About two weeks ago, ESPN.com’s Tim Kurkjian posted his All-25-and-Under Team, a list of some of the most well known young baseball stars, highlighted by the likes of Bryce Harper, Mike Trout and Stephen Strasburg. While there was debate by many as to what players should have gotten in over others, there is one selection that is simply inarguable: Dustin Ackley over Jason Kipnis at second base.
The most aggravating part is that Kipnis isn’t even mentioned at any point in the article. Despite the fact that Kipnis is having arguably the best season of any second baseman thus far, Kurkjian can’t even send the kid some kudos. Then to support his selection of Ackley, all Kurkjian does is throw in a quote about Ackley from his own manager Eric Wedge. Not a rival scout or opposing player, only his boss, who says Ackley “barrels the ball about as often as any young hitter I’ve ever had.” This was a huge disappointment considering that Kurkjian is one of the best baseball writers alive.
We’ve already discussed how Jason Kipnis is a budding superstar. Many say the same of Seattle’s second baseman, and with good reason. But aside from name recognition, what rationale is there for picking Ackley over Kipnis? I’ll take this into my own hands and make a case for each.
Let’s start with some background. Ackley was selected second overall in the 2009 draft, falling from No. 1 only because Stephen Strasburg was available too. Ackley was seen as a projectable college outfielder from North Carolina who could get on base, hit for power, run enough to matter and rise to the Major Leagues quickly. That skill set made him the easy choice for the Mariners three years ago. He was moved to second base where his bat would be more valuable to the club.
Kipnis was selected in the second round of the same draft, with the 63rd overall pick. He was an outfielder at Arizona State who, like Ackley, was destined for second base. He had a solid bat and an okay eye for walks with respectable power and speed. Since Ackley was much more polished and a more accomplished collegiate batter, he was taken a lot higher.
Throughout their minor league careers, Ackley was seen as the better prospect. Seattle’s second baseman was ranked as high as 11th on Baseball America’s top prospect list in 2010. That’s not to say Kipnis was snubbed as he was ranked 54th a year later, but he was clearly not seen as sharing Ackley’s pedigree.
Obviously Kurkjian made this selection based on Ackley’s hype. But was the hype warranted? Let’s take a look at their career minor league numbers.
These numbers are not conducive to a straight-up comparison. As the table notes, Kipnis played in 54 more games. I also should also add that Ackley skipped Single-A ball altogether and played only at Double-A and Triple-A, while Kipnis started at Low-A and worked his way up. Still, a few things do jump out. Kipnis has a lot more power, as evidenced by his slugging percentage and home runs. Even with the extra games, Kipnis would still easily have more dingers, and it was’t just at the lower levels as 22 of his big flies came at Double and Triple-A. Ackley showed better plate discipline, making him seem a lot more polished.
But that perception has not been borne out in The Show. Let’s break down each player by as many statistics as we can, starting with some basic batting stats. All stats are from each batters’ entire careers thus far through June 18. Note from the start that Ackley has played in 153 career games, while Kipnis has started 101 contests.
As you can see Kipnis’ overall slashline tops Ackley’s across the board, with a big edge in slugging percentage. While Ackley has been an above-average batter based on his OPS+, Kipnis has still been much better. The only spot where Ackley is better is in terms of walk rate. Ackley has always had the better eye than Kipnis, so there is no surprise there. What’s interesting to me is the strikeouts: Ackley has struck out 60 more times than Kipnis when his calling card is supposed to be plate discipline. Even with the added 52 games, that’s still a lot of swinging and missing. Kipnis seems to be the better batter overall, but I still believe Ackley still has the better eye, despite the strikeouts.
- Slashline edge: Kipnis
- OPS+ edge: Kipnis
- Plate discipline edge: Ackley
Moving on, let’s look at what I’ll call the fantasy stats. These are the types of thing fantasy owners will look for. I wouldn’t draw too many conclusions from here, but it’s something to look at.
There are definitely some interesting things here. First, Kipnis has eight more homers in a third fewer games than Ackley. But Ackley has almost twice as many doubles and twice as many triples. It could be that Ackley’s power stroke is still coming; he’s never been focused on hitting for power anyway, and he’s still maturing. But it could suggest that Kipnis doesn’t really have as much power as he’s showing. Most batters have more doubles than home runs, but this hasn’t hold true for The JK Kid. There might be a time when he stops hitting home runs, but he could still be a doubles machine and very valuable.
Kipnis has a ton more stolen bases, but that’s mostly based on him taking a lot more chances. Both are smart on the bases, as they have been caught only once apiece. Ackley obviously has the talent to steal more bases, but he hasn’t tried as much. This could either be because his coaches aren’t giving him the green light or a lack of confidence because of the slow start to his career.
So in terms of power, Kipnis has 37 extra base hits, while Ackley has 46. With the game difference, Kipnis takes the advantage. In terms of basestealing, I’ll call it a draw since Kipnis has more swipes only because he’s taken more chances.
- Power: Kipnis
- Basestealing: Even
After breaking down some offensive statistics, it seems like Kipnis is clearly ahead. But there’s a big thing I haven’t taken into account yet: defense. Since defensive statistics can be confusing, let’s keep this simple.
In terms of range factor per game, Kipnis has a slight edge. Then we look at UZR/150 and Ackley is ahead by leaps and bounds. Personally, I prefer to judge a player’s defense by UZR, so Ackley has a large lead in this category and Kipnis is proving to be a below-average defender at second.
- Defense: Ackley
So, Kipnis is better at offense, but Ackley is a much better defender. How do we balance these two out? Easy answer, with the best way to judge a players value: wins above replacement (WAR).
Now we can really get a look at who is better. Some might look at these numbers and conclude that Ackley is the better player. But it’s important to keep in mind that WAR is a cumulative stat, and that Kipnis has played in only two-thirds the amount of games Ackley has.
Despite the lack of opportunity Kipnis has a better oWAR, confirming that Kipnis is a more valuable offensive option, while dWAR backs up the notion that Ackley is the better defender. When we look at WAR accumulatively, we see that in 50 more games, Ackley has only given his team one more win. If both players played in the same amount of games, it seems far to say that Kipnis would surpass Ackley’s WAR.
Does that mean Kurkjian is wrong? No, the article he posted was still his personal opinion, as this article is mine. But the point I’m trying to make is that Kipnis should at least be put into the discussion as he makes for a very strong candidate for the best young second baseman. Five years down the road, perhaps Ackley will reach his ceiling and have a better year than Kipnis. But for now, the little guy in Cleveland is the best young second baseman in baseball.