Cleveland Indians

Jason Kipnis, Once Overrated Now Undervalued

For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Newton’s third law holds true in many walks of life, including within the rationalization of fans. When a player becomes a fan favorite, they accrue a certain modicum of support from fans far and wide. They are, in effect, held to a higher standard in parallel with the amount of adulation that is heaped at their feet. It is only natural, and simultaneously in accordance with Newton’s logic, that when they fail to meet said standard, the pendulum shifts dramatically. A facet of the fan base sours on the once fan favorite, if only as an equal and opposite reaction to the previous excessive adulation.

This is especially true in the tale of Jason Kipnis over the last 24 or so calendar months. Kipnis’ fan favorite status evolved quickly thanks to his early effectiveness and dirt stains on his garbs. One injury stained campaign was forgiven thanks to a quick turnaround the next year. Back to back subpar seasons, though, have created a schism in his relationship with a fanbase that once adored him. In a world of market constraints, his contract status only adds fuel to the fire. It seems improbable that a player could be both overvalued and undervalued by a teams’ constituents in such a small-time frame. However, the pendulum appears to have swung back onto the undervalued side.

Contract status aside, the Indians could use a player like Jason Kipnis. Proven production and a shred of versatility are useful tools, especially on a team with so much uncertainty at almost every position. The Indians are in a precarious position in that they need serviceable players that don’t necessarily have to be bona fide superstars. The Greg Allens and Oscar Mercados and Bradley Zimmers of the world are fun to dream about from a ceiling perspective, but not necessarily optimal gambits to ride on if your last dollars depended on it. Jason Kipnis is exactly that – the payout won’t be huge, but he can provide a backbone to the back end of a lineup.

The numbers from 2018 won’t blow anyone away. Kipnis registered 2.1 wins above replacement which amounts to a starter on a playoff team. There are three inputs to that figure. First, Kipnis was wholly subpar at the plate, registering an 89 wRC+, or about 11 percent below league average. His ever dependable baserunning, though, combined with solid defensive metrics to produce an acceptable output.

In 2019, you can count on him to be a plus baserunner despite aging. Fielding metrics are anyone’s guess, as they tend to be wonky and Kipnis could very well be playing a completely different position by May. That leaves us prognosticators to meddle in his peripheral hitting marks to identify a trend and venture guesess as to his overall outputs in the rapidly approaching season.

Whether Kipnis will admit it or not, his profile reads as the byproducts of a failed launch angle adjustment, which was finely detailed by my colleague Michael Hattery for The Athletic last year.

Radically increased launch angle? Check.

Decreased exit velocity? Check.

Shifts in outcomes of batted balls? Check.

The radical increase in average launch angle took effect in 2017. It was coupled with a near three mile per hour drop off in average exit velocity, which is catastrophic. The chicken or the egg argument commences… Did an attempt to hit more fly balls cause weaker contact? Or did weaker contact cause more fly balls? This discussion personifies the crux of the problem at hand and is necessary if we are attempting to forecast Kipnis’ effectiveness this season.

Indians fans remember peak Kipnis fondly – imploring him to hit it the other way because his line drives seemed to always find that opposite center field gap. The launch angle change brought those thoughts to a screeching halt.

Courtesy of Fangraphs

Miraculously, Jason Kipnis went from a player who excelled by going opposite field to a player who died slow deaths by hitting it to the left side of the field. As is noted by the chart above, the relationship between his wOBA (weighted on-base average) and the amount of balls he pulled was inverse prior to 2017, meaning more pulled balls led to less effectiveness. After adding a few degrees to his average launch angle, that relationship flipped entirely. Pulling balls in the air became the name of the Jason Kipnis game.

Most notably, it was a steady stream of relative success after a tumultuous April 2018 for Kipnis. He found a niche on the launch angle and batted ball spectrum for the last four or so months of the season, registering a 111 wRC+ after May 15. While that is successful, we should not ignore a sizable chunk of the sample size because it does not categorically fit into an argument. Kipnis was lost for a month and a half and as such, his season long 89 wRC+ might just be more indicative of his overall caliber.

At this point in his career, Kipnis will go as his ability to get on base and extra base capabilities take him. The 2018 campaign offered an elite walk rate showing. Additionally, his expected slugging percentage marks displayed a slight uptick towards the end of last year’s campaign, despite decreased exit velocity.

Projection systems envision a competent showing for Kipnis in 2019. These are quite fair and certainly indicate that he is collectively undervalued by the Indians fanbase. On a team desperate for predictability, Jason Kipnis is a useful tool no matter the dollars owed. Those costs are effectively sunk, as he is likely not blocking anyone from a breakout and cannot be traded for anything of significant value. Indians fans should get used to seeing number 22 patrolling the diamond. If he can recapture some of the exit velocity shares he lost over the last couple years, a Jason Kipnis breakout wouldn’t be out of the question.

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