A little over a year ago, the Cleveland Indians locked up much of their future core, signing Jason Kipnis, Michael Brantley, and Yan Gomes to contract extensions. Kipnis received double the guarantees of his teammates after a great, five-win 2013 season, but last year the fortunes reversed, as Brantley and Gomes both had breakout years and Kipnis struggled. Kipnis got out of the gate slowly in 2015, as the hits were not falling, but a solid approach taking the ball the other way has the new Cleveland leadoff hitter’s production on the rise.
Last April, Kipnis performed well in the first month after signing his $52 million extension, posting a .234/.354/.394 line with a 120 wRC+ that could have been much higher if not for a .250 BABIP. At the end of that same month, though, Kipnis strained his oblique on a swing, forcing him to miss a month. He never got going in his return, hitting just .241/.299/.315 with a 77 wRC+ in 442 plate appearances over the rest of the season despite an acceptable .297 BABIP. Kipnis finished his lost season having produced roughly a win.
Determining the effect of Kipnis’s oblique injury on his production the rest of the season is a tricky proposition. The injury does not require surgery, varies in severity and does not have a set recovery time. Chris Davis and Ryan Braun suffered oblique injuries last season and neither player had a good season, but Joe Mauer played well, albeit without power, after hitting the disabled list for the same injury. Jason Kipnis played through his struggles last year, but he did admit in the spring that the injury gave him trouble.
“In terms of the oblique, it just wouldn’t let me be the player that I wanted to be. I’m not using it as a crutch, it just physically would not allow me to do the things that I try to do as a player, whether it’s getting extended on an offspeed pitch, reaching that outside pitch, it just wouldn’t allow me to do it.”
While the sample sizes are inherently small, it’s possible to examine Kipnis’s performance objectively. In 93 at-bats against offspeed pitches in 2013, he had a .269 average and .161 isolated slugging with 24 strikeouts, according to Brooks Baseball. In 2014, meanwhile, he had 72 at-bats and hit just five singles and two doubles (again per Brooks).
As far as reaching the outside pitch, Kipnis appears to be doing a much better job taking those pitches the other way. Here is Kipnis in 2014 rolling over on a pitch over the middle of the plate, but moving away from him:
Pulling the ball can be a very good thing when the result is power, but rolling over on ground balls hurt Kipnis in 2014 after spraying the ball all over the field in 2013. Here is his spray chart from 2013, from Brooks Baseball:
Kipnis hit for power to all fields in 2013 with multiple home runs to the left field side of the park. There are a lot of ground-ball outs to the right side, but that is not unusual. For all players, about 60% of pulled batted balls are grounders and Kipnis’s numbers are in line with that mark. Kipnis pulled more balls than usual in 2014, resulting in more ground balls and decreased production. Here is his spray chart from 2014:
There are a lot fewer balls to the deeper part of left field in 2014 compared to the prior season. Finally, here’s the chart for this season:
His power to the left side of the field has yet to return, but he is going the other way more often this season. In 2015, Kipnis is pulling fewer pitches, not hitting as many ground balls, and his soft-contact percentage has gone down from last season.
In a recent game against the Toronto Blue Jays, he had four hits, displaying the better aspects of his current game. His first hit of the game was a home run on a hanging slider from Drew Hutchison.
The Blue Jays pitched Kipnis away the rest of the game and Kipnis adjusted. His next plate appearance:
He waits on the pitch and slaps it hard to the left side of the infield. Next time up:
This pitch was a 90 mph change moving away from him, but Kipnis was able to get a bat on it and poke it into right field for a single. Kipnis’s contact rate is higher than it has been at any point during his career. On pitches he swings at in the zone, he makes contact 96.9% of the time — well above his 90% career average. He is swinging at the same number of pitches outside of the zone, but he is making contact nearly three-quarters of the time, a double-digit increase over his career average. This has lowered his strikeout rate to under 12% on the season, a one-third drop from last year, and taken his pitches per plate appearance from 4.2 in 2013 to 4.0 last season to 3.8 so far this year.
In Kipnis’s final plate appearance of the four-hit game, he makes hard contact going the other way, once again:
Kipnis used his speed to leg out a double on the play. Since the beginning of 2012, Kipnis has been worth 16 runs above average on the basepaths, ranking 15th in baseball during that time. He is still using his legs to his advantage this season, with five steals in seven tries and a positive BsR. His hitting line to this point is right in line with his 2013 numbers at .308/.361/.462, with a wRC+ of 132 and a BABIP of .330 — higher than his career .310 mark, but not high enough to indicate a precipitous fall is on the way. Kipnis still lacks the opposite-field power he had in 2013. Like many left-handed hitters, Kipnis sees many balls on the outer half of the plate. If he continues to hit the ball the other way for singles, even if hard, pitchers might begin to pound him inside. The results from those adjustments will be key for Kipnis going forward. If he can turn on the inside pitch and hit the other way without power, Kipnis will remain a solid hitter. If he does not pull the ball with authority if pitched inside, his production should see a decline. If his opposite-field power returns, he will be a monster.
Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.