You’ve heard this one before: Jason Kipnis is back in the groove. But what if this year’s turnaround was even better than last?
In 2018, his slow start saw him post a wRC+ of 59 through the end of May, but he turned that around with a 109 wRC+ through the end of the season. He went from being 34% worse than a league-average second baseman (93 wRC+) to 16% better after May.
Kipnis in 2019 has been almost a carbon copy of himself in 2018. Through May he had a 65 wRC+ (28% worse than average, which is 93 for second basemen again this season) and since the start of June he has a 102 wRC+ (9% better than average). But although those numbers look the same, Kipnis is doing something different.
For one thing, there are signs Kipnis is seeing the ball better. In the GIF below you can see the differences in the outcome of pitches he saw between June and September of 2018 and June and July of 2019. Balls in play are higher this year (12.4% vs. 13.5%), hits are higher (5.6% vs. 6.2%), he’s fouled more balls off (16.1% vs. 18.1%), and he’s whiffed less often (8.9% vs. 7.4%). Some of this has to do with aggressiveness, as we can see from the greater number of balls called in 2018 (38% vs. 37.7%).
The idea that Kipnis is being more aggressive is backed up by his swing rates. In 2018, overall, he swung at 42.7% of pitches; in 2019, he’s swinging 45.6% of the time. But he’s not just hacking his way out of a slump, as his o-swing% (swings at pitches outside the strike zone) is actually down from 28.3% in ‘18 to 27.9% this year. Kipnis’ contact rate is at exactly his career average (82.1%), but it is up more than a percentage point from last year, a sign that his aggressiveness is paying dividends in terms of balls in play.
Just putting balls in play, though, is not a guarantee of success, and BABIP can giveth and taketh away. But during his hot stretches (June on in both 2018 and ‘19) the quality of balls in play has been different. As seen in the GIF below (only showing hits), the ball is coming off Kipnis’ bat faster this year. To wit, he’s dropped his soft hit percentage to 11.5% (from 19.2%) and hit more balls hard than in 2018 (38.5% vs. 34.8%).
There’s one other rather obvious takeaway from the GIF: Kip is hitting more balls oppo. Of course, prevailing wisdom for batters versus the shift has been to continue to play to your strengths and hit the ball over the defenders, because a pulled ball is likely to be more valuable. This is what everyone prescribed for José Ramírez (and what’s worked, too), but hitting the ball where the defenders ain’t is an even better strategy — if you can do it.
And do it, Kipnis has. By sending more balls to the left side as a left-handed hitter, Kipnis has forced the defense to change and respect his approach, thus allowing him the chance to work to his pull side again. Through May 2019, infields shifted for Kipnis on 68.4% of pitches; since the calendar flipped to June, however, infields have only shifted for Kipnis on 41.5% of pitches, giving him more space to find holes on his pull side.
All of this together — a more aggressive approach, greater contact, greater contact authority, and the ability to drive the ball to all fields — might create sustainable above-average offensive production for Kipnis. He’s been above average (position agnostic) since about Memorial Day and worth 1.0 fWAR already this season. Now that he no longer has to bat clean-up for the Tribe, that kind of production could go a long way toward powering a successful run.