Is Ian Kinsler Cooked?

It’s been a rough year for AL second basemen on the wrong side of 30. Robinson Cano, 35, was recently hit with an 80-game PED suspension. Dustin Pedroia, 34, played just three games last week before going back on the disabled list with inflammation in the same knee that had sidelined him for the season’s first two months. Jason Kipnis has played more like 41 years old than 31, and fellow 31-year-old Brian Dozier has been merely average. The oldest of them all, the soon-to-be 36-year-old Ian Kinsler, has been one of the majors’ worst. It’s increasingly possible that his days as a productive regular are over.

After homering just twice in the Angels’ first 54 games, Kinsler went yard three times in a five-game span from May 29 to June 2, going 11-for-20 in those games against the Tigers and Rangers — Kinsler’s two previous teams, incidentally, both in the bottom half of the league in terms of run prevention. Even with the aforementioned hot streak, however, the returns on Kinsler have been underwhelming. He entered Tuesday hitting just .212/.279/.348. Out of 85 AL batting-title qualifiers, his on-base percentage ranked 80th, his slugging percentage 78th, his 74 wRC+ 77th, with Pedroia fill-in Eduardo Nuñez, Kipnis, and the Tigers’ Dixon Machado the only AL second basemen below him in the last of those categories. Kinsler’s glove has been strong enough (5.3 UZR) to just push his value into the black.

When the Angels traded a pair of low-level prospects for Kinsler last December, it appeared to be a worthwhile gamble. The six players who had toiled at the keystone for their 2017 squad (Kaleb Cowart, Danny Espinosa, Nolan Fontana, Nick Franklin, Cliff Pennington, and Brandon Phillips) had combined for a league-worst 63 wRC+ at the position and just 0.2 WAR. Tellingly, that sextet has combined for all of 39 big league plate appearances this year. While Kinsler was coming off a career-worst season with the bat (.236/.313/.412, 91 WRC+), his typically solid baserunning (1.5 BsR) and fielding (7.8 UZR) boosted his value to 2.5 WAR, 12th in the majors at the position. With an $11 million salary in his final year before free agency, he seemed like both a solid stopgap and an upgrade at the same time.

At the moment, however, he’s just a another hole in a lineup that has all too many of them. Yes, the Angels have the game’s best player, bar none, in Mike Trout (203 wRC+). They have an elite two-way shortstop in Andrelton Simmons (139 wRC+), a decent left fielder in Justin Upton (113 wRC+), a solid catching corps in Martin Maldonado, José Briceño, and the injured Rene Rivera (106 wRC+ for the trio), and three or four times a week, they have the the Most Interesting Man in the World, Shohei Ohtani (149 wRC+). After that, it gets dicey, as none of the other regulars has provided even league-average offense, not slumping third baseman Zack Cozart (92 wRC+), or the suddenly, impossibly bad Kole Calhoun (3 wRC+ — yes, you read that right) or end-stage-but-jeez-still-three-more-years-of-this Albert Pujols (88 wRC+). The stars-and-scrubs mix has produced an offense that entered Tuesday ranked fifth in the AL in wRC+ (106) and scoring (4.58 runs per game), but the Halos are nonetheless on the outside looking in when it comes to the playoff picture, and sooner or later, upgrades will be in order.

So is Kinsler done? He’s not exactly knocking the cover off the ball. His 86.8 mph average exit velocity ranks 171st out of 217 players with at least 100 batted ball events, but that’s a slight improvement on last year’s 86.2 mph, and he’s been in the 85-87 mph range in all four seasons of the metric. He doesn’t have much swing-and-miss in his game (4.6% this year, below even his 5.2% career mark), and he generally hits the ball in the air: his 35.5% ground-ball rate, for example, is 71st out of 85 AL qualifiers, though his 13.8% infield fly rate is 21st. His xwOBA is a grim .303, which ranks 199th out of 250 players who have seen at least 500 pitches. That represents a 31-point drop from last year, but he was nonetheless an above-average hitter in 2015 and 2016 despite xwOBAs that fell between those two extremes:

Ian Kinsler, 2015-2018
Season xwOBA wOBA wRC+
2015 .312 .335 110
2016 .329 .356 123
2017 .334 .313 91
2018 .303 .273 76
SOURCE: Baseball Savant
xwOBA and wOBA via Baseball Savant, wRC+ via FanGraphs

Note that I’ve mixed and matched Statcast’s version of wOBA, which may differ from ours by a couple points, with our version of wRC+; you can still get the idea. One thing that helped Kinsler outdo those xwOBAs in 2015-16 was his knack for infield singles. From 2010-16, he collected 94 of them, an average of 13.4 per season, which ranked 41st in the majors in that span; his 7.3% rate of infield hits per ground ball ranked 134th among the 435 players with at least 1000 PA. In the last two of those seasons, he collected 22 infield singles, tied for the 92nd-highest total in the majors, and his 6.4% rate ranked 158th out of 334 players with at least 400 PA. Since then, however, he’s collected just six infield hits, and his 2.8% rate ranks 436th of 490 players with at least 100 PA. Hmmm.

Kinsler has a couple of other ominous signs in his splits, small-sample though they may be. Over the past two seasons, he’s really struggled when making contact with four-seam fastballs:

While he’s averaged a 136 wRC+ against the heater for his career, he was at 88 last year and is at 67 this year, which isn’t the direction you want to be heading at his age, to say the least. And while the trend isn’t uniform, he’s definitely struggled against high velocity four-seamers (95-plus mph) to a greater degree over the past two seasons in terms of both actual and expected wOBA:

Kinsler vs. 95+ MPH Four-Seam Fastballs
Year wOBA lg wOBA wOBA dif xWOBA lg xwOBA xwOBA dif
2015 .305 .309 -.004 .315 .311 .004
2016 .337 .315 .022 .353 .316 .037
2017 .223 .312 -.089 .298 .318 -.020
2018 .271 .294 -.023 .297 .318 -.021
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

The other area of concern is his platoon splits. The righty-swinging Kinsler has had his ups and downs against righties over the course of his major-league career, which began in 2006, but last season and this one represent two of the three worst of his career in terms of wRC+. Meanwhile, he’s been been reliably above-average against southpaws, with a wRC+ above 100 every year except his rookie season and this one, which, oof:

Granted, this year’s sample against lefties is just 53 PA, but those numbers are beyond brutal; underlying them is a .240 xwOBA, compared to marks of .340, .328 and .390 in the past three seasons.

Less than two years ago, I debated whether to include a capsule on Kinsler’s Hall of Fame chances alongside one of Pedroia in The Cooperstown Casebook. When I published this at on July 19, 2016, Kinsler had 50.5 career WAR (Baseball-Reference flavor), 38.5 peak WAR (his best seven seasons), and 44.5 JAWS, which ranked 20th at the position. Pedroia, who is 14 months younger, was at 48.1/40.7/44.4, while the average Hall second baseman was at 69.3/44.5/56.9. Both players had strong 2016 seasons that boosted their peak scores, and with some WAR rejiggering that appears to have had a slight impact on the standards, both are closer to the current standards (69.5/44.5/57.0, with Kinsler 18th at the position (55.5/40.4/48.0) and Pedroia 19th (52.1/42.4/47.3).

While I don’t think the book is closed on either — particularly Pedroia, who has hardware that Kinsler lacks (MVP and Rookie of the Year awards, plus two championship rings), right now, neither looks like a very good bet to reach the standard, and the onus is on both to prove that they can remain productive into their late 30s. I can withhold judgment on Pedrioa, who was slightly above average as a hitter last year, but it’s tough to be optimistic in the case of Kinsler given the extension of last year’s decline. Based on his defense and baserunning (which right now is in the red at -1.5, though he hasn’t lost any speed according to Statcast), he doesn’t even need to be a league-average hitter to be a two-win player, but he may not even be that guy anymore.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

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4 years ago

If the NL was included the list 2nd base woes would include Danial Murphy, who seems to be having a hard time rehabbing his legs in his contract year.

4 years ago
Reply to  Easyenough

And also getting people to spell his name correctly 😉