Jason Kipnis is... Well, it’s actually kind of hard to nail down what Jason Kipnis is anymore. For much of the last five or six years Kip has been considered the heart and soul of the Indians as they’ve risen to prominence, the brash smiling dervish at the heart of the diamond and at the center of everything good that happened with the Indians. He was the yang to Michael Brantley’s quiet, calm yin, the other half of a buddy flick starring and Lonnie Chisenhall that never happened.
In 2018 though, Kip’s role as “heart and soul” has been subsumed, whether by Francisco Lindor’s brilliance on the field and at the box office, Jose Ramirez’s meteoric rise, or maybe even sooner or later Trevor Bauer brashness in the rotation. We’re two years away from his last truly impactful season, and for the second time in two years we were reminded he’s at best, the second best player at his own position. When you’re not the face of the franchise, when you’re not the best at your own job, when you’re not even that big a deal in the lineup? What are you? Where does Kipnis find himself the days?
What makes it so hard to figure is the kind of season Kip had. Leaving aside for a moment the move from second to center field for a moment, he ws just so terrible in the first two months of the year people lost hope quick. In April he put up a 34 wRC+ and struck out 25.2 percent of the time, and improved only slightly in May as his wRC+ rose to 84 for that month. It was the end of the world.
That stretch sunk his combined output, but the 89 wRC+ he put up for the year does belie a pretty effective post-June. From the first of that month on, Kipnis put up a 109 wRC+, struck out 17.9 percent of the time and walked in 10.2 percent of plate appearances. Those number are all pretty in line with his career numbers — 105 wRC+, 18.2 percent strikeout rate and 9.8 percent walk rate - and the 15 homers he hit after June 1st do prorate out to 24.8 for a 600 PA season.
I wrote about it all back in July, how he and Brantley were heading in opposite directions at one point. Brantley righted the ship and had a very good season, while Kipnis got out of his two month slump and was pretty effective over the balance of the season. More impactful even than Yonder Alonso for instance, who from June on posted an 89 wRC+, Kipnis’s full season rate that was dragged down by a hideous April.
So he figured out how to be himself again. Whether through a magazine, even if he’d turned the corner before then, or through embracing the fly ball hitting plan - his 44.7 FB percentage was a career high - even if he’d never admit it. The real question is whether it will hold through to next year. If he does, he’s going to be an effective player for the Indians. That 109 wRC+ he hit from June on would have been eighth among second basemen for the entirety of the 2018 season. And he will be a second baseman. Whether Leonis Martin, Bradley Zimmer or even Greg Allen, the Indians have a better defender in center, and a spot at third waiting for Ramirez. He’s fine defensively, but the post-June bat needs to be real. That he did it for four months is encouraging. So we’ll see.
Kipnis will be around for a few more years. It’s not like he’s lost the faith of the fanbase or the front office and certainly not Francona, and they do need a second baseman anyway. It’s just that Lindor in particular is so much better in every way from talent to star power, the new normal is his being a cult favorite role player. Which fits him. No, it wasn’t a great season for Kip, but far from terrible, and one you can hope he can build on and maintain his dirtbagging ways.