As the Cleveland Indians have ripped off fourteen wins in a row to solidify a seven game lead in the division and have all of the Cuyahoga Valley falling all over itself to scream about the Tribe from the rooftops (I assume anyway), in the middle of it all has been Jason Kipnis having another excellent June. This past month Kipnis has slashed .283/.360/.515 and appeared to be one of the best second basemen in baseball. It’s not abnormal, Kipnis always does this in May and June. He blows the doors off for two months then settles back to average at best hitting. That’s what’s abnormal though, is the consistent timing of his streaks. What is up with this? What is happening?
For the months of May and June in his career, Jason Kipnis has a .903 and .864 OPS, respectively for those two months. Excellent, right? But for him it’s even more absurd. In May, his tOPS+ is 136, meaning he’s 36 percent better than his own average performance in that month. In June it's slightly less, 127. Remember last year, when he had 51 hits in May, and slashed .429/.511/.706? That was one of the most dominating stretches I’ve seen a batter ever have. He was on base constantly. In 2013 he popped a 1.216 OPS in June, a month that included 12 doubles. In short, absurdity strikes Jason Kipnis in June. Digging was needed.
One easy way to explain it away is just bit of luck. His career BABIP is .319, but in those two months that number jumps to .341 in May and .374 in June. So the ball is just dropping more for him, perhaps. The way it clusters in those two months though, it defies common sense. By its nature, something like that should be random, that’s how hot streaks work. A player can’t just see the calendar flip and say, time to go kill baseballs for a couple months. He can’t just use all his hitting prowess up in 60 or so days then revert to averageness.
It gets weirder, too. In 2013, his line drive rate on fastball spiked to 43.1 percent in June, otherwise never rising higher than 32.6 percent that September. The same thing happened in 2015, when in May he had a 52.5 percent line drive rate in May, otherwise never cresting above 37 percent that August. Even in 2014 when he was sapped with an oblique injury, he had his highest line drive on fastballs and breaking pitches rates in May and June.
Those spikes in May and June are just... odd. Some years are greater than others, sure, but all the same, there’s a decided uptick more often than not in the early summer that seems to have no real statistical reasoning. If you were wondering, I picked line drive rates simply because liners fall as hits more often, so they're a good indicator for a higher BABIP and offensive production in general.
One thought is that perhaps, just by chance, Kipnis is being pitched a certain way in those two months. He is known to be a guy who loves the outside pitch, at least in the past, and we’ve all seen him play pepper with the left field wall in Progressive field. So here’s a heat map of all the pitches he’s seen since 2012.
And here’s another two, the first from the months of May and June in 2013, the second from those months in 2015. I jumped 2014 because that wasn’t a healthy player we were watching, so it seemed like poor data.
For some reason, he is in fact seeing fewer pitches inside in those months than in general. Perhaps it’s because people are taught since birth that lefties love the ball down and in, so when the heat goes up and people get tired they forget about the guy in the box, and pitchers shy away from that on instinct when pitching to him. But that’s not how pro sports work -- there’s an actual book on Kipnis, and it’s known he likes to go opposite field. Maybe it’s really just a series of coincidences in the same months constantly. Whatever it is, he's seen more pitches in his nitro zone that he has teed off on.
To be truthful, I have no real answer for this. However, despite a 2016 where he’s not had quite the stretch these past two months we’re used to, there could be some increased sustainability to his game. Or he could be getting worse. But his BABIP for June was only .316 which is right at his career average, and he still logged an .876 OPS, nearly in line with what he’s done in the past in that month when his BABIP was 40 or 50 points higher. That could mean he’s doing something different, more sustainable. He’s also going opposite field less than he ever has, only 21 percent of the time, and his line drive rate is right in line with that great singles and doubles year he had in 2015, at 26.2 percent. His home run to fly ball ratio is at 13.2 percent, which either means he’s been lucky with the homer, or else is hitting the ball in the air with more authority now. He's also walking 7.8 percent of the time though, a career low since he started playing more than 100 games a season. So maybe he's a swing-happy aggression machine. People change.
Streaky players are weird because they just get good all of a sudden, really really good. Like when Yoenis Cespedes for two months in 2015 was almost as good as Bryce Harper was that whole year. But the specificity with which Kipnis does his streaking, it’s just odd. He’s made himself invaluable with it, since it leads to certain winning streaks carrying on, along with a similar aptitude by Lonnie Chisenhall. It’s just strange is all. Why those months? Do people get surprised by the heat and forget to throw bad pitches? Does he eat June bugs for super powers, and runs out by early July? Is it related to the phases of the moon? That I have not explored. It’s plainly the next level of Sabermetrics, but I have to find my astrologist. Kipnis though, he’s convention defying and fascinating. Maybe he’ll even out soon and just consistently dominate. It'd just be nice if he made any sense.