The Indians are counting on a return to form from two men if their hopes of championship contention are to be realized. I wrote about Michael Brantley the other day, and how he looks like he might be back. The other man is Jason Kipnis.
Rugged and excitable where Brantley is calm and collected, Kipnis’s getting back to being himself is vital both for winning and for fan enjoyment. Happy Kipnis means happy everyone. We’re a month in. It’s hard to tell what’s going on here.
Obviously we could look at the slash line and WAR total, and decide it’s all a mess. He’s hitting .181/.256/.254 and has been worth negative wins whether by FanGraphs or Baseball Reference standards. He’s hit a home run. His 23 percent strikeout rate is the highest of his career. It’s not good.
Of course, we could also look at the BABIP, a tidy .234. That’s about 80 points off his career average. As with literally the entire team, a positive regression is due sooner or later. There’s the 38.5 percent Hard Hit Rate, the highest of his career. A combination of that holding and the BABIP reverting could mean he’s due to erupt.
But more than that, Kipnis is doing something he swore he wasn’t going to try. Coming into spring training, he was asked about whether he’d try to put more loft on the ball since that’s the in vogue thing these days. He was quite unequivocal about it, saying, “No. If you ever hear me say the words ‘launch angle’ or anything like that, I’m lying right to your face.”
Nobody wants to call Kipnis a liar. He’s so nice. But he’s hitting a fly ball 43 percent of the time, a season after he lofted it 44.1 percent of the time. For most of his career he’s hit considerably more grounders than fly balls with a GB/FB ratio at 1.28, but since the beginning of last year — a span of 534 plate appearances — that number has fallen to 0.8. It’s hard to draw a lot from that since he wasn’t healthy last year so his swing may have been affected, but he’s healthy this year and continuing that trend.
So is this an on purpose thing or just a happy accident? Is it even a good idea? Launch angle boosting isn’t some panacea that will make all hitters better. But he’s shown the ability to drive the ball with authority in the past, so I at least always thought he’d be a good candidate for it. His exit velocity this year is only 86.5 miles per hour, which is one of the worse marks on the team, but FanGraphs does have that “hard hit rate” thing, so who’s to say?
The other thing he’s doing — and it’s early so take it with a grain of salt — is going the other way. Kipnis has a reputation of being very opposite field-happy, though he’s never really rated that highly across baseball in terms of opposite field batted balls, coming in with the 76th highest rate since 2015 at 26.9 percent. He just hits it for power to left field more than you’d think for a lefty. This year he’s going oppo 30.3 percent of the time. That’s a career high rate. Again, it’s early, but that along with the earlier mentioned hard hit rate being so high is interesting at least.
Kipnis has always been hard to read. Whether by injury or just changing how he attacks hitters, he’s never been a consistent kind of hitter. He’s produced, but myriad ways that have very few through lines. And he’s had lost seasons with sapping, small injuries that make him look just terrible at baseball if you didn’t know what was happening. The baseball card stats are still hideous, and even if he lights aflame now it’d take a month of sustained crushing to make his slash line respectable. Not that he doesn’t have a history of hot Mays and Junes — remember when he hit .419/.517/.699 for the month of June in 2013? Or posted a 154 wRC+ in June of 2015, and 134 in 2016? And he never hit the ball like he has been so far this year, whether as hard or as much in the air. Where Brantley has just refined the line drive stroke that has made him rich, Kipnis may be doing yet another new thing.
He might be a liar, but if it means a fun surprise like another All-Star campaign, that’s a white lie anyone will allow.