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Jason Kipnis, calming leadoff worries

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Rather than being a real problem, extensive study shows Kipnis leading off is a good thing.

MLB: Cleveland Indians at Cincinnati Reds Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Earlier this week I began a look at just what is plaguing Cleveland leadoff hitters. More specifically, Carlos Santana and now Jason Kipnis. These two are assuredly fan favorites, two of the longest tenured players on the team and guys who fans watched grow during some very dark seasons. Kipnis might not be the best at anything on the team, including playing second base, but he's definitely vital to the success of the team. Which makes his 2017 numbers thus far so distressing at first look.

It must be noted that he did miss several weeks of action recovering from a shoulder issue, not debuting until April 21. Since he missed a lot of spring training, I gave him the benefit of the doubt that he’d have to round into shape and got into the season’s groove. After 20 games where he hit .203./238/.316, it was hard to be too worried because that was effectively his spring training, just against full speed baseball. Terry Francona wasn’t worried obviously, because on May 14 he slotted Kipnis into the leadoff role, where he’s been ever since. Since that day, Kipnis is hitting .275/.330/.559. Which is… good?

It appears that the claims of Kipnis’ demise have been exaggerated.

I could start to parse segments of his last month of play, but that would be absurd, intellectually dishonest and, well, stupid. His last month’s work really belies the hideous season slash line we see at the bottom of the screen each game. It also adds credence to the “spring training” aspect of his first 20 games. Despite the sub-100 OPS+ for the year, he isn’t any better or worse this year than last year, if anything flashing some more power. He’s just taking his time getting into the swing of things and attacking the ball a bit differently.

Kipnis is hitting more fly balls (40.6 percent) than at any time in his career (32.4 percent career rate) and pulling the ball at a career-high 42.8 percent rate. He’s also swinging more in general his 48.2 percent swing rate six points over his career rate, and swinging at balls out of the zone more at 28.4 percent of the time (career 25.4 percent). Part of that might be his wanting to get his numbers where they “should be” in June, but he’s trying to clobber more often. It’s troubling that his walk rate is only 5.9 percent, but over the last month that’s up to 7.1 percent. More and more, it’s looking like we should throw out his first months’ work.

This is not to say he’s hopping on the fly ball bandwagon and going for only bombs. I don’t know if he hits the ball hard enough for that to work, below average this year at 87.3 mph, league average is 87.85. But that includes his early season work, and since May 14, it’s up to 87.8 mph. His his infield fly ball rate has leapt nearly 10 points from a year ago to 16.1 percent. It’s not a lot, but it’s something to think about. He’s on pace for a 20 or so home run total over a full season. The power isn’t a 2016 fluke, and his batting trends may boost even that number. His aggression just needs to be selective.

Going into this, I was all set with preconceived notions that Kipnis’ slash line accurately represented his season much more than the flashbulb memories I have of him thus far. I thought the numbers, not the eye test, were the truth. I was the fool. The fun part too is, he’s always been a streaky player, and generally has a great May and June (career OPS in those two months is .874 and .856 respectively). Since he missed most of April, will June become his May, and July his June?

His day off on Thursday gave us the glimpse of Francisco Lindor, leadoff hitter, which felt innately right, but Kipnis is out-hitting Lindor following his belated warm-up period. If he holds up and continues to round into form as expected, no change is needed. If he has that routine hot streak, that moribund season slash line is bound for a big boost. Santana can find his home in the middle of the lineup where he will be next year, when some other team pays him, and work on finding his own power stroke again.

But Kipnis? He could probably hit anywhere, it just stands out that he seems to blast the ball when leading off. Twenty-five of his career 83 homers have come in the first inning. That ambush mentality could do the Cleveland Indians well this season. It seems as though all is well with Jason Kipnis, leadoff hitter.