starting pitchers under age 30 for this type of game: