Jason Kipnis made his Major League debut in July of 2011 and proceeded to put up a line of .272/.333/.507 in 36 games over the remainder of the season. He entered 2012 looking to build on that and establish himself as a rising star at second base.
2013 Contract Status: Pre-Arbitration (~$482,100)
Kipnis was one of just two Indians to play in at least 150 games this season (Shin-Soo Choo was the other) and he spent most of that time batting second or third, allowing him to accumulate the most plate appearances by an Indians second baseman since Roberto Alomar in 2001. Before I dive into how he did in those 672 trips to the plate, let’s take a look at his work in the field:
Kipnis’ defensive reputation as a prospect was solid, considering he was transitioning from having been an outfielder into his current role at second base. His play in the field was poorly rated by both Baseball-Reference and Fangraphs in 2011 (in only a small sample of games, of course), but word was he was improving, and his rating improved at both sites this season. He’s worked himself into an average defensive second baseman for 2012, with perhaps a little more room for improvement, given that he is still relatively new to the position.
More specifically, Kipnis scored below average for 2012 in terms of his range, meaning there were balls an average second baseman would be expected to get to, that Kipnis didn’t. On the other hand he scored very well in terms of making plays on those balls he did get to, he wasn’t making many errors. Kipnis should be plenty good enough in the field for the Indians to feel good about his ability to hold down the keystone sack for years to come.
At the plate, Kipnis was not as productive in 2012 as during his 2011 stint in the big leagues. You can see that from a look at his overall numbers each season:
The small difference in BA is mostly attributable to a drop in Kipnis’ BABIP from .313 to .291. The more troubling drop is in Kipnis’ SLG%. .507 is a great number for a 2B (Robinson Cano is the only 2B with that high a mark for each of the last two seasons), and Kipnis doesn’t need his SLG% to be that high in order to be a great hitter, but .379 is far too low (Kipnis ranked 15th out of the 20 qualified 2B in 2012).
Kipnis saw his HR/FB rate drop from 20.6% in 2011 to 9.7% in 2012, a very big change. It’s too early in Kipnis’ career to say what his true HR/FB rate is, but big swings are largely a matter of luck, and Kipnis profiles as the type of player who should be above the league average of ~11%. Look for a few more long out and doubles to become home runs in 2012, boosting his SLG% to something in the range of .430 and .460, which would rank in the top three to five at the position.
Kipnis cut his strikeout rate from 22.7% to a more reasonable 16.2%, a solid improvement. He also improved his walk rate from 7.3% to 10.0%, 4th among second basemen. That kind of batting eye will serve him well, it kept is OBP at .335 (8th among second basemen), even as his average dropped over the course of the season.
About that drop over the course of the season, it must be pointed out that Kipnis suffered a steep decline in production during the second half of the season:
That decline is larger than just the difference in BABIP, which is very dependent on luck. His strikeout rate climbed too and his power numbers went from "okay" to "dreadful." His pop-ups also increased, while his line drives and fly balls fell. He wasn’t making the same quality of contact.
Was Kipnis tired or nursing injuries? It’s possible, and I don’t want to overlook or minimize that his numbers weren’t as strong over the second half, but I would also point out that September was his second best month of the year at the plate. Most of his drop after the All-Star break comes from dismal numbers for August, when his OPS was just .531. Perhaps he just had a bad month.
In any event, there are enough positives from Kipnis’ hitting numbers that I’m very optimistic about what we’ll see from him in 2013. When you adjust for park factors and the like, the hitting component of Kipnis’ bWAR placed him 7th among second basemen, in what seems like a bad year. Fangraphs had him 11th. We need to keep in mind that offense is down across baseball, Progressive Field plays as a mild pitchers’ park (not that you'd know it from Cleveland's own pitchers), and second base isn't a huge offensive position.
I’ve also left out one of Kipnis’ greatest attributes as a ballplayer, his base running. Kipnis stole 31 bases in 2012, the most of any second baseman in the American League. He also stole them at an 82% success rate, which rates among the top 25% of all players with at least 20 attempts. When you factor in his ability to go from 1st to 3rd or 2nd to home on singles, take a base on an out, etc., Kipnis led all A.L. second basemen in the base running component of bWAR and finished 2nd at Fangraphs.
Kipnis does a lot of things well. If I had to pick one member of the Indians to improve their hitting numbers in 2013, it would be him (and they weren’t bad in 2012). A strong bad with a decent glove and great work on the bases, you’ve got the recipe for a top five player at the position. We’ll have the chance to cheer for Kipnis in All-Star Games, maybe as early as next summer.
Place in the Indians' 2013 Plans: He’ll play second base almost every day and likely bat second or third, depending on the rest of the roster’s construction. The team may look to work out an extension that takes Kipnis through his arbitration years and possibly even buys out a year or two of free agency.