The Evolution of Jason Kipnis
Bob Toth | On 02, Aug 2015
In a few short years, Indians second baseman Jason Kipnis has advanced from a gritty, fresh faced rookie to a leader in the Cleveland clubhouse. It has been a long climb, one considered surprising by some, in a brief period of time for the player dubbed “Dirtbag” by former Tribe skipper Manny Acta for his playing style on the diamond.
It seems that the Indians’ leadoff man has seen a little bit of everything despite being in just his fifth year in the Major Leagues.
In a clubhouse that, at the beginning of the year, featured numerous players with more experience whom therefore seemed more likely candidates to step up into a leadership role, it has been Kipnis who has had his star shine this season in an otherwise disappointing effort for a Cleveland club with so much attention on it.
With former All-Stars like Nick Swisher, Michael Bourn, and Brandon Moss and MLB veterans like Ryan Raburn, Mike Aviles, and David Murphy around him, Kipnis is one of the four men publicly indicated as leaders in the clubhouse. The others, reigning Cy Young winner Corey Kluber, 2014 third-place finisher in the AL MVP balloting Michael Brantley, and lead signal caller behind the plate Yan Gomes, are easy to consider in the roles given their success on the field.
Gone was Jason Giambi, the grizzled and embattled veteran so close within reach to Kipnis in the locker room. Giambi had seen just about everything there was to see, on and off the field, in the game of baseball and was willing to pass along the experiences to others, one of many traits that should lead to him managing a team in the future. Playoffs, World Series, MVP pursuits, large free agent contracts, and an ugly performance-enhancing drug scandal were just some of the hardships Giambi took on in his 20-year career across four stops in Oakland, New York, Colorado, and Cleveland. He may have been the closest thing the game of baseball has seen to a player-coach since the days of player-managers ended with Pete Rose.
Both Kluber and Brantley, just based on interviews, present as though public speaking is not high on their respective to-do lists. Gomes is already swamped under the task of game calling and missed a chunk of time with his knee injury early in the season. In stepped Kipnis, now a two-time All-Star, to the role and unlike the other three outed as club leaders, he has taken a much more public position with the role and a vocal stance in the clubhouse.
It was a role the club desperately lacked early in the season. It makes that much more sense that Kipnis, one of several guys on the roster locked up to long-term contracts and statistically having easily the best season of his career, was the one to take on the mantle.
Not everyone is built to be a leader. A balance of personality, grit, charisma, and success at the task all factor in. Just being good at the craft does not empower a person with the characteristics necessary to lead by example, to be a vocal leader, a public representative, and a role model. Just ask Charles Barkley, whose public comments more than 20 years ago still ring true for the large section of professional athletes these days: “I’m not a role model. Just because I dunk a basketball doesn’t mean I should raise your kids.”
Kipnis can play some baseball, and now he has the respect and the ears of his comrades in the locker room and around the league as one of the game’s premier second basemen.
Kipnis is now 28 and entering the prime of his career. A former second round pick by the Indians in the 2009 MLB June Amateur Draft out of Arizona State University, he spent parts of just three seasons in the minors before getting the call to the Bigs. Within a week, he had his first hit, a game-winning walk-off single, and was thrust into a starting role when the team traded veteran infielder Orlando Cabrera to the San Francisco Giants in a deadline deal.
Kipnis has retained his job in the four and a half seasons since.
It has not been easy for Kipnis, even if he has made it look that way at times this season.
He received little attention from teams out of high school, even though he was a multi-sport athlete and a conference MVP during his senior baseball season in 2005. Few scholarship were offered as he was considered too small but, when an opportunity arose to attention the SEC’s Kentucky program, he took it. As a second baseman for the team, he was redshirted by the Blue Devils and was later let go after violating team rules.
Looking back on the experience, Kipnis later shared in a story by Melissa Isaacson of ESPNChicago.com on August 19th, 2011, “I was immature and took the wrong steps, probably body language, everything was just not the way it was supposed to be. It wasn’t anything really bad. The coaches and I didn’t see eye to eye. But looking back on it, I can’t really blame them. Skill or not, talent or not, I probably didn’t have the right attitude they wanted to see on their team.”
During the 2015 All-Star break, Kipnis revisited his time at Kentucky in a July 14th story with John Clay of the Lexington Herald-Leader. “I remember me and the coach didn’t like each other. That’s why I left. To be honest, I’d like to go back to Lexington because what happened with the coach [John Cohen] kind of left a bad taste in my mouth. Actually, I really liked Lexington.”
His issues at Kentucky overlapped legal issues faced by his father, Mark. The elder Kipnis was general counsel for the Hollinger International company that was convicted of fraud and his relationship with them led to his implication in the crime. Despite eventual exoneration, Kipnis and his family had to deal with the backlash, at home and publicly, and financial limitations that arose from it.
Kipnis nearly left baseball altogether after his experience at Kentucky, but decided against it and eventually found himself at Arizona State playing for current San Diego Padres manager Pat Murphy. He played well enough there, now as an outfielder, to garner attention in the draft and was selected by the Padres in the fourth round in 2008 after hitting .371 with 14 homers and 73 RBI, but did not sign. The Indians came calling a year later, two rounds higher, after he hit .384 with 16 homers and 71 RBI and Kipnis inked a contract, sending the young outfielder to short-season Mahoning Valley. He squeezed in 29 games there before the season’s end.
The Indians, with a need at second base and Cord Phelps as the lone realistic option in the system, moved Kipnis in from the outfield in a move that mirrored a similar decision with former Tribe farmhand Trevor Crowe. Whereas the opportunity for Crowe did not pan out, Kipnis made the transition and was able to leapfrog Phelps in the end. Phelps, despite being 70 days older and being drafted the previous year in the third round out of Stanford, made his MLB debut on June 8th, 2011, a month and a half before Kipnis would get the call. Phelps hit .196 in 19 games prior to Kipnis’s arrival while filling in for Cabrera.
Kipnis finished his rookie year strong, batting .272 with seven homers and 19 RBI in 36 games, but he stumbled out of the gate as a member of his first Opening Day roster the next year. After hitting .167 in his first dozen games in April, he bounced back by hitting .295 until the All-Star break, hitting eight home runs and driving in 41 in the span.
He may have shown some of the greenness of being a young professional athlete when he was snubbed for the 2012 All-Star Game. While walking around the clubhouse with a blue All-Star shirt on that all players were given, he was asked if he was disappointed about not being named a member of the team a day earlier. He opted not to answer in length, instead sharing, “I’m gonna leave that one alone.”
After the break and through the end of August, he hit just .201, including a .180 mark in the penultimate month of the year. He recovered in September, hitting .274 and driving in eleven runs to end the season.
Kipnis made the All-Star team in 2013, parlaying an impressive run through the months of May and June, hitting .329 from May 1st until the break, making up for a .200 average through April. After earning his first berth in the Midsummer Classic, the power numbers dwindled, but he still finished the year with a .284 average, 17 homers, and 84 RBI as the Indians went on an incredible run to reach a Wild Card play-in game.
As history recalls, the game itself was a disappointment, and the first chance for Kipnis to reach the depths of the postseason were gone. Valuable lessons learned, the team moved forward into 2014, but an early oblique injury cost the second baseman 26 games, nearly wiping out his entire month of May. Hitting .234 with three homers and 12 RBI in 27 games before the injury, Kipnis would hit just .241 with three homers and 29 in the final 102 games of his year. His power appeared tapped from the oblique and his hamstring would later affect his play on the field as well.
It was another strong dose of humility for Kipnis and for the team, who finished once again on the outside of the playoffs despite an 85-77 record and a third place finish in the AL Central.
This season has been different. Despite an early season skid that saw him hitting .218 at the end of April, he dropped in 51 hits in May while hitting .429 with a .511 on-base percentage, and added another 34 hits, a .358 average, and .441 OBP in June. With Brantley seemingly battling an undisclosed back injury, Kluber lost on the wrong side of run support, and Gomes out, Kipnis let his play do the talking on the field with a tweak to his plate approach and a new spot in the lineup.
Kipnis once considered himself a bit of a jokester and carried that silly, loose attitude with him, singing songs and even dancing on the field with Lonnie Chisenhall during a sampling of the Village People’s “Y.M.C.A.” during a game June 10th, 2014, in Texas.
Now, the chips held on the shoulders of Kipnis throughout his baseball career seem to be motivating him to be that voice in the clubhouse. After learning humility through being “too short” and “too small”, from the family struggles public and private, from All-Star snubs on the team or as a starter, to his injuries suffered last season, he has become the man in the clubhouse. He has walked the walk this season and talked the talk.
In put-up-or-shut-up moments, he has supplied big numbers consistently and has been the one guy through and through that the Indians could count on offensively this season.
Photo: Jason Miller/Getty Images