Jason Kipnis and the second base cautionary tale

 (AP Photo)
I want to preface this week's Corner of Carnegie and Ontario with the understanding that this is one of those columns that has been bouncing around in my head over the past three years. Jason Kipnis is an outstanding player, but having seen his style of play up-close-and-personal at the minor league level, I've always believed there was more on the table. 

I know there's no statistical support for this line of thinking, but his overall statistical averages have been so skewed by HUGE months early in the season, that I've wondered what would happen if his style of play at second created the statistical anomaly of his first and second half splits?

Likewise, the first time I saw Kipnis play in 2010, I immediately was reminded of Gregg Jefferies, more for approach than for stance. It was just something I got in my head. That's really where this column is coming from. There's a "throwing darts" feel to it, but maybe there's more to it than meets the eye.

In the summer of 2011, the Indians' hype machine was circling around two different infield prospects: Third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall and Second baseman Jason Kipnis. While Lonnie was ranked higher by most "experts" as the top prospect in the system, Kipnis was not-so-quietly making a bigger name for himself in the organization with his offensive, toolsy mix, and a drive to learn a new position.

While Chisenhall debuted one month before Kipnis, it was clear early on that Kip was just a better baseball player. Kipnis had the look of a sure-fire All-Star, and a mainstay for the Indians for years to come. Not only did he showcase decent pop for a middle-infielder, but he had speed and good baserunning instincts to go along with it. All of that talent was wrapped up in a nice-and-tight little bow by a blue collar attitude on the diamond.

Kipnis certainly hasn't been a disappointment. In his 4 1/2 seasons with the club, he has been exceptional. With the exception of his 2014 season, Kipnis has been a top-five second baseman in terms of offensive production, and has improved steadily defensively. While he'll never likely grade as an above average defender at second, he certainly doesn't hurt you, when healthy.

So I know what you're thinking: Why in the hell are we talking about Jason Kipnis, with the phrase "cautionary tale" next to his name?

Like Grady Sizemore before him, Kipnis attacks the game of baseball in an extremely physical and aggressive manor. While Kipnis doesn't have a wall to run into, the wear and tear on his body on a month-to-month basis is clear. If you look at his basic splits, it's clear that while it takes Kipnis a bit of time to warm up, once he does, he's one of the top five-to-ten players in the game.

That's right, I said it, the top five-to-ten players in the league. That's not random selection. Kipnis can be that good offensively. But come July, there's a precipitous drop off in his numbers.

Provided by View Original Table
Generated 10/11/2015.

Certainly, these numbers give only a cursory look at Kipnis and his play over his career, from month-to-month. I'm usually not big on generalities regarding any player, but the numbers are so clearly and dramatically different after June, that it's hard not to think there is more to it. It's easy to be critical of his obvious splits, but please keep in mind there there are always week-to-week variances regarding any player that aren't shown when you just look at the career averages. It's important to note that while he's obviously better in the early months, when you combine those intertwined weeks after June with Kipnis's overall statistics, hammering him for diminished returns seems somewhat silly.

Sometimes a player just is those overall averages. But sheesh, his good and not good are so damn dramatically different.

Jason Kipnis has always been a player that I've had a feel for. While I'm not a scout, nor do I ever purport to be a scout, there's occasionally a player that I get a pretty good feel for. Kipnis has always been one of those players. While people who weren't watching him were flat-out bashing his minor league defense at second, I was seeing (and hearing from actual scouts) the exact opposite. Offensively, his bat was always major league ready, but was much more consistently great in the minor leagues.

He completely ate up the system in 2010, starting in Carolina, heading to Akron, then dominating in Columbus during their playoff run, in a showcase of offense that hadn't been seen before for a guy never to step foot at the Triple A level.

Kipnis simply decimated pitching in the minor leagues on a consistent basis, and when you take that superior make-up and combine it with his premiere months at the big league level (player of the month in both June of 2013, and May of 2015), it's easy to wonder if it's possible for him to just put it all together if he didn't perceptually wear down during the later months, as his statistics would suggest.

I must preface this with an understand that this thought process is somewhat "voodoo economics" in the sense that all players tend to wear down over the long-haul of a baseball season, and that there's no real statistical evidence that "wearing down" is the cause of the Kipnis-production drop. We just know that his numbers seem to diminish in a general sense right around July, and that this has been fairly consistent over the duration of his career.

There's also no real statistical significance regarding the belief that his high level of play is something he can match in the big leagues during a whole season. The pitchers are better than the minors, and there's always a "figuring out" phase from year-to-year, no matter how good a player is.

Jason Kipnis isn't Mike Trout. But damn if it doesn't just gnaw at me that he could be a whole lot more special than his spectacular statistics would suggest. In other words, I believe Kipnis has a couple of superstar seasons in him, even if the stats don't back me up.

This, combined with the reputation that second baseman have a tendency to fall apart without much notice (see Carlos Baerga, Chuck Knoblauch, Chase Utley, etc), leads me to wonder if something could be done to both prolong Kipnis during a single season to allow him to reach a level that puts him with the elite in the game, and perhaps keep him away from the second baseman dropoff we've seen with the others listed. While this may seem random, I think there might be a move that could do it.

Move Kipnis to first base.

Prior to the 2014 season, I mentioned the possibility of moving Kipnis to the outfield to cure our right field issues, while allowing a young Jose Ramirez a chance to play second base full time. Kipnis was an outfielder in college, and the move would be somewhat easy for a player with the professional work ethic that Kipnis has. Then, Kip was about to enter his age 27 season, and worries about break-downs weren't a part of the equation.

My thought process then didn't take health into account, it was just a product of improving the infield defense to an elite level up the middle with #JRam and ultimately Francisco Lindor, taking over short and second (yeah, I said that in writing, in 2013, a lot).

After Kipnis struggled all season in 2014, then saw another drop in production late in the year in 2015, my thoughts shifted a bit.

With Kipnis about to enter his age 29 season, I would love to see the Indians do something to protect him physically, while also improving the infield defense. I'm not sure that left field is the way to do that on a full-time basis because of his style of play, but first base certainly could be a place that Kipnis could thrive defensively, as well stay a bit more healthy. Of course, I have no data to suggest he wouldn't tear himself apart as a first baseman, but the position, in general, is less taxing than playing second base.

This is generally when the argument erupts about "insufficient power for the position." Of course, this is the same argument that was made regarding Carlos Santana by many, prior to Yan Gomes grabbing hold of the catching position. My old podcasting partner at IBI, Tony Lastoria and I used to argue about that on a bi-weekly basis. Of course, the Santana argument has gone by the wayside, regardless of validity, because Santana is a bad catcher and there aren't any realistic first base options currently on the roster.

Sure, Carlos and his bat have more value as a catcher, but I've had some really interesting discussions with the Sabermetrics community regarding position value and its connection to the weights-and-balances of team-offensive-dynamics, which I'll get into later this winter. We'll just leave it at this for the sanctity of the piece: you can get away with unbalanced positions, as long as you either improve the position from it's prior position player, or balance the offense at another position. Defense plays a part in this as well.

My point here is simple: would the team be better if Kipnis shifted to first, Jose Ramirez assumed the full-time duties at second base, and Carlos Santana became the DH full-time? More importantly, would Kipnis see a bump in production in the months of July, August and September, while also potentially prolonging his career?

I know, it's not an easy question to answer.

I'll attack the line-up aspect of the entire team in next week's annual "What I'd Like to see happen in 2016" piece, but I do want to focus on the Kipnis aspect of a potential shift, and how it could very well improve his offense, while prolonging his career at the same time.

This isn't an exact science, if I'm to be honest. My general impression this year was that Carlos Santana would see a pretty dramatic increase in offensive production should he play at first base all year. That wasn't the case. So any move has to be counterbalanced with a learning curve, potential injury risks, and any one of the thousands of things that can shift probabilities one way or another, from day-to-day during a baseball season. Kipnis and Santana are two vastly different players, with two vastly different mentalities, so it's really hard to correlate one to the other.

So let's suspend disbelief for a moment and assume that #JRam takes over second full-time,with Santana moving to the DH, and leave it at that until next week. The real question is simply this: Can Jason Kipnis play first base, and will he show any sort of improvement?

My real premise for this started many years ago as the seed of an idea while watching Kipnis in his first full season. It was a simple and fleeting thought that had started in the minor leagues when I first watched Kipnis, and it was that Kip reminded me an awful lot of former Mets second baseman, Gregg Jefferies. I don't even remember why. They both played hard. They sorta look alike. They're about the same size. They had a lot of hype surrounding them.

Who knows why I thought that, but it's stuck with me over the past five years.

About a year ago, I mentioned Gregg Jefferies to fellow EHC writer Michael Hattery, and how there were parts of his game that reminded me of Kipnis, and we began discussing the whys. It didn't go further than a phone call, but saying it out loud cemented the thought process. The funny thing about that conversation is that I was remember Jefferies, the third baseman, who ultimately moved to left field. I wasn't even thinking about second base or first base. I was pondering a move for Kipnis to third or the outfield.

Once I did a bit of research, his predominant two positions over his first eight years turned out to be second base, then first base, with a season as the Royals third baseman in the middle. Like I said, it was just the seed of an idea, but one that's grown into a tree of sorts.

Now I preface this with some noted differences. Jefferies was drafted out of high school, while Kipnis came out of college. Jefferies was quickly considered the best prospect in all of baseball, and won a couple of Minor League Player of the Year Awards, while Kipnis really grew into a top 50 MLB prospect, thanks to a huge 2010 season. Jefferies had a lot more plate discipline on offense, and was considered one of the best contact hitters in the game, and while Kipnis makes solid contact as well, he's K'ed over 100 times in all his full seasons.

Past that, it gets really interesting. Here's Jefferies first five years, excluding a six game call-up in 1987.

1988 20 NYM 29 118 109 19 35 8 2 6 17 5 1 8 10 .321 .364 .596 .961 178 65
1989 21 NYM 141 559 508 72 131 28 2 12 56 21 6 39 46 .258 .314 .392 .706 106 199
1990 22 NYM 153 659 604 96 171 40 3 15 68 11 2 46 40 .283 .337 .434 .771 111 262
1991 23 NYM 136 539 486 59 132 19 2 9 62 26 5 47 38 .272 .336 .374 .711 101 182
1992 24 KCR 152 657 604 66 172 36 3 10 75 19 9 43 29 .285 .329 .404 .733 103 244
Provided by View Original Table
Generated 10/11/2015.

And here's Kipnis:

2011 24 CLE 36 150 136 24 37 9 1 7 19 5 0 11 34 .272 .333 .507 .841 133 69
2012 25 CLE 152 672 591 86 152 22 4 14 76 31 7 67 109 .257 .335 .379 .714 102 224
2013 ★ 26 CLE 149 658 564 86 160 36 4 17 84 30 7 76 143 .284 .366 .452 .818 130 255
2014 27 CLE 129 555 500 61 120 25 1 6 41 22 3 50 100 .240 .310 .330 .640 80 165
2015 ★ 28 CLE 141 641 565 86 171 43 7 9 52 12 8 57 107 .303 .372 .451 .823 121 255
5 Yrs 607 2676 2356 343 640 135 17 53 272 100 25 261 493 .272 .346 .411 .757 111 968
Provided by View Original Table
Generated 10/11/2015.

Jefferies was a much younger player, and you could argue that the real difference between the two players may land strictly in the camp of Kipnis being a whole lot more ready to be in the big leagues than Jefferies. Kip is clearly a superior player over that four-year stretch, and that bears out when looking at WAR. According to baseball reference, Jefferies had an 8.1 bWAR while Kipnis nearly doubled that to the tune of a 16.1bWAR over that stretch. Fangraphs had the distance between the two a bit closer, with Kip coming in at 14.7, while Jefferies improved to a 9.0.

The Mets had given up on Jefferies as their second baseman after his third full season (he also played some third) and dealt him to Kansas City for former Cy Young award winner, Bret Saberhagen. He didn't hit as much as they thought he would, and his glove was never that good, and Kansas City was looking for a full-time third baseman.

In many ways, Kipnis has been everything the Indians have needed him to be at second base. He's been solid, and sometimes spectacular defensively, and has filled all of the top-of-the-order spots for the Indians, whenever they've asked him to. His value is unquestioned, and the idea of dealing Kipnis likely has never crossed the mind of GM Chris Antonetti.

So what's my point in comparing the two players? Again, this really is just one of those ideas I can't let go of. But here's my line of thinking.

In 1993, the Royals dealt Jefferies to the St. Louis Cardinals, who promptly inserted him as their starting first baseman. They did it for a variety of reasons. First, they needed a contact hitter to hit in the three-and-four hole. Felix Jose, who he was dealt for, had a penchant for leaving guys on base, and they wanted a replacement that simply moved players along the basepaths. Position-wise, third and second were both filled by players they didn't want to move, in Todd Zeile and Luis Alicea. They figured that first base would be a way to hide his defensive shortcomings a bit, and get top value for him as a defender.

What happened next was nothing short of sensational. Jefferies put it all together that year, with a 5.1 WAR season, and a .342/.408/.485 slash. He hit third that year for a Cards team that was led by a pre-Yankees Joe Torre that didn't make the playoffs, but seemed to play over their heads all year long.

Jefferies easily carried the offense.

On top of that, he continued playing with that fireplug mentality, similar to Kipnis, and was eager to move to first base to help the team.

When asked about the position switch after the trade, Jefferies noted that "First base is fine. there will be some footwork and short hops to deal with, but having played second base and third base can help me with both of those at first base. I take as much pride in my defense as I do in my offense."

Perhaps the biggest knock on the position switch (other than lack of power) was his size, and at 5' 10", was considered short for the position. Kipnis is listed at 5' 11" tall, but any knock on size would have to be tabled, since current first baseman Carlos Santana is also listed at 5' 11".

So the question is, can Kipnis make the move to first base, and can it have the same effect that it did regarding Jefferies?

Defensively, Kipnis is better than Jefferies ever was. Kipnis, like Jefferies, had never played the position, but would likely grade internally as a better option than Santana over the long haul.

Regarding make-up, Kipnis likely wouldn't want to make the move to first base, but like Jefferies, would no doubt do what's best for the team.

Offensively, there would be a power drop off at the position from Kipnis to Santana, if Kip's recent power decline were to continue. He only hit nine homers last year, and this coming off his six-homer campaign of 2014 when his oblique injury sapped his power. As the Indians lead-off hitter, he wasn't asked to hit for power, so perhaps that played a part in his lack of power.

You could also take into account the possibility that Kipnis could play elsewhere throughout the year, including second base on occasion, as well as DH-ing. I'd even offer up the potential for Kipnis to play some games out in right, should the need arise. Again, this isn't something I would want to see on a regular basis since the overall goal is to keep Kipnis healthy, but playing a few games out of position may be a consideration. When you keep in mind the usage of Mike Aviles, it would be a whole lot more tolerable to move around Kipnis on a short-term basis, since he would no doubt grade as a better defender at any position he played.

While there are parallels in Kipnis and Jefferies, I do realize this comp is akin to grabbing water, especially when considering any position change, as we found out with Carlos moving to third base. Will it really protect Kipnis health-wise? Will he see an offensive improvement?

Who knows.

Jefferies exploded during his two years in St. Louis, which would suggest that playing at a high level over an entire season is enhanced under the right circumstances. Maybe it was a 'lightning strike' sorta thing, with all the right circumstances coming together for a player that had all the talent in the world, but hadn't reached his potential as of yet. Ponder this: After his second, strike-shortened 1995 year in St. Louis, he would never again play a full season because of injury, and bounced from position-to-position over the duration of his career.

Injuries took their toll, and he was out of the game before he turned 33, so the long term effects a position move would have regarding Kipnis perhaps are minimal.

But for a team looking to save money and improve their offense at the same time, wouldn't finding ways to protect Kipnis and his health be an out-of-the box way to perhaps find some more offense? If Kipnis truly is wearing down, what if moving him out of second base does increase his value as the season progresses?

It could be a game-changer.

It also may be all ado about nothing. Kipnis is a phenomenal baseball player right where he is, and with offensive and defensive weaknesses in center, right and third, moving Kipnis to first certainly isn't a priority, and likely not on the radar.

Let's be clear. We have yet to see the best of Jason Kipnis. I can feel it in my bones. He hasn't put together the type of season that he's capable of, which really is saying something. There's more in the gas tank for the Tribe's lead-off hitter if the franchise can just figure out a way to keep the tank full throughout the season. First base may just be the move Kipnis needs to reach that awesome offensive potential.
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