If there’s one athlete on the current Cleveland Indians’ roster who would hold a grudge against anyone who questions his place with the team, it’s Jason Kipnis. In interviews or on twitter, Kipnis has never held back his opinion, and at times, the fiery Indians’ second baseman has been borderline controversial, never afraid to speak his mind regarding slights to the team, or to himself, made by the media, or fans themselves. In many ways, these slights have driven Kipnis throughout his career.
Now I could make this story about the “chips that have been on the shoulder of Jason Kipnis,” but that story has been told. If anyone has shown the ability to find motivation throughout his career, it’s been Kipnis. He bounced from Kentucky to Arizona St., after he didn’t get along John Cohen, his head coach at Kentucky. Many didn’t think Kipnis could play second base once the Indians drafted him, so Kipnis proved most of them wrong, becoming an above-average defender, at multiple times during his career. Many didn’t think he could become a clubhouse leader, but he’s often taken the microphone for the clubhouse, which has had several quiet leaders throughout his tenure. After an injury-prone 2014 season, many wondered if he could regain the 5.1 fWAR level he reached in 2013. While he didn’t, he followed up 2014 with 4.5 and 4.7 fWAR in 2015 and 2016, regaining his footing as a top second baseman in the league.
And that’s the Hollywood story, isn’t it. Whenever Kipnis has been down, he’s managed to overcome it, and usually by working his ass off. You throw a cool blue-collar nickname his way, like “dirtbag,” and off you go. Whatever is put in front of him, he will overcome, right? He’s had two seasons that could be considered sub-par. He only played 90 games in 2017, and was in the midst of strange launch angle changes in 2018, and his numbers took a dive. So in the last year of his contract, after the Indians tried desperately to trade him after 2017 and 2018, he’s going to be motivated enough to regain that footing…right?
But the realities of baseball often go beyond what players can will themselves to do. What Kipnis has always been good at is molding his game to fit the on-the-field role that was expected of him. While the narrative that he used the ‘chip on his shoulder’ isn’t unnecessarily wrong, it almost takes away from the work ethic that Kipnis has put forth on his craft that underlies any “chip.” The reality is that Jason Kipnis has always put the work in, whether it was learning a new position, trying to fit as a lead-off hitter, or trying to perhaps figure out a way to keep his swing relevant as he passed into his prime years and beyond. Sure, people may have said he couldn’t do it, and that may have pissed him off, but the simple fact of the matter is that Jason Kipnis has always worked hard when he’s stepped onto the field. Playing angry or with an attitude is a fun storyline, but the better storyline is that Kipnis is a worker. Love him or hate him, enjoy his statistics or think he should do more, Kipnis works hard regardless.
You can see that his wRC+, slugging, and ISO drop, while his BABIP is still a respectable .300/.299. His average drops, and his BB/K ratio as well. You can take a look for yourself. This is the type of player that Kipnis has always been. While he’s been critiqued for this over the years, and while it’s probably oversimplified if you say he plays hard and wears down, it’s not out of the realm of possibility. And while we can’t be sure how this will play out over the course of his career, it’s not hard to see the parallels.
As Kipnis enters this 2019 season, most likely his last in a Cleveland Indians uniform, there are several factors that need to be taken into account, especially after his recent struggles, and recent injury. At 31, Kipnis is far from done as a player, but also far from the 23-year old that the team drafted almost ten seasons ago. Kipnis plays an unforgiving position, and if there’s anyone who plays “harder,” than most, it’s Kipnis. While certainly gifted, he’s never shied away from putting in the time. But how has that shaped who he is right now. “Wear and tear” has been a phrase used with Kipnis throughout his career. He’s traditionally started the year off slowly, had hot months in May, June, and July, and struggled as August blends into September.
And that’s where the questions start. Can Kipnis become a 4+ fWAR player again? EHC’s Gage Will notated Kipnis expectations prior to the season, and while it’s still a little hazy to guess based on his swing changes, most projections have him in that 1-3 WAR scenario. In other words, Kipnis should be a solid addition to the team, if he ever gets healthy. But this is where the story gets hazy, because 2018 Jason Kipnis wasn’t much like the others. As Gage also noted in his piece that Kipnis got better as the season went. This is true, and also why I think looking at his injury plagued 2017 season is a flaw. Just take a look at the base numbers.
So what the heck does this all mean?
- Kipnis most definitely saw his game improve somewhat as the season progressed, which also included a slugging percentage increase. Now I don’t have the statcast splits here, but I’m curious to see what they are. It’s possible that Kipnis began to see the swing changes click.
- Kipnis struggled in the postseason, but this also coincided with a move to center once again, and paralleled an overall struggle from Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez. I only mention those two because it’s possible, and even likely, that Kipnis was pressing. It’s also possible he wasn’t. That’s why this is tough.
- Kipnis has a calf strain. It’s supposedly mild. It’s rumored that Kipnis could be out for at least a month, if not longer. This could throw everything else out the window. Kipnis has struggled with lingering injuries, and calf injuries tend to be lingering. This could make everything else inconsequential. If Kipnis can’t put the work in, not sure he can be effective.
- With Jose Ramirez struggling, and Francisco Lindor dealing with a calf issue of his own, to go along with an ankle sprain that’s required a second opinion, and weird on-air speculation, will Kipnis be forced into the top of the line-up, where he’ll press?
So this is a difficult process to figure out, especially without the Indians’ starting second baseman not on the field. While a 2 fWAR Kipnis would be fine, as would a platoon with a solid righty second baseman as well. Having these swing changes click into gear with a healthy Kipnis would be the best result. But we have to take a realistic view.
The launch angle numbers noted via Statcast have shown a drop in Exit Velocity, which has correlated into a ton of fly balls outs. So it may be a pipe dream to expect a dramatic return of the All-Star version of Kipnis, because we may be looking at a player that continually tries to retool his swing either with continued launch angle progress, or a regression back to the line-drive version of himself. Both scenarios won’t be easy to accomplish, especially if he’s on the mend. Maybe that puts his 2 fWAR season into question. It definitely puts his return to a 4-5 fWAR player into question, which likely distresses a front office that needed a return to form from a player that they couldn’t move to save money.
Honestly, when it comes to the specifics of the legend Jason Kipnis, it started back in Kinston, in his first full season with the organization. In my first interview with Kipnis, I asked him about how hard he works at his game, especially at second base.
“Everything I do, every day, is so I can be a Major League baseball player. The team has a lot of faith in me, and I want to pay them back for that.”
Kipnis flew through Kinston, and then Akron in 2010. He finished the 2010 season in Columbus, hitting for the cycle during a playoff run that saw him hit .455 with two home runs. Kipnis hit for the cycle in the International League clincher.
That set the expectations for me. Talk about unfair.
Much of the current crowd of Indians’ fans hold Kipnis to his four best seasons, which are a combined 17.7 fWAR. His other four seasons, including his first partial, and two injury-riddled seasons, come in at 4.1 fWAR. That’s a stark difference, and has always been a point of contention. But Kipnis has a career fWAR and bWAR of 21.8, which places him second all-time for full time second basemen for the Indians, behind Nap Lajoie.
Not too shabby.
In the end, none of that matters though, because none of that is important in 2019. Kipnis’s legacy is safe, but how he finishes is really important to the success of the 2019 team. It’s easy to say that 2016 begat 2017, which begat 2018 Kipnis numbers, but it is a bit more complicated than that, and doesn’t really fit a particular narrative.
Maybe he’s getting too old.
Maybe he’s getting too injuried.
Maybe his swing is slower.
Maybe his swing is in too much flux.
Or maybe he just doesn’t have a chip on his shoulder anymore.
You can pick your narrative.
But what this Indians team needs is a Kipnis that finds the exit velocity again, and perhaps continues his swing improvement. They need him to play like he’s a healthy 31-year old, and not an injury prone, worn down 31-year old. And perhaps as Gage Will said, a 2 fWAR season is fine.
And he’s right.
And that might be in a bubble, and it might not.
But in a team full of questions, it’s easy to look at a player that has had seasons in which questions were answered with really good seasons, and think, “there might just be one left.”