Usually, we expect players to follow a more or less expected curve of decline when they hit their 30s. Obviously everyone is different, but baseball is a young man’s game, and father time comes for us all. Research by Jeff Zimmerman in 2013 showed that hitters don’t even tend to peak nowadays: on average, they perform at a plateau upon reaching the majors, then they decline. Take the wRC+ aging curve for a few different time periods, for instance:
We often talk about a player being “in his prime,” but primes are probably younger than many (or most) people think. In this era, 26 is really the beginning of the average hitter’s offensive decline. Which brings us to Ian Kinsler, who will turn 34 in June: he’s currently posting what would be the highest wRC+ of his career, and Isolated Power marks in line with his best home run-hitting seasons of 2009/2011. That isn’t particularly huge news: plenty of veteran hitters have ~40 game stretches in which they match close to their prime production.
The real news is that Kinsler is currently going beyond that, showing a few underlying indicators that amount to him turning back the clock. He’s also altered his approach, and the combined forces are helping to drive what is currently shaping up to be his best offensive season since he posted a 123 wRC+ with 32 homers in 2011. Kinsler is probably never going to steal 30 bases again (or maybe even 20), but he’s picking up that slack in his production at the plate, especially power-wise.
First, let’s set this up by comparing where he is versus previous seasons. Take a look at a few relevant, key offensive stats dating back to 2011:
We can see the big similarity between his 2011 season and this season quite clearly: more fly balls, and a higher Home Run/Fly Ball %. Kinsler has always run fairly low BABIPs during his career (his career rate is .288) due to his fly ball/infield fly ball tendencies, but he’s boosted his line drive rate and chopped his infield flies so far in 2016, and that’s helped raise his BABIP above league average while carrying his batting average along with it. Quite simply, he’s barreling the balls he’s making contact with, and that’s driving the highest hard hit rate of his career.
The walk and strike out of this season also immediately jump out: he’s walking at almost career low levels, and striking out at career high levels. There’s a change of approach here, and rather than seeing it in his plate discipline numbers related to swing rate — which are basically in line with his career norms — we really only see it in his contact numbers, which are down to levels not seen since he was a rookie. While it could be simple age-related decline, it looks like he’s trading some contact for power.
The fly ball and HR/FB rates are worth looking into, as that’s the main area in which Kinsler is showing uncommon late career indicators. We know a big driver of HR/FB jumps (like the one we see for Kinsler this season) are fly ball and home run batted ball distance increases — distances which usually decline as a player increases in age. With that in mind, take a look at Kinsler’s average fly ball and home run distance from 2011 up to this season:
We’ve only played about a month and a half of baseball, but Kinsler is showing a jump in air batted ball distance of over twenty feet compared to last year, and over ten feet from his last big power season. That’s pretty rare for a player who’s about to turn 34: on average, batted ball distance craters after age 31, especially to the pull side. Kinsler is bucking an established trend, and he’s doing so in a major way.
So what’s going on? Did Kinsler become way stronger this offseason or something? Searching through a few pieces from the offseason and spring training, there’s really only this small nugget of a quote from an article that vaguely points to Kinsler making adjustments:
“I did a lot of work in the off-season, made a couple of adjustments,” Kinsler said. “Working hard on ’em. It’s nice to have everything that you work on come to fruition when you start spring training.”
Ok, great. Adjustments. As we usually do in situations such as these, let’s look at some tape to see if we can ascertain what those adjustments actually are. Here’s a video of Kinsler’s swing on a homer to left field from last July:
And here’s one of a home run to left field from this past Tuesday:
These comparisons are usually tough, and the differences are small. The differences tend to be small, or else we would know a lot about them already, in all likelihood. The standard caveats apply: these are different pitches, different counts, and there’s only so much that can be learned from two swings. But if we’re looking for differences — which Kinsler has invited us to do — there are definitely a few this season: his hands are higher when he readies his swing, and his arm motion is a little quieter as he moves them back into the loading position. Take it from J.D. Martinez: cleaning up the movement of the hands allows a more direct path to the ball. Next, compare him right after he completes his step, just before he starts to launch the bat:
Notice how he’s more closed off this year with his feet: you can now read the name on his jersey. His hand position has also rotated his left shoulder inward, creating more tension in his torso to uncoil in the swing. Kinsler has been a player that traditionally held his hands low during the loading phase of the swing, but they’re higher this season, causing a cascade of changes to other phases of his swing. It looks like Kinsler is using his body’s rotation to generate better power by staying a little more closed and cleaning up his hand movement/position.
When we add it all up — a fly ball approach, trading contact for power, a couple of mechanical adjustments — we get a fully-formed picture of what a late-career power glut looks like from Ian Kinsler. Is it sustainable? In a way, but it also likely doesn’t look this good for the entire year. How could it, really? But we’ve never worried about the strikeouts with Kinsler, so he can trade in some contact for swinging harder. The walks aren’t a huge deal if he keeps hitting the ball over the fence, and a huge batted-ball distance increase is hard to fake. Kinsler said he made a couple of adjustments. There’s evidence for them. There are likely to be many more of them, because baseball is a young man’s game — and Kinsler is cheating the clock.
Owen Watson writes for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times. Follow him on Twitter @ohwatson.