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Mystery Solved: Why Jason Kipnis Isn't Broken

In June, I wrote an article detailing how Jason Kipnis was destined for super-stardom. At the time he was on pace for one of the finest seasons in recent memory for a second baseman and easily one of the top three seasons all-time by an Indians keystoner. This wasn’t just a gross overestimation on my part, either—the numbers showed that his theretofore career path put him in very good company.

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At the time, Kipnis had solidified himself as the No. 3 hitter in the Indians’ lineup. His slashline was an impressive .285/.345/.460 and he was OPSing .805. On top of that, he had 10 home runs, 39 RBI, and 15 stolen bases with a month to go until the All-Star Break. He looked like a shoe-in to make the AL All-Star team, at least as a reserve.

But wait, it gets better. Project those numbers over a full 162-game season at the pace he was on and it was hard not to get excited. We were looking at 28 home runs, 109 RBI, and 42 stolen bases, good enough for what could be a 5.3 wins above replacement according to our handy-dandy Simple WAR Calculator.

And then I wrote that article… that stupid, God-forsaken article. And it all went downhill.

Kipnis’ dream season took a nose-dive. He finished the season with 14 homeruns, half of the 28 I had projected. Those 109 RBI? Not even close. To illustrate my point, here’s a fancy, shmancy chart showing Kipnis’ 2012 season before my article was posted and after the voo-doo that I do went into effect. Brace yourselves. This is ugly. Click to enlarge.

This can’t be all my fault—there has to be another, more reasonable explanation for why his season went into the dumps than my jinxing him. My hubris aside, there are a few thing that can help explain Kipnis’ dramatic slump.

First is the drop-off of the entire Indians offense. You can make a case that when the Tribe’s season stalled, Kipnis was heavily affected. When everyone around him started slumping, opposing pitchers no longer had to worry about Kipnis hurting them. With fewer runners on base ahead of him they could throw him fewer fastballs and force him to chase pitches outside of the zone.

On top of that is the natural human instinct to try harder and put unnecessary pressure on yourself to perform. The team around him starts slumping and it’s only natural that Kipnis would start pressing. All of the sudden that off-speed pitch low and away or that fastball up and in looks more appealing than it used to. Say what you want about statistics and advanced metrics, but the psychological part of sports can never be ignored.

Another alarming trend that developed with Kipnis was the increase in his strikeout rate. While most new school baseball analysts have lessened the significance of the strikeout, opting instead to view an out as out as an out, I still hold it in high regard. A sacrifice fly is more productive than a strikeout. A groundball to the right side that advances a runner to third with less than two outs is also more productive. I’m sorry that’s just how I feel. So what if that might make me some sort of fascist.

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Prior to June 11, Kipnis was striking out in 15 percent of his plate appearances. From that point forward, Kipnis’ strikeout rate increased to 17 percent. While a 2 percent jump may seem insignificant, that accounts for roughly 5 to 8 at-bats in which Kipnis could have done better. How many of those at-bats were with runners in scoring position, or when the Indians needed to move a man over? How many of those at-bats could have changed the outcomes of games?

Lastly and most importantly is Kipnis’ batting average on balls in play (BABIP). Prior to June 11, Kipnis’ BABIP was a solid .304. It helps explain the offensive production we were seeing. However, after June 11 Kipnis’ BABIP was a significantly lower .283. He wasn’t finding holes in the defense and he wasn’t getting nearly as lucky as he had been up to that point. The end result was anything but spectacular.

In addition to just being unlucky at the plate, this also ties in with my first point. If Kipnis was pressing, swinging at more pitches outside of the strike zone, and essentially forcing the issue at the plate, the end result was going to be exactly what we saw. Weaker contact, more pop-ups, and less power. All of this is backed up by the numbers. Kipnis’ home run power turned into double power, his slugging dropped by more than 100 points and his OPS+ dropped from 126 to 87.

But it wasn’t all bad. The best sign that Kipnis’ troubles were more the result of bad luck and not necessarily his own doing was his walk rate. Prior to June 11, Kipnis was walking in only 8 percent of his at bats. Surprisingly, despite the increase in his strikeout rate and weaker contact as a result of swinging at fewer quality pitches, Kipnis actually increased his walk rate to 11 percent.

I know what you’re thinking. How could Kipnis’ walk rate, and essentially his pitch selection, increase while his strikeout rate also increased at the same time? How is it possible when he started expanding his strike zone and swinging at pitches out of his quality hitting zones? Ater spending a half hour searching for a logical conclusion, I came up with the following: In 2012 as a whole, Kipnis was a more patient hitter during at-bats with runners on base than without runners on base.

The numbers bare this out. According to his splits, in 375 plate appearances with no one on base, Kipnis had a ratio of 30 walks to 70 strikeouts. He also batted .235/.307/.335 with a BABIP of only .208. In 297 plate appearances with runners on base, Kipnis became significantly more disciplined with a ratio of 37 walks to 39 strikeouts. His slashline was also a far better at .287/.371/.438 and BABIP of .305. In other words, Kipnis is a better, more patient hitter with runners on base.

Earlier in the season, when the Indians were rolling, Kipnis got significantly more at-bats with more runners on base and was much more patient and selective at the plate. As the Indians’ offense struggled to score runs in the latter half of the season, Kipnis had more at-bats with no runners on base. This resulted in him becoming more of a free swinger in an attempt to get things going. Therefore, his strikeout rate increased. When he did bat with men on, he became overwhelmingly patient or pitchers pitched around him and forced other hitters in the Indians lineup to hurt them. As a result, he suffered statistically.

So what does this all mean?

The downfall of Jason Kipnis’ spectacular 2012 season had less to do with me and more to do with bad luck. The significant decrease in his BABIP combined with the struggles of those around him all contributed to creating a situation in which he simply couldn’t succeed. As a young player in his first full big-league season, he wasn’t prepared to carry an offense over the course of 162 games. From that standpoint, the acquisitions of Drew Stubbs, Mark Reynolds, and Nick Swisher become that much more important.

If the Indians can finalize their lineup in the coming weeks with legitimate Major League-caliber hitters it could help take some pressure off of Kipnis in 2013. As a result, we may very well see the version of Jason Kipnis we were all so excited about early on last season. The same version that looked bound for multiple All-Star selections and had this writer declaring his man crush openly for all to see. And if it happens, I promise not to jinx it this time.

Tags: Cleveland Indians Jason Kipnis

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