Kipnis Excels With Tribe, Raises Expectations For Himself And Team In 2012
By Mike Brandyberry
Every budding prospect thinks about the day he makes the big leagues and achieves that first major league base hit. For the Indians’ Jason Kipnis, his first major league single couldn’t have come at a better time.
“I just told myself on deck, what better time than now would it be to get a hit. It would make up for everything,” said Kipnis, who started slowly once being promoted from AAA-Columbus. “It was also my first at-bat versus a lefty up there. So far, all I had seen were Gavin Floyd and Dan Haren, two guys that live by throwing cutters in, something you don’t see too much in the minors, so a lefty was actually a break for me.”
With no right-handed hitters available on the bench, Kipnis dug in against the Los Angeles Angels’ Hisanori Takahashi with two out in the bottom of the ninth inning and the winning run on third base. Kipnis jumped on a 1-0 fastball and laced it through the right side of the infield, scoring Carlos Santana, earning his first MLB base hit and giving the Tribe a walk-off victory.
“I tried to stay as confident as I could for that at-bat. I was called up during a slump in AAA, and I was off to a slow start and still trying to break the ice,” Kipnis said.
Kipnis broke the ice with the Indians on that late July evening, but he had been a part of their future for quite some time. He was a second round selection from Arizona State University in the 2009 MLB draft by the Indians. Kipnis attributes his climb to the big leagues in part to his time at ASU.
“It’s one of the best baseball schools in the country for a reason,” Kipnis said. “They prepare you well for the MLB life by maturing you both on and off the field. Being in that kind of environment with the other great players there forces you to take your game to new levels.”
The other players at ASU might have pushed Kipnis, but he exceeded many of their levels. He was named to the Sun Devils’ All-Decade team at the end of 2010.
The most surprising part for Indians fans might be that Kipnis was named to the All-Decade team as the Sun Devils’ centerfielder. After signing his professional contract, he went to Mahoning Valley in 2009 and played left and center field. After the season, the organization moved him to second base.
“I heard they were thinking about it after the draft, but no one had said anything to me,” Kipnis said. “Finally, at Instructional League, they wanted me to take a bucket of ground balls just to see if it was a possibility at all. They liked what they saw and thought there was something there, so I haven’t seen my outfield glove since that day. They just told me that they thought if I could make the switch, I would give them and myself the most value.”
A position change from the outfield to the infield is very unique; a move to a middle infield position, where defensive responsibility is at its height, is beyond rare. Since the decision has been made to move Kipnis to second base, he and Tribe have been dedicated to his development as a defender. For the last two winters Kipnis has reported to Goodyear, Ariz., a month early and works one-on-one with a coach taking ground balls and working on double play mechanics. He plans to leave for Goodyear at the end of this week to begin his work.
With his new position in hand, Kipnis split his 2010 season between A-Kinston and AA-Akron. Offensively, he thrived at each level, hitting above .300 for both teams and a total of 16 home runs. After 2010, he became one of the Indians’ top prospects and Baseball America ranked as the No. 54 overall minor leaguer. The original plan was for Kipnis to spend all of 2011 at AAA-Columbus, where he would mature and grow offensively, especially as a defender.
Last season at Columbus, Kipnis became one of the offensive cornerstones of the Clippers’ offense for the first half of the season. Prior to his promotion to Cleveland, he hit .280, with 12 home runs and 55 runs batted in. He was named a starter for the International League in the AAA All-Star Game and was selected to play in the MLB Future’s Game, a very prestigious honor.
“It was awesome to be a part of the Future’s Game,” Kipnis said. “I’ve always wanted to play in something like that and was very fortunate that I got to do so when it was in Arizona near ASU. It was pretty cool to perform well in that game.” He hit a first inning home run that helped the United States team defeat the International squad, 6-4.
Meanwhile, the Indians found themselves in a July pennant race with the Detroit Tigers and a struggling offense. Despite rumors, the organization never spoke with Kipnis about a change from the original plan. “I honestly didn’t know or could tell if that plan had changed. I saw other guys going up so I figured that was going to be the deal,” Kipnis said. “There were times that I would get a little frustrated, but only because you get so eager to get up there when you’re that close.”
The Indians elected to promote both Cord Phelps and Luis Valbuena earlier in the season, giving them chances to fill a role similar to what Kipnis could provide the Tribe. “I was happy for them,” Kipnis said. “They are good friends of mine, and it wasn’t like they didn’t deserve to get the opportunity. Both guys were crushing it in Columbus.”
Finally, on July 22, Kipnis was promoted from Columbus to Cleveland where he would initially platoon with veteran Orlando Cabrera. After a slow start, his first major league base hit began to jumpstart his offense. On July 30, Cabrera was dealt to the San Francisco Giants and the message was clear that Kipnis would be the Indians’ second baseman heading down the stretch of the pennant race in August and September.
Kipnis asserted himself to the No. 2 spot in the batting order and hit a home run in four consecutive games, the final three in Fenway Park against the Boston Red Sox. He was also five-for-five against the Tigers on Aug. 10, cutting the Indians deficit to only two games in the standings. However, shortly after that offensive run, Kipnis suffered an oblique injury. After trying to play through it for a couple games, Kipnis had to be optioned to the disabled list.
“I’m not gonna lie, I was crushed,” Kipnis said. “I was starting to get into a little groove at the plate and my confidence was rising. It hurt not traveling to Detroit with the team almost as much as the injuries themselves did. When you just got called up, and are playing well, you never want it to end. I wanted to be playing a game every single day.”
After not being able to play in a three-game series in Chicago, with his friends and family in the stands, Kipnis was optioned to the disabled list on Aug. 19. The Tribe left him at home as they travelled to Detroit, which swept them in three games. When the team left Detroit, it had slipped to four and a half games back in the standings. The Tigers continued to pull away and eventually won the Central Division by 15 games.
Kipnis returned on Sept. 6, with the Indians fading, but finished a good season for himself. With the Tribe, Kipnis hit .272, with seven home runs and 19 runs batted in, hitting mostly in the second spot of the batting order. He also became a fan favorite. Fans have gravitated to the young star, even wearing shirts stating, “We Are All Kipnises.” His play, playful attitude and interaction with fans have attracted attention from fans, men and women alike.
“It’s always nice to be appreciated for your play on the field. I like to play the game with a lot of effort and enthusiasm,” Kipnis said. “I have a passion for this game and it’s exciting to be playing in front of so many people, so the occasional yell or fist pump might slip out. As for the ladies, I enjoy romance novels, moonlit walks on the beach, French Indie films and I have a very close relationship with my mother.”
As he returns to Goodyear this week, he will not have to fight to progress through the minor league system, but the pressure to succeed still remains.
“They don’t just hand out starting major league spots these days, so it’s something I’m looking to go in there and earn,” Kipnis said. “Guys like Jason Donald and Cord Phelps are competitors. They don’t want to be role players. They want to be in there every day, and that’s what I think makes them and myself better; the competition. They say it’s hard to get there, but even harder to stay there. So if it’s my spot, that just means I have people coming for it and I need to make the adjustment and take my game to a new level.”
While Kipnis looks to take his game to the next level, he doesn’t have specific goals for himself, just a new level for himself and his team in 2012.
“Playoffs. Simple as that,” Kipnis said. “We got close this past year, but I think no one on this team was satisfied with the end result. You could say we were too young or had injuries, but we got a lot of guys who can step in and fill the spots. So this year, I think everyone’s mindset is on the playoffs. And not just getting there, but making some noise when we do get there.”
Kipnis has thrived at every level of his baseball career, battled through positional changes and injury setbacks. Hopefully, his progression and confidence continues to grow, along with his young teammates, all the way to their goal of making noise in October.
Photo: Jason Miller/Getty Images