If you were to ask the fan on the street who the best second baseman in baseball is, you might hear Robinson Cano, you might hear Dustin Pedroia for history’s sake, and due in part to recent team success and media love of little guys, you might hear Jose Altuve. All good answers, but often forgotten is Jason Kipnis. While he might not be on the level of Robinson Cano at his $240 million, smooth-as-silk best, Kipnis has played fantastically for most of his major league career. Besides being taller, he’s certainly on par with Jose Altuve.
Jose Altuve is a very good player. He helped get his team to the playoffs after several years in the wilderness, he won a batting title in 2014 and led the league in hits for two years running. He steals a ton of bases and he plays very good defense. To hear a lot of people tell it, he’s the best second baseman in the AL, unless Robinson Cano returns to form for a full season. Why, just the other day a Reddit post that’s part of a series listing the top 10 at each position placed him at first in the whole game. Meanwhile, down at fourth, still respectable but ignored because it’s in the middle somewhere, is Jason Kipnis. Which, when taking into account actual numbers and not just whimsy and recency bias, doesn’t make much sense.
They’ve both been in baseball roughly the same time, though Altuve broke in at a younger age. He’s got three years on Kipnis, entering his age 26 season this year to Kip’s 29. So in a way I can understand why someone might rate Altuve higher. Being younger means more room to grow and flourish into all you can be, and Altuve has that going for him. Potential is attractive, it captures the imagination. But in real terms, they’ve produced almost exactly the same, offensively. In 2015, when they were both healthy and leading off for their teams, Altuve posted a 120 wRC+ and was worth 4.3 fWAR and 4.2 bWAR. Kipnis logged a 126 wRC+ and was worth 5.2 fWAR and 4.3 bWAR. Altuve did hit 10 more home runs than Kipnis, which is strange considering the output we’ve seen Kipnis able to produce, but Altuve’s 4.8 percent walk rate pales in comparison to Kipnis’ 8.9 percent. We all want Ricky Henderson as a leadoff man, but for a table setter Kipnis does a great job.
A decent amount of Altuve’s value comes from his ability to swipe bases. He’s a singles hitter for the most part, able to leg out infield hits and spray bloopers around the field, but he’s not a power hitter. The issue with that is, typically base stealing peaks at about age 25 according to a study done by Jeff Zimmerman, and Altuve hit his high in 2014 with 58 steals. Last year that number was 38, leading the league, but he also led the league in caught stealing. He could get more, but history speaks against him.
Altuve did hit 15 home runs in 2015 while Kipnis only hit five, but we’ve also seen Kipnis hit 31 between 2013 and 2014 and I think he can do that again. Especially now, as he enters the physical apex of his career at 29. While he doesn’t steal as many bags as Altuve, he does run the bases better, rating a 3.4 BsR from Fangraphs compared to Altuve’s -3.7. For all those stolen bases, maybe Altuve wasn’t so valuable after all. The data is incomplete until we have Statcast at our disposal, but between BsR and the eye test, Kipnis has proven high aptitude on the base paths.
Defensively, and despite his highlight plays, Altuve is no better than Kipnis. By the measurements we have available to us until Statcast becomes public knowledge, Altuve has actually been a negative defensive player by dWAR on Baseball Reference at -.2 to Kipnis’ +.6, and Fangraphs grades Altuve at a -16.5 to Kipnis’ -7.3. Defensive metrics like these are spotty at best, and the distance from zero from B-Ref’s dWAR for these two makes it all but negligible, but still, if anything they’re equal by these numbers and if anything you can argue Kipnis’ superiority. By Range Factor, which adds putouts and assists then divides by games played to give an idea of work put in by the player, Altuve did rate at 4.34 to Kipnis’ 4.15 in 2015.
I have to say, Altuve is the smoother player at second. It’s plainly a more natural position, but it seems like his small stature impacts his ability to get to some balls a large man might be able to snag. If this is sizeist, then the truth is sizeist. Altuve does have very good, quick hands, on the level of Francisco Lindor perhaps, and that certainly helps. He’s better than Kip aesthetically which that’s important in its own way, but in real terms of production, they are a wash.
If you could somehow add six inches and 30 pounds to Altuve, he’d be one of the best players in baseball. He is anyway, but he’d be a freak at that point. But even in baseball, the everyman’s game, size and physique matters. Kipnis might toil in comparative anonymity in Cleveland, and that injury-plagued 2014 certainly took the shine off being an All-Star in 2013, but he is every bit as able as Altuve. If he can return with the same kind of power that he showed in 2013 and continue to lace doubles to both gaps everywhere and kill the left field wall with regularity, he might just leap into contention for best at his position. He isn’t the most pleasing player to watch - the way he throws the ball when making a play on a routine grounder is just awkward seeming - but he gets it done and together with Lindor he’ll make beautiful music in what will be a fantastic Tribe infield in 2016. If they make the playoffs, maybe we can get a Daniel Murphy plus defense kind of thing going on. It’s not TOO much to ask.