Early offensive returns for the Cleveland Indians have been, well, that. They keep wasting amazing starts from their pitchers and look like old trash at the plate. When the ball is hit hard, it heads right for defenders. You can’t really help that, you just have to hope things change soon. But some things are a bit encouraging, as long as we don’t get wrapped up in the results. For instance, if what we’ve seen is in any way real at all, Jason Kipnis is back.
This is a vital development for the Indians to compete and win that ever-elusive championship. The offense can’t be carried by Lindor, Ramirez, Encarnacion and possibly Brantley or Alonso, not with what the Yankees and Astros can do to the ball. Kipnis hitting like he did in 2015 or 2016 would be such a boost.
That Kipnis was one of the best offensive second basemen in the game. His trademark at the plate, aside from that weird sticking the bat out all horizontal, was playing wall ball with the mini-Monster in left. He loved to deliver powerful shots to the opposite field. Then 2017 happened, and he was terrible at doing that. Everything was up the middle, and on the ground:
That’s terrible. Lots of players will have balls that end in the infield, because every player makes a lot of outs. But this is a far cry from what he did the previous two years:
The ball is sprayed around the outfield a bit more, and there’s some nice extra warmth to left and center. This is what makes Kipnis good. Now, this year:
This is obviously made to look pretty extreme because of sample size. But it looks right, doesn’t it? This is what he’s supposed to do as a hitter, and he’s followed that process so far this season.
He’s doing one other surprising thing with the bat. He’s first among all Indians hitters in non-grounders hit over 95 miles per hour. That sounds like one of those garbage stats that get spat up that tell us randomly nothing. Batting average against lefties on Thursdays, or ERA when more than 1,000 hot dogs are sold. Actually that’s a vital statistic, never mind.
But here’s why that seems important to me. Players don’t want to hit ground balls. Even if you haven’t become an acolyte of the Cult of the Fly Ball like Yonder Alonso, it stands to reason hitting it to the outfield is better — more space, fewer defenders. And the 95 mph mark happens to be where Baseball Savant’s hit probability tool shows a marked jump in hit outcome. At 94 mph, all things being equal, the resultant wOBA is .348. Which is very good about 26 points above league average last year. But at 95, it’s .379, right around where Anthony Rizzo and Cody Bellinger found themselves last year. With 14 batted balls exceeding this mark, he leads the team in raw numbers and in percentage of total pitches seen at 8 percent. He’s said himself he’s not trying to put the ball in the air or anything like that, he’s just trying to hit his way. Which he’s doing.
A healthy Jason Kipnis can hit like hell. He’s been doing what made him very good in the past, even if the numbers don’t show it. But there’s something real going on.