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Building a Wahoo Winner: A healthy return for Kipnis

Building a Wahoo Winner: A healthy return for Kipnis
Jason Kipnis (Photo: AP)
October 28, 2014
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Every time he approached the plate in that summer of 2013, you almost knew it was coming.

That sweet, opposite-field swing. A drive down the left-field line. "The Dirtbag" rounding first on his way to second with yet another of his 36 doubles on the season.

Those summer months of 2013 during which Jason Kipnis' torrid pace became the norm, invoked images of a fan-favorite All-Star at second base in Cleveland for years to come. It convinced the Indians to invest six years and $52.5 million in him at the start of 2014.

Almost immediately, Kipnis' performance went backwards and now the decision looks to be a regrettable one for the Tribe. His numbers took a nosedive this past season and the flashes of his 2013 brilliance were nowhere to be found.

Forgetting about the long-term future of Kipnis and the Indians, which is certainly a discussion for another time, the 2015 Indians need a second baseman closer to the Kipnis of 2013 than to the Kipnis of 2014.

At this point, considering the dramatic drop off in his numbers, is that even possible?

The numbers seem to indicate that it might be.

Despite the dramatic drop in production, there was one thing that Kipnis did better in 2014 than he did in 2013: he whiffed at a significantly lesser rate. Following a season in which he posted a 21.7% K-rate, Kipnis lowered that number to just 18% in 2014, but his walk rate also dipped from 11.6% to 9.9%, which leads to some questions of plate discipline.

For whatever reason, he picked up the bat off his shoulder much more than he ever had in the past with an overall swing percentage that went from a 38.2% mark in 2013 to a 41.7% mark in 2014. Kipnis also swung at a lot more pitches outside of the strike zone than ever before, as his O-swing percentage hiked from 20.9% to 24.5% from 2013 to 2014. Kipnis did make more contact as a result of his increase in swings, but that additional contact was not of the "solid" variety.

While Kipnis' drop in batting average and on-base percentage (OBP) can generally be explained by a lessened sense of discipline at the dish, what was the cause for the uncanny power outage in 2014?

This is where the numbers don't always tell a complete story and that sometimes an injury might offer a glimpse into what went wrong.

When Kipnis left the game against Los Angeles on April 29th with an injury to his oblique just 27 games into the season, he had already hit half of his season total of 6 home runs and six of the 25 doubles he would end up with on the year. He only had a .394 slugging percentage at the time, but that was weighed down by a .234 batting average. But his .160 isolated power percentage at the time was right in line with his 2013 season (.168).

When Kipnis returned to the lineup on May 28th he proceeded to hit just .241 with a .315 slugging percentage in 102 games, but that isolated power percentage dropped to .074, a significant drop from what he was doing before the injury.

Those numbers certainly prove nothing, but they do bring up questions as to the severity of Kipnis' injury and the effect his bad oblique had on his swing. After all, it was after a nasty hack that Kipnis clutched his side and waltzed down the first-base line. If a player is compensating for an injury that ultimately affects their swing, the problem usually will show in their performance. And that is what happened.

It makes you wonder if the Indians would have been better served to put Kipnis on the disabled list at some point in the second half of the season. Sure, he was able to play, but he was clearly not 100% and he was hurting the team performing at a below replacement level because of his inconsistent bat and subpar defense.

While the answer to this injury-based question may not be answered until next season, Tribe fans and Indians front office personnel can only hope that injury was the reason for Kipnis' sudden, untimely decline. After just doling out a lucrative long term contract to him and putting him on the Mount Rushmore of current Indians who are the face of the franchise, a repeat of his 2014 performance in 2015 would be crippling to a team that can ill afford another albatross contract on their hands.

In any case, the Indians will need a healthy, rejuvenated Kipnis in the lineup to help push them over the top and improve their playoff chances in 2015. Assuming they get that bounce back from him, the next question is where he fits in the lineup?

When he was at his best in 2013, Kipnis was primarily a two-hole (.288 BA, 9 HR, 31 R and 32 BB) and three-hole (.282 average, 8 HR, 54 R and 54 BB) hitter. During his struggles in 2014 the Indians moved him all around the lineup trying him at leadoff (35 G, .303 OBP) and also in the three-hole (31 G, .357 OBP), four-hole (19 G, .282 OBP), five-hole (33 G, .309 OBP), six-hole (7 G, .250 OBP) and even seven-hole (6 G, .500 OBP). They tried to find a spot for him to settle in and produce to no avail.

While the numbers indicate that he's been pretty good near the top of the Indians lineup, and may get a chance to return their once again at some point, it may be interesting to see what he could provide lower in the lineup to start next season. This will allow him to settle in and not put too much pressure on himself to go out and perform. If that performance returns, then the Indians can slide him back up into the one or two spot in the order or just have the bonus of some good production in the lower part of the order.

It could start something like this for the Indians and Kipnis on Opening Day:

1. CF Bourn
2. SS Ramirez
3. LF Brantley
4. 1B Santana
5. C Gomes
6. 3B Chisenhall
7. DH Swisher
8. RF Murphy
9. 2B Kipnis

And then with a resurgent season could move to this by May or June:

1. CF Bourn
2. 2B Kipnis
3. LF Brantley
4. 1B Santana
5. C Gomes
6. 3B Chisenhall
7. DH Swisher
8. RF Murphy
9. SS Ramirez

Of course, these are hypothetical lineups, but they - with no. 22 fully in the fold- could certainly be more dangerous ones at full strength.

Just about everyone understands what it would mean to the Indians if the Jason Kipnis of 2013 could return to Cleveland for the 2015 season, even Kipnis himself.

In what appears to be the first step in an effort to return to form, Kipnis is "juicing."

Unlike the "juice" of the 1990's that helped to bulk-up many ballplayers, this "juice" that Kipnis is using is the all-natural, fruity variety that he hopes will help him to be healthier and stronger heading into next season.

If "juicing" is what brings Kipnis back to life on the diamond, the Indians, their fans and Kipnis himself will be fully supportive, as a "juiced up" Kipnis would be an important cog in the chase for a World Series in 2015.

User Comments

October 29, 2014 - 7:54 AM EDT
I've said it on here before, and I'll say it again, "Oblique injuries take FOREVER to heal." I had one in college ball during the fall, and it wasn't until after the spring season that I finally quite feeling the lingering effects of that injury. You cannot play through them. They affect your range in the field, your ability to throw, and your ability to hit.

Let's Kip heal up before we completely throw him under the bus. We aren't talking about him having a down year thanks to a bad hair cut.
October 29, 2014 - 7:14 AM EDT
I don't see it as unreasonable to expect Kipnis to have a bounce back year. I would agree with those that want him in the leadoff spot. He typically has good strike zone judgement and is successful swiping bases. Bourn certainly fits better in the 9 hole than leading off. I can't help to wonder what changes will occur this offseason that will make these conversations mute.
October 29, 2014 - 2:01 AM EDT
When your job is to get on base .317 is not doing your job. Bourn's OBP is completely BA driven. So, he doesn't steal bases anymore, doesn't get on base and has no power. That sounds a lot more like a 9 hole hitter than a leadoff hitter to me.
C L Who
October 29, 2014 - 1:37 AM EDT

Is .262 / .317 for a leadoff hitter "awful." Maybe not the BA.... but the OBP certainly qualifies.
October 28, 2014 - 11:02 PM EDT
Alton, that's what I would do....but I don't see any way Francona does not have Bourn not hitting leadoff unless he is hurt or it is halfway through the year and he is awful.
October 28, 2014 - 10:27 PM EDT
I probably know the answer to this already but any chance Kipnis leads off and Bourn bats ninth, Kip has a better on base percentage lifetime and is a better base stealer at this point in his career. He isn't making that much less annually than Bourn so I don't see why that would really be an issue.
C L Who
October 28, 2014 - 8:10 PM EDT
Our 1 and 2 hitters have OBPs of .314 and .300, the Opening Day lineup.
Our 6 hitter is probably heading for a .290 OBP......after the totally aberrational 4 weeks of glory.
Our 8 hitter is a .319 OBP......4 points about league average, at least.

Against this background, even Kip's lousy 2014 OBP of .310 looks normal.

Few contenders let a player with an OBP of less than .300 stay in the lineup.
October 28, 2014 - 7:17 PM EDT
He's a bum that got his check and is going to eat a hole in the payroll for five more years - and he'll be protected by Tito because he's one of 'the guys'. So difficult to take this team seriously when they won't even try to get better.
October 28, 2014 - 3:07 PM EDT
Also, in fairness to Hayden, I made an edit to his lineup and swapped Chisenhall and Kipnis as he had Kipnis 6th and Chisenhall 9th.
October 28, 2014 - 3:06 PM EDT
Where Kipnis fits in the batting order is interesting. Look at it logicially. If Bourn is hitting 1st and Brantley is hitting 3rd, then he absolutely can't be in the 2-hole. That would be three lefties in a row. That two spot is going to be reserved for JRam/Lindor....right or wrong. Kipnis obviously will not hit 4th or 5th because Santana and Gomes should be there in some order. The question then is should Chisenhall or Kipnis hit 6th? And, then whoever hits 6th, the other person HAS to hit 8th or 9th after Swisher (7th). I side with Chisenhall hitting 6th at the moment based on his production capabilities. Then when it comes down to who bats 8th or 9th between Murphy or Kipnis, I like Kipnis more in the 9 hole as a carry over to the top of the lineup. It will be interesting to see shake out. I for one would not be down with Kipnis hitting anywhere in the top seven spots in the lineup to start next year unless he has an incredible spring.
October 28, 2014 - 2:21 PM EDT
Nice to have a piece on Kipnis, so thanks! I definitely wouldn't put him in the ninth spot in the order though, heck we should expect him to bounce back, we need him to be a solid contributor, and even an all-star. His production is one of the keys to our success next year. He's never going to have great, or even "good," range at 2B, but he does handle what he gets to. And c'mon Hayden, its way too early to say that "now the decision looks to be a regrettable one for the Tribe." Way too early...and yes, juicing and being in better shape to start the year wouldn't hurt...8--)

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