On Memorial Day, Jason Kipnis was penciled in as the cleanup hitter. In the third inning, he came to the plate with with guys on first and second and no outs, and proceeded to lay down a sacrifice bunt. It moved the runners, ultimately leading to a run scoring on a grounder, but that was all the Indians could scrape across that inning en route to a 12-5 bludgeoning.
It’s the latest example of the Tribe’s offense being moribund on its best day. Worse, it the latest case of Kipnis being a black hole of the offense, and a glaring reminder the Indians front office simply willing to waste an entire year of several all time franchise greats, seemingly for money’s sake. It’s heartbreaking.
In 2016, Kipnis was some kind of excellent. He was 34th in baseball in fWAR at 4.5, which was also eighth among second basemen, his 23 home runs rated third on the team while his 114 wRC+ ranked fourth, and played some of the best defense of his career. It was arguably his best single season, and he was a key cog in the Tribe’s drive to the World Series, having a great ALDS (1.093 OPS) and knocking a pair of home runs against the Cubs. He was great, and for the second year in a row.
But that was three years ago. That’s a decent bit of time anywhere, but in baseball it’s practically forever. Since that great season, Kipnis has posted 229/.304/.388 slash line and ranked 161 out of 175 qualified batters with an 82 wRC+. Even if we remove that injury-plagued 2017 his wRC+ jumps to just 84, placing him 127th out of 138 hitters. It’s not good. It’s horrible, really. A constant, depressing reminder that he is no longer the Dirtbag that earned the love of countless Cleveland fans. Constant, because for whatever reason, whether due to stubbornness or lack of options, we see Kipnis out there every single day.
This lack of planning, or unwillingness to make roster moves that weren’t just money-based, it doesn’t absolve Kipnis of course. But it’s hard to blame him really. He shouldn’t be batting cleanup on a team that’s supposedly contending. On a team that actually put the resources in this past winter, he really shouldn’t be in any situation. Throw out his 2017 all you want, but he was pretty terrible last year too. It’s obvious he’s trying to remake himself — the spike in fly ball rate the last couple years, the career high 42.6% pull rate — and lean into the fly ball revolution, but it’s not working. Maybe he waited too long to make the change, maybe he’s just too ground up from his hard-nosed play style and can’t catch up to the ever-rising velocities, but at this point he’s lost what he once had that separated him.
If we could use the powers of hindsight, maybe the Indians wouldn’t trade Yandy Díaz, and plug him in at third while shifting José Ramírez to second. We couldn’t have foreseen the even more massive collapse from Ramírez though, but at least Díaz would be around. But that’s neither here nor there, merely a thought to trouble our idle moments while the team grinds its way through what’s becoming an incredibly disappointing season.
I like watching Jason Kipnis, or I did at least. But this is a mess, an ugly shadow of what was once a fun, exciting player at the center of everything good the Indians are doing. Perhaps it’s fitting that he’s at the center of this hideous mess that is 2019. It’s hard to imagine even a suggestion of a solution at this point, what with the lack of talent in the higher end of the minors, the prohibitive cost of a mid-season trade to plug a new guy in, and the unwillingness to spend by ownership.
So we’re stuck, and he’s stuck, suffering through a long season and hoping for a miracle.