Jason Kipnis came up with some clutch hits in the weekend series with Houston — a home run on Saturday and an RBI single in that huge ninth inning on Sunday — the kind of hits that make it seem like a player is turning a corner. And I’d be all in for the Kipnissance if it didn’t seem like he turned a corner every couple weeks or so.
The reality is, in the last week he’s hitting .310/.333/.552, respectable but far from a scorching streak; since being dropped from the second spot in the batting order on May 11 he’s .218/.317/.327, and in the month of May he’s .219/.303/.365. With the Boston Red Sox designating Hanley Ramirez for assignment on Friday, it seems fair to ask how much more of the Indians’ patience has Jason Kipnis earned?
Kipnis has been awarded two All-Star appearances in six seasons and is among the top active second basemen by both FanGraphs’ wins above replacement (19.4 career WAR, eighth) and Baseball-Reference’s WAR (19.4, 11th). However, this year his performance — 49 weighted on base plus slugging or 52 weighted runs created (depending on your preferred flavor) — can accurately be described as what one suffers through.
Over the course of his career, Kipnis has been a slow starter more often than not. March and April have been Kipnis’s worst offensive months historically, with a wRC+ of 65 (where league-average is 100) and weighted OPS relative to league split OPS (where 100 is average; sOPS+) of 70.8. May has typically been kinder (116.2 wRC+ and 118.7 sOPS+) and June has been, by far, Kipnis’s best month on average (130.7 wRC+ and 133.2 sOPS+).
Maybe, then, Kipnis has earned patience based on the fact that he traditionally heats up around this time of year. And, true to form, he is showing signs of improving. For instance, Kipnis’s weighted OPS relative to total OPS (where 100 is the player’s average individual performance) in the month of May 2018 is 124, or 24 percent better than he was the previous month. That improvement, however, has still left him well short of league-average production at second base. Mean wRC+ is 108.2 and mean OPS+ is 104.2 for second basemen league-wide, but Kipnis registers at 52 and 49, respectively, 19th and 20th (of 21) among second basemen with at least 160 plate appearances, respectively.
So, maybe it’s time to consider the sum of what Kipnis is again. He’s produced two All-Star seasons (2013 and 2015, worth 5.7/5.1 and 4.6/4.8 bWAR/fWAR, respectively), but he’s also produced an equal number of injury-plagued seasons where nothing came together (2014 and 2017, worth 0.5/0.7 and 0.4/0.6 bWAR/fWAR, respectively). Likewise, he’s among the top second baseman in the majors by career wins above replacement, but it does not say much to best journeyman guys like Jed Lowrie (17 fWAR) or Starlin Castro (15.4 fWAR).
Still, even those guys seem preferable to Kipnis when his numbers are down, as they are this year. Especially when the underlying data fail to explain his struggles. To wit, his exit velocity is nearly the same as his career average (87.1 vs. 88.1 mph), his launch angle has increased (15.2 vs. 12.5), he’s hitting the ball hard slightly more often (37.5 vs. 37.8 percent), and he’s barreling the ball up more often (8.4 vs. 5.3 percent).
Should Kipnis regress toward his mean, however, he’s regressing toward being an average big leaguer. He has had good to great seasons and bad to awful seasons. He’s a career 104 OPS+ or 105 wRC+ player, which is just slightly above average. Likewise, by ultimate zone rating (-2.2) or Baseball Prospectus’ fielding runs above average (4.5) he’s produced slightly below average defensively for his career.
Compared to Ramirez, who lost his job last week, Kipnis has been worth more than the Red Sox slugger (11.7 bWAR and 12.8 fWAR) since his first full season (2012), but Ramirez was having a much better 2018 (.254/.313/.395, 88 OPS+/90wRC+) before his 0-for-21 skid before being cut (I guess I should note Kipnis went 0-for-17 May 4 to 8 and 0-for-25 April 4 to 11). If guys with a record like Ramirez are no longer being granted extended periods of time to correct issues, it follows that Kipnis is playing on borrowed time.
Of course, designating Kipnis represents a much bigger financial issue for the Tribe than cutting Ramirez did for the Red Sox (who have also paid Pablo Sandoval, Rusney Castillo, Carl Crawford, and Adrian Gonzalez quite a bit to not to play in Boston). Likewise, not slotting Kipnis in at second daily also raises issues. The immediate in-house (or in-Columbus) options, Erik Gonzalez and Yandy Diaz, are relatively untested (whether they deserve the test is a whole ‘nother post). A platoon could be a solution, but this year Kipnis has reverse splits (better against lefties than righties, 125 vs. 18 sOPS+). That adds additional risk to the platoon idea because, if he were to revert to his career averages (109 vs. 84 sOPS+), the Indians could be stuck with two second basemen that hit poorly against left-handed pitching.
A trade is an option as well, but the sheer number of reports about the Indians shopping him this offseason lend some credibility to the idea that a trade has been considered and ruled out. And, as discussed, his 2018 numbers aren’t making anyone more likely to take on the remaining millions he’s owed.
Then, how much patience has Kipnis earned? With nothing but bad or untested options available to the Indians, the patience he’s earned is equal to the amount of risk the Indians are willing to take. I like Kipnis as a player and as a person, from what I know of him, and I believe he wants to win in Cleveland. But the Indians have gotten 77 percent of their fWAR from the duo of Jose Ramirez and Francisco Lindor, and doing something proactive to balance offensive production — like moving Kipnis to a utility role — would be a prudent move.
Of course, that requires taking a risk on what we don’t know, namely Gonzalez, Diaz, or the trade market, the latter being my preference (#freeyandy had more appeal when the dream of him joining the air ball revolution was alive). The Tribe front office seems to have no bandwidth to entertain significant roster changes, and if they did the bullpen is likely (and rightfully) a first priority. So, for now Kipnis avoids the fate of Hanley Ramirez.
How much longer he survives (or should survive) as the starting second baseman is an open question.