Jason Kipnis had a season to forget in 2017. Cleveland’s second baseman appeared in only 90 regular season games last year, a career low since he made his a full-time debut in 2012. The missed games were the result of a variety of ailments, including shoulder inflammation and a hamstring strain. The injuries took their toll on Kipnis’ counting stat production as well as his overall offensive efficiency, with a deplorable 232 average and 291 on-base percentage. Things got even worse in the playoffs, when Kipnis managed a mere four hits – three of which were singles – in 22 plate appearances.
Fantasy owners who relied on Kipnis to produce his standard 85 runs, 15 home runs, 20 steals and 270 AVG / 340 OBP were left sorely disappointed. Based on his injury history and 2017 production, it certainly seemed like the wear and tear of Kipnis’ take no prisoners approach, both on the base paths and in the field, caught up to him. ESPN’s fantasy rankings echo this sentiment, with Kipnis, a former consensus top 75 player, checking in at 216th on the draft board. FantasyPros provides additional support of Kipnis’ middling stock with a reported average draft position of 231.
Given Kipnis’ brutal 2017 and injury history I was writing him off completely for fantasy purposes. But then I checked MLB.com’s spring training leaderboards yesterday and found that, lo and behold, Kipnis is tied for the spring lead in home runs with five. More specifically, Kipnis has hit five home runs in 14 at-bats, with three singles thrown in for good measure.
Clearly spring training stats, especially in a 14 at-bat sample, should be taken with a grain (or two) of salt. Opposing pitchers are messing around with new pitches. For some it’s their first time facing competition above AA. But when a player like Kipnis produces like this, even in a small sample, spring training environment, the fantasy world should take notice. After all, he was a valuable fantasy asset as recently as 2016, and plenty of players retain their value into their early 30s. In fact, the more I dig into Kipnis’ profile, the more I’m left thinking there is a lot left in the tank.
Change in approach
Kipnis is a bit of an odd duck when it comes to his fantasy production. It’s really all over the place. His year to year batting averages since 2012 read as follows: 257, 284, 240, 303, 275, 232. His isolated slugging percentages range from 090 to 193 in the same span. He’s topped out at 23 home runs and has had as little as six. Outside of his speed, which is usually there in the way of 15-25 steals, Kipnis seems like an enigma.
But hidden in Kipnis’ horrible 2017 season is the furthering of a change in approach that goes back more than two years. In 2015 Kipnis was primarily a groundball and line-driver hitter, with a pedestrian 28% flyball rate. That flyball rate jumped to 37% in 2016, the season where Kipnis hit a career high 23 home runs. And in 2017? It went up even further, to 44%! Meanwhile his groundball rate went down from 46% to 36% in the same span. That type of change doesn’t happen by accident, as Kipnis is clearly buying into the “flyball revolution”. On top of that, Kipnis’ share of flyballs that are pulled, which are the most desirable flyball types for power, increased from 15% in 2015 to 26% last season.
Despite his poor all-around season, Kipnis did manage 12 home runs in 373 plate appearances, roughly a 20-22 home run pace over a full year. It’s reasonable to think that, even if Kipnis doesn’t improve on his issues from last year, he’s a 20 home run hitter at this juncture. Combine that with his 10-15 steal floor and you have the makings of a valuable fantasy player again.
The key: health
Kipnis’ overall numbers last year were dragged down significantly by a horrible start to the season. Kipnis missed most of spring training and the first three weeks of regular season play with shoulder inflammation issues and when he returned something was clearly not right. In his first 19 games Kipnis totaled a mere two extra-base hits, both doubles, in 74 plate appearances. He only walked twice in that span, with an uncharacteristically high 27% strikeout rate. His triple slash was – get ready for this – 155 / 176 / 183. Hide the women and children!
A lot of players can be made to look really good or bad by setting arbitrary start and end points to their stat-lines. But in Kipnis’ case it’s reasonable to assume that he was suffering from some combination of rust, after missing most of spring training and the start to the season, or potentially a lingering shoulder issue. One telling sign is that Kipnis attempted only one steal in that span, which is likely a sign that Indians manager Terry Francona didn’t feel comfortable giving Kipnis the green light (then again, Kipnis was on base less than 15 times).
This is probably the most obvious statement ever, but Kipnis’ health will be key to his success. And us, as armchair fantasy analysts, have no real insights into that. But given Kipnis’ current draft position, even if he only has a 30% chance of being healthy this year, the upside is tantalizing.
An optimistic projection
I’m buying Kipnis’ spring training breakout as a sign that he’s, at least temporarily, over the injuries that plagued him last season. The shoulder inflammation has been a recurring issue going back several years, so this might always be a touch-and-go type thing with him.
But I can’t help but think about the fairly clear path to 20 homers and 10 to 15 steals that Kipnis has. And that, right there, gives him a solid floor from a fantasy perspective. His run and RBI production will be heavily tied to whether he can improve his average and on-base percentage closer to his 2016 numbers, but the days of 85-90 in each category might be gone with his place atop of the Indians’ batting order no longer sacrosanct.
Kipnis’ BABIP was an ugly 256 last year, well below his career rate of 314. While some of that drop is simply a function of hitting way more flyballs, it’s difficult for a competent MLB hitter to sustain a BABIP that low. After all, Kipnis had a 324 BABIP in 2016 when he was already halfway through his own personal flyball revolution. I think a return to the ~290 level is reasonable, which would imply a batting average in the 260s.
All told, I think a fantasy line of 80 R / 22 HR / 75 RBI / 12 SB / 265 AVG is reasonable for Kipnis, which would make him a starting-caliber second baseman in fantasy. There is also additional upside on average if his BABIP bounces back more and on runs and RBIs if he can stake a claim in the upper half of Cleveland’s batting order. Keep tabs on him for the rest of the spring, but at this juncture Kipnis is a no brainer at his current draft ranking.