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Finding hope for Jason Kipnis in 2018

The Indians second baseman needs to bounce back. There’s evidence he should, and more.

MLB: Cleveland Indians at Minnesota Twins Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The other day in my piece demanding the Indians sign Lorenzo Cain if only for my own enjoyment, I made mention of the stock the Tribe was putting in Michael Brantley and Jason Kipnis bouncing back and having the type of the seasons they’re capable of. With nearly 20 percent of the payroll wrapped up in these two men, they haven’t left themselves with much wiggle room. When it comes to Brantley, who knows. The man exists outside of news, space-time, anything. Nobody knows anything. But Jason Kipnis is reportedly healthy again and slated to be the starting second baseman. It might be brash optimism, but I think Kipnis is going to be fine. Heck, I think he’ll have one of his best seasons.

Kipnis’ 2017 was repeatedly waylaid by injury. The inflamed rotator cuff made him start late, then hamstring problems reduced his season to a mere 90 games and his output to a paltry .232/.291/.414(82 wRC+) batting line. It was terrible from the get-go, and when the hamstring news came out I just knew it wasn’t going to get better. Anecdotal evidence of watching baseball over the last couple decades tells me that tweaking the hammy means everything is going to be worse for most of the year. It’s a devil of a body part. But anecdote isn’t real evidence. That’s why I looked for studies on hamstring injuries in athletes and found this study done by an orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Jerome Enad of West Florida Orthopedic Surgery and Sacred Heart Hospital of the Emerald Coast. Dr. Enad looked at hamstring injuries among 76 players between 2003 and 2005. In short, he confirmed what we all have suspected - that a hamstring injury can debilitate for a whole season even after the player is declared “healthy” and makes it back to the field. Outside of a couple older players whose careers ended shortly after the injury, there is a near 100 percent bounce-back to pre-injury performance levels. Which is good news. Here’s why.

The last time Kipnis had his legs fully underneath him, he put up a 4.8 fWAR season and hit .275/.343/.469, good for a 116 wRC+. I wrote about it a few weeks back, it was his power surge season where he hit a career-high 23 home runs. His batted ball profile was pretty similar to his career rates though, a higher ground ball rate than fly ball and line drives in the low 20’s. Between 2016 and 2017 though, there was a change:

Jason Kipnis Batted Ball Info

Year LD% GB% FB% Soft% Med% Hard%
Year LD% GB% FB% Soft% Med% Hard%
2016 23.7 38.9 37.4 13.4 50.8 35.7
2017 19.6 36.3 44.1 22.1 47.8 30.1

He started hitting more fly balls than ever before, but by Fangraphs’ Batted Ball Type, he hit them “Hard” at the lowest rate since his first full season in 2012. More balls in the air, but hit much softer on average - 891. mph would be about the 68th highest averaged hit speed, whereas 86 mph is in the mid-270’s. If we look a little deeper…

Jason Kipnis StatCast Info

Year Avg. Exit Velo (mph) Avg. Launch Angle (degrees)
Year Avg. Exit Velo (mph) Avg. Launch Angle (degrees)
2016 89.1 14.0
2017 85.9 17.1

‘sSo his launch angle jumped three degrees, from the range of Nick Castellanos or Jayson Werth to that of Edwin Encarnacion, while he went from hitting the ball as hard (on average) as Edwin, and fell to that of Ian Kinsler or Yan Gomes. We’ve seen Gomes hit some tape measure shots this year, and Kinsler has been a good offensive second baseman for a long time, but he hardly Edwin.

It could be false of course, this spike in fly balls. If a guy is getting fooled a lot or just not making good contact, he might hit more weak fly balls up to nowhere and simply make a lot of outs. It’s a sample of 272 batted balls though, that doesn’t seem that insignificant. He simply wasn’t hitting them as hard as he has in the past and found gloves instead of grass or seats. If that study I cited earlier is right, Kipnis should return to full strength this year, and that, coupled with his increased launch angle, could mean new personal best in power numbers.

I think realistically, we’ll see something very similar to 2016, perhaps with a few more home runs. I don’t think he’ll be another Encarnacion. He makes more contact, so even if his average exit velocity is the same, there’s more middle of the road samples to place it even with Edwin rather than just missiles and bloops, as Encarnacion does. As I mentioned when I wrote about Kipnis’ consistently inconsistent past though, his walk rate has slid the last couple years, from 8.9 percent in 2015 to 8.7 in 2016, then way down to 7.5 percent in 2017. If that doesn’t stabilize, he could be in trouble offensively. It could lead to more pressing, more flailing, and more bad at-bats. He’s been oddly fluctuating in aggressiveness too, while his contact rate has slipped some:

Jason Kipnis Plate Discipline

Year 1st Pitch Swing% Strike Swinging% Strike Looking% Contact%
Year 1st Pitch Swing% Strike Swinging% Strike Looking% Contact%
2015 14.4 11.5 31.6 83.9
2016 12.6 13.4 31.5 81.9
2017 19.7 15.1 28.4 80.1

I can’t help but think the particular outliers in 2017 were somewhat related to injury and his pressing because he wanted to help. A good start to the season would do wonders for getting him back to where he can be.

As long as he is healthy again, giving second base back to Kipnis shouldn’t be too dreadful. The average second baseman hit .239/.329/.409 (94 wRC)in 2017. A healthy Kipnis like we’ve seen in the past is already better than that. A healthy Kipnis with a focus on and swing for fly balls could be worlds better. The Indians may be robbing themselves of an MVP level second baseman, but having an MVP level third baseman AND an All-Star at second is a pretty good trade. That’s what Kipnis can be again with healthy legs. It’s not far-fetched, it’s simply mixing hope with a little bit of scientific study.

If only Brantley could escape that damn Phantom Zone.