Here I sit, alone, in a coffee shop without WiFi, in a town I’ve never been to, trying to write a baseball article on the internet in 2019. In the immortal words of David Byrne, “Well, how did I get here?”
Feeling cooped up in college town, I took a day-trip to Bloomington, IL to escape the cruel monotony, and to find some high-quality coffee—nothing in Champaign meets my admittedly snobbish standards. (I must say, this is damn good coffee). This physical place was new but very familiar: high ceilings, a vastly open space only encumbered upon by a few scattered tables and chairs and a wooden counter, and of course, that enrapturing coffee smell. At the counter, I purchased a normal “drip coffee for here” and as she filled my cup, I unloaded my computer and other possessions at a prime table, complete with a wall outlet within a power cord’s reach.
As she was ringing me up, the barista asked me her fateful question, the one that would seal my fate as a prisoner to the Coffee Hound: She asked if I wanted to pre-purchase a refill, as it would save me multiple dollars compared to the “buy-as-you-go” model. Ever dedicated to easy frugality, and with the intention to stay at my table until an article (this article) was produced, I agreed to the pre-purchase of a refill.
On top of the receipt was my so-called Wifi information. But, there was no network called “coffee_wifi” for me to access with the supposed access code “houndmade,” a failed attempt to delight me with password-related wordplay.
I explained the situation to the staff, several times, clarifying that I had the correct information. They stubbornly assured me that the Wifi was just running an update, and it would be running again, shortly—well, here I am, an hour into my patronization of this establishment, and Coffee Hound remains firmly rooted in the 20th century.
So that brings you to the present. I’m trapped by my pre-paid refill, and a room without internet, trying to write a baseball article in 2019. Still, I came here to do a job, and by god, I’m going to do it. The only functional tab on my Google Chrome browser is, luckily, a baseball one: Jason Kipnis’s FanGraphs page. So, the following article was hand-written at the Coffee Hound using only Jason Kipnis’s main FanGraphs page (but for a few noted instances) and transcribed only upon my return to this century.
. . .
Though he was one of the top second basemen in MLB earlier this decade, Jason Kipnis was mired by injuries in 2017, appearing in only 90 games and racking up just 373 mediocre PAs. At the time, I imagine Cleveland collectively justified his play: “Okay, injuries can wreak havoc on a player’s production—surely that’s what happened. He’ll still be the same old Kip in 2018.”
Well, that year came and went. Kipnis batted 601 times and put up an 89 wRC+, meaning he was 11% below league-average at the dish. This, the fans couldn’t stomach, especially not with his six-year, 52.5-million dollar contract. Never mind his well-rated defense, nor his clubhouse presence, or reliably strong baserunning, or his 2.1 fWAR, which would more than merit his nine-million dollar average annual value on the open market.
Once a fan-favorite, Jason Kipnis lost the heart of Cleveland’s supporters. Twitter was filled with anti-Kip rage—trade him for whatever you can get, package him with Brad Hand if you have to, hell, just cut him altogether and eat the money. He’s not worth the roster spot.
Then, this season, the final year of his contract (besides his team option for 16.5-million next season, which almost certainly will not be picked up), something strange has happened. Last season, people talked about Kip like he was an automatic out. But this season, I feel fan sentiment changing. Maybe we’ve all accepted that Kip isn’t a star-level second baseman anymore, or maybe people have calmed as his imminent departure approaches. Regardless, there’s been a flip on Kip (a Kip flip, if you will), that there’s some idea that he’s been better this year. And yet:
Jason Kipnis, 2018: 89 wRC+.
Jason Kipnis, 2019: 87 wRC+.
This doesn’t make any sense—if his level of play has remained idle, why has 2019 been the year of the Flipnis? This is the question I’ve sought to answer, and it turns out the answer is threefold.
Using wRC+, I’ll admit, was a dirty trick, because it has an implied, variable denominator each year. The stat really should be thought of as Player X ÷ league average. If a player improves by the exact same amount as the league around him, his improvement won’t show up in wRC+; it turns out that’s precisely what happened to Kipnis:
Kipnis has improved or held serve in nearly every raw stat, but it just so happens that his growth is by the exact amount that league-wide changes would have predicted. But, unlike individual player changes, league-wide trends are far more difficult for tiny human brains to wrap our heads around. Therefore, it’s easy to see that Kip has improved, but much less obvious to see that, on average, so has everyone else. Luckily, that’s what the stats are for.
Additionally, from a pure value perspective, run production is the bottom line, and the manner in which a player gets there is irrelevant. But, from an aesthetic perspective, we fans tend to enjoy a more active style of play—diving attempts, balls in play, baserunners! Individuals may vary, but big picture, people tend to be more bored by the “true outcomes”—walks, whiffs, and dingers.
Well, Jason Kipnis’s true outcome rate is down 14% this season—just 112 of his 409 PAs have ended with a walk, whiff, or dinger, compared to 190 of 601 last season. So even though Kipnis has produced the same level of offensive value, his raw numbers have improved and the manner in which he reached them was more fan-friendly.
Stat nerds such as myself insist that you can’t use context to evaluate players’ skills, that timing is out of a player’s control, and that every player is trying equally hard to succeed all of the time (of course, this isn’t entirely true in some low-leverage situations, to which Javy Baez’s recent left-handed PA can attest). Still, the theory goes that a player’s distribution of run production is largely random, or at the very least, out of his control.
I have never been able to convince a single baseball traditionalist of this idea, commonly accepted in the extended baseball geek universe, and I assure you, dear reader, no traditionalist will ever sway me. Ideological impasse aside, no one denies that context is vital to team success, and in hindsight, context-dependent stats show how important a player actually was, not just how important the stats think he should have been.
It turns out in 2018, Jason Kipnis was absurdly, disastrously unclutch. The JK Kid was worth 2.1 wins above replacement, sure, but by win probability added (WPA), Kip cost his team 2.61 games on the back of a -1.66 Clutch, ninth-worst in MLB (okay, I looked that up on my phone). You don’t need to know what exactly that means, but the basic idea is that it measures how a player impacted his team’s win probability compared to how raw stats would have expected him to.
This season, Jason Kipnis has wildly improved each of those context-dependent stats, scoring a manageable WPA of -.29 and a clutch of -.09.1 Kip’s raw stats have only slightly improved, but once you consider his timing, he’s been considerably better in 2019.
Okay, guys, I have to admit, I cheated. I used my phone for this entire section. I failed, everybody, and I’m sorry.
In 2018, there were very few meaningful games for the Cleveland Indians. In fact, you could argue that by the end of May, all of Cleveland’s meaningful regular-season games had been played. During that brief stretch of important 2018 Cleveland baseball, Kipnis struggled immensely, to the tune of a dreadful .228 in April and a still-bad .299 in May. Kip actually hit at an above-average clip for three of the remaining four months, but by then, the divisional crown was already in hand, and it turns out people care less about what you do in low-stakes situations.
This season, on the contrary, has seen Kipnis hit his peak performance at the optimal time. Given that it’s the year of the Kip Flip, it may surprise you to hear that his first above-average month has been the current one, but that’s exactly the case. He’s more than made up the deficit, however: With 11 August games under his belt, Kipnis has opposing pitchers running away scared from his .416 wOBA, good for a 159 wRC+ and a cool .6 fWAR during that time. Of course, you can’t actually evaluate a player from 11 games, but from strictly an optics perspective, dominating the eleven biggest games of the previous half-decade is a good look for Jason Kipnis.
I think we’ve learned a few things today. Jason Kipnis isn’t better this year than he was last year. Timing matters a lot more to a player’s image than it does to his evaluation. Writing about baseball without internet access is still possible in 2019. While Jason Kipnis hasn’t really been more valuable this season, his timing has been impeccable, making his season far more palatable. I’ll drink coffee to that, even if it’s in this hellhole of a cafe.