After Rough Start, Kipnis Has Quietly Turned Things Around
Craig Gifford | On 29, Jul 2018
Around the middle of May, there were loud drum beats surrounding the Indians that it may be time for the team to move on from its two-time All-Star second baseman Jason Kipnis. Kipnis looked completely lost at the plate and was becoming something of a liability in the field.
At 31, Kip was not looking like anything close to his former self, who was once considered one of the team’s most important players. It was an image that he still carried in 2016 as a key cog to the club’s surprising World Series appearance that summer.
The veteran suffered through an injury-plagued 2017 campaign that limited him to only 90 games, but he has been healthy this entire season. However, after an 0-for-3 game at the plate on May 14, Kipnis was batting a mere .170 and his power seemed greatly diminished. He had collected only one home run and driven in just 13 to that point. He had eight doubles. In short, the Indians were not getting much production out of the second baseman early in the season.
Even then, outfield was a trouble spot, outside of Michael Brantley. The overwhelming thought among Indians fans and the media was that a Cleveland team with eyes on a third-straight American League Central Division championship would surely be pressed to make a move for a second baseman before the July 31 non-waivers trade deadline. The Tribe surely could not get over the top with such dead weight in the lineup.
To simply move on from a player who has been so impactful for an organization since 2011 would not be easy. Kipnis was one of the first players identified as a core player on the club when Terry Francona took the reins as Tribe manager back in 2013. He was one of first to sign a long-term contract that the Indians have become so famous for inking with younger players in order to buy out their first couple of free-agent eligible seasons.
Kipnis was an All-Star in 2013 and 2015. He probably could have been so in 2016, but helping to guide his long-time squad to a Fall Classic would classify as much more than a consolation prize to being something of an All-Star snub.
Indeed, Kipnis had a lot of good history with the Indians. How could they just move away from him now, in the midst of a new Golden Age of Cleveland baseball? Kip was an important part of getting the squad back to the top after very lean seasons from 2008-2012. Those latter two campaigns were ones Kipnis had to slog through as he and other young players worked to try and turn the organization back into a contender. It has finally gotten there, but would Kipnis be able to see the build to the club’s hopeful first championship since 1948 all the way to the finish?
Since mid-May, Kipnis has begun to flash glimpses of his old All-Star self. He is still nowhere near his 2015 level when he hit a career-high .303. He probably will not come close to his water-shed mark of 23 bombs two seasons ago or his 84 RBI collected in 2013. However, there also is no longer a glaring hole in the batting order when the second base spot comes up to the plate. There is also no longer a loud outcry for the Indians to move on from Kipnis. Instead, the drums are beating loudly for Cleveland to pick up one or two outfielders in time for the playoffs. Whether that is by the first deadline of Tuesday or the next one of August 31, involving waivers, the Tribe still needs help in center and right field.
Kipnis should no longer be a guy that people are longing to see replaced. He closed out the month of May strong, bumping his batting average to .199. He hit two bombs, with four doubles and nine RBI, over the final 15 games of the season’s second month.
Kip continued his renaissance in June, batting .266 for the month with four taters and 11 RBI. July has been a little rougher for the long-time Indian, however, it has been nowhere near the disaster that first month and a half was. Heading into Saturday evening’s contest in Detroit, Kipnis was hitting .230, with three homers, nine RBI, three doubles, and a triple this month. He even has showed some of his old stolen base ability with two steals. It is a small total for a guy who swiped 30-plus bags in 2012 and 2013, but that was before multiple oblique and hamstring injuries robbed him of some of the speed he had in his younger seasons.
In all, Kipnis is now batting .219 for the year. He has 10 home runs and 42 RBI. They are not great numbers, but they look a lot nicer than where he was a little over two months ago.
Kipnis is no longer one of the more indispensable players on the roster as he once was. That title now falls on the likes of Francisco Lindor, Jose Ramirez, Brantley, Corey Kluber and Trevor Bauer, just to name a handful. Kipnis, however, can still be very valuable.
Kipnis, along with Brantley and Yan Gomes are the lone holdovers among position players who played key roles in getting this good era of Tribe baseball kick started with a 2013 A.L. Wild Card appearance. They are the veterans who have guided the Tribe through all of Francona’s now six seasons at the helm in Cleveland. This year, Brantley and Gomes were All-Stars. Kipnis is finally getting to the point where he can again feel like a leader in the clubhouse. Being able to contribute more on the field in recent months can allow a guy to be more vocal with his teammates. That is something the Indians need. The vocal leader was a role Kipnis played in that magical 2016 season.
The veteran second baseman may never get back to an All-Star level. Next season could be the last of his current contract, with the Indians holding a $16.5 million team option for 2020 which seems too high an amount right now. However, Kipnis can still contribute. He can still be a steady bottom-of-the-order presence in a lineup that has been top heavy a lot of the season.
Calling for Kipnis to be removed from the everyday lineup has come, at least for now, to an end. The Indians may still try and add a second baseman before the deadline. Rather than moving to the bench, Kipnis could move to the outfield and strengthen that weakness a little bit.
As a veteran who has been through the lean years and the great ones, Kipnis can still be a very important player on an Indians club looking to win a World Series for the first time in 70 years.
Photo: Jason Miller/Getty Images