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Jason Kipnis is staying at second base, for better or worse

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The sooner you admit it and move on, the happier you’ll be.

Cleveland Indians v Kansas City Royals Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

On a cloudy Kansas City Sunday afternoon, Jason Kipnis had the best game of his season, and one of the best of his entire career. The 31-year-old lifelong Cleveland Indians member went 4-for-5, including an inside-the-park home run, to help his team avoid a sweep at the hands of an intradivisional rival.

It seems, for better worse, he might have sealed his fate as the Tribe’s starting second baseman for the remainder of the season with a game like that and a manager in Terry Francona that seems to love big performances and riding “the hot hand”.

It seems that way, anyway. In reality, Kipnis’ fate was sealed long ago and confirmed before the game even began. Tito shut down speculation of All-Star third baseman Jose Ramirez moving to second base to make room for someone like Yandy Diaz at third with a single quote:

We’ve talked about everything, as we’re supposed to.I know it sounds good on paper and it even sounds good to me on paper. There’s other things you have to think about other than just numbers. So, that’s probably why he’s stayed where he is.

Maybe you don’t believe in the Tito loving “his guys” thing, but that’s about as black and white as you get. Jason Kipnis isn’t being replaced because there are “things” other than numbers.

Who knows what “things” are, but I’m supposed to trust in Tito, so I guess I’ll do that.

Kipnis said he felt like he fixed something Saturday night with a rolled up magazine, and suddenly he went off and snapped a putrid string of games in which he went 2-for-36. I don’t know much about nothing, but I’m assuming if Kipnis went hitless again yesterday we don’t hear much about it. We also won’t hear much about it if Kipnis goes hitless for another half-dozen games. But he got a bunch of hits (one of which was a huge moment, and I love him for it), so suddenly it matters. That’s one of those “things” other than numbers, I guess.

I don’t mean to be so hard on Kipnis — and I’m certainly not one of his many blind haters that scour the internet looking for any chance to put him down — but I think there’s definitely an opening to question the validity of having him start every single game for the Indians until the clock hits midnight on 2018.

What’s the best way to balance these two viewpoints? A good ‘ole pros and cons list, of course.

Jason Kipnis, forever: The Good

Come on, he’s dirtbag.

I may not love his play on the field very often anymore, but he’s a fantastic personality for baseball and just a general fun dude to have on your team to root for. His budding bromance with Carlos Carrasco is one of my favorite things about the Indians in 2018.

If we want to speculate on the “things” that are keeping Kipnis at second base, leadership is near the top of that list. The dude cares about winning, he cares about bringing a championship to the Cleveland Indians, and he cares about baseball. His teammates seem to feed off it. We can’t know what is said behind closed doors, but does the team celebrate with anyone quite like when Kipnis has a big play or home run? I’d say no.

On the field, Kipnis is walking a lot this year. That’s the biggest positive of his bat to this point, as his 10.2 percent walk rate is the highest it has been since 2013 — good for 46th among 153 qualified batters in all of baseball, which isn’t bad for a guy having a down year like Kipnis. He also has a comparatively low BABIP of .256, well below his .307 career average, so we can always assume luck will turn his way at some point.

Unless I’m missing something, there doesn’t seem to be anything specific pitchers are doing to keep Kipnis’ offense game down, which is another sneaky positive. He hasn’t been figured out and crushed for it, he’s just not hitting like he used to. There’s no spike in a particular pitch against Kipnis (or a cratering of his numbers against said pitch), and he’s being located the same as he’s ever been. He’s not chasing more, and he’s not making worse contact. He just needs to hit better, plain and sample.

We also know that Kipnis has the ability to just go off for a game (like last night), or an entire month like he did between late-May to late-July when he slashed .283/.370/.517 with nine home runs and seven doubles over 165 plate appearances, or when he absolutely torched the league in May 2015. You could argue that most decent players have the ability to go off, sure, but it’s something the Indians might be counting on.

Jason Kipnis, forever: The Bad

...unfortunately, betting on something like that is a bad idea. If Terry Francona is hoping Kipnis can have his renaissance in October, despite having a sub-par season, that’s a huge risk to take given that upgrades are available to the team with a player as flexible as Jose Ramirez. What if he doesn’t? What if he just can’t balls in play as much anyone, the power is gone, and we’re stuck with a second baseman who is roughly 20 percent worse than an average player?

Other than hoping for a sudden offensive surge or some luck with BABIP regression, it’s difficult to find positives about Kipnis’ offensive game. Even with his outstanding performance on Sunday, he’s slashing .223/.310/.359 for a wRC+ of 83, just a point above his career-worst seasons in 2017 and 2014. That’s 14th worst in the majors among qualified batters, and fourth worst among qualified second basemen.

Kipnis’ WAR Is often cited as a reason he’s not as bad as he looks, and it’s wrong.

Despite its name, WAR is not a definitive “you have been worth exactly this many wins to your team compared to a replacement player.” It’s a mushy, estimated stat that’s meant to be broad enough to compare players across multiple seasons and multiple generations. The difference between 0.5 WAR and 1.5 WAR over multiple seasons is virtually nothing, let alone three-fourths of one. Not to mention the fact that WAR relies on defensive stats, which shouldn’t be used on a per-season bases, but instead looked at over several seasons.

The reasons why WAR should not be used in small sample sizes as a psuedo counting stat is something I could go on forever — and I will eventually — but let’s back to Kipnis.

His FanGraphs WAR at this point in the season is 1.5. That’s good, right? He’s helped the Indians win one-and-a-half games, that has to be good! Well, not really.

His numbers are propped up by a 120-game sample of defense, which is always an aberration, whether it’s pointing in the positives or negatives. Right now it’s the positives, and it’s helped a lot by Kipnis’ ability to make basic plays. When Kip’s defense was truly at its best (2015 and 2016, according to Defensive Runs Saved), he was turning a lot of plays deemed “Unlikely” by Inside Edge Fielding, a metric that judges the difficulty of plays turned and not turned and the percentages that they should be converted.

In 2016, Kipnis turned 22.2 percent of his nine of these “Unlikely” plays (two, in other words), which is deep into the 10-40 percent range that second basemen should be turning these plays. He’s turned 1-of-10 in 2018, which isn’t a huge difference, but he’s also only turned 28.6 percent of his “Even” plays — he should be turning at least 40 percent of them to be average. In 2016, he turned 62.5 percent of them.

Meanwhile, Kipnis has turned almost every single routine play — 98.3 percent of his 292 attempts, which is the third-highest total of his career. That alone isn’t neccesarily a bad thing, of course — the last thing anybody wants is a second baseman continually flubbing the gimmes.

Jason Kipnis, forever: The Conclusion

He’s not going anywhere. That’s the real conclusion here. Unless something surprising happens on the trade wire, or an injury shuffles things around, Jason Kipnis is the Indians’ starting second baseman for the rest of 2018 and probably beyond. For my personal sanity, if come to terms with it, despite how ridiculous it is that his well below-average production is blocking someone with the potential of Yandy Diaz or even a waiver-wire trade target.

There are certainly “things” that don’t show up on paper, be they leadership, luck, or just being a great guy to be around. If the Indians don’t want to waste another year of a tremendous team, they better hope like hell they matter.