Dirtbag Kipnis Trying to Play His Way to Midsummer Classic
By Mike Brandyberry
It hasn’t taken long for Jason Kipnis to shed the label of prospect and earn a different name inside the Indians organization. Beside his work at the plate, including a grand slam in Friday’s 7-1 win over the Minnesota Twins, the one-time top prospect in the Tribe organization is now “a dirtbag.”
“Being called that in the baseball world is a good thing,” Kipnis said. “It’s not a bad name to have at all. It’s about getting that uniform dirty, and it’s something that I’ve always had in the game. It’s a mentality I have and the way I like to play the game. I play hard, I get dirty, headfirst slide, stuff like that. It’s the way I was taught to play the game and I enjoy it.”
That mentality caught Indians Manager Manny Acta’s eye earlier this year. Acta called Kipnis a dirtbag after a game early in the season, and label stuck. The way Kipnis plays the game made him one of the Indians hottest players in May and one of the best on the team.
After a slow start in April, Kipnis picked up his game, hitting .295 with five home runs and 18 RBI during the month of May. His breakout month catapulted him to the top of the Tribe’s offensive statistics. With Travis Hafner’s and Carlos Santana’s injuries of late, Kipnis has assumed a larger role in the Indians’ offense, but he does not let that pressure affect his play.
“I think the guys who have come in have done a good job of taking advantage of the opportunities given to them,” Kipnis said. “Whenever I go up to the plate, whether it is the second spot or the seventh spot, if it’s in the first inning or the ninth inning, I try to take the same approach at the plate.”
While Kipnis might not feel any pressure to assume a larger role in the Tribe’s offensive production, he has done just that. Early in the season, he hit seventh in the lineup, but has settled into the second spot in the batting order. When Asdrubal Cabrera was sidelined with a sore hamstring, Kipnis hit third.
He has become a major run producer, driving the ball with more power in 2012 than he had in any other year as a professional. The most home runs he has hit as a professional, 16 in 2010 at Kinston and Akron, certainly seem to be eclipsed this season. Kipnis already has nine home runs and sees his increase in power as a product of his offseason work.
“It is something that has come naturally,” Kipnis said. “I think I’ve put in the time in the offseason where I think I’ve worked out extremely hard, where I’ve put on the muscle, tried to put on a little weight, hoping for some quicker hands. It’s a product of mechanics and squaring the ball up. What used to be doubles now are going over the wall.”
However, the greatest surprise to the dirtbag’s game is Kipnis’ resurgence as a base stealer. His 13 stolen bases currently lead the American League and are more stolen bases already than he had in any previous professional year. But it’s nothing new to him.
“I used to be a big base stealer in high school and college,” Kipnis said. “When I got here, I kind of got away from it. But now that I see how much it helps produce runs and put pressure on the defense, it is something I’m trying to put back into my game.”
Kipnis’ progression through the Tribe’s minor league system was quick, but not without work and development. The Indians drafted him as an outfielder out of Arizona State in the in the second round of the 2009 MLB Amateur Draft. After the 2009 season, the Indians and Kipnis both dedicated themselves to him becoming a second baseman. He reports to Goodyear, Arizona, in January each year to continue his improvement as an infielder, but works daily throughout the season to hone his defense.
“I try to take ground balls every single day,” Kipnis said. “When we take BP, you’ll see me out there taking ground balls. It’s not just taking them, it’s trying to get certain things done. I’ll take balls to the left, to the right, work on double plays so that I’m fresh for the game.”
His improved game and dirtbag image has not just drawn the attention of the Indians. His nine home runs, 34 runs batted in and .280 average has him in the discussion as one of the best second basemen in the American League and a potential candidate to play in Major League Baseball’s All-Star game in July.
A year ago he played in the MLB Future’s Game. If Kipnis is selected to play in the midsummer classic, he would be only the third position player in recent years to play in the Future’s Game one season and the All-Star game the next. Geovany Soto and Jason Heyward accomplished the feat in 2007/2008 and 2009/2010, respectively.
“That would be something. It is definitely a goal of mine,” Kipnis said. “Playing in an All-Star game has to be a goal. It’s an honor to represent your team. I’d like to think I have a good chance this year. I’ll have to keep it up until then but if I don’t make it, it isn’t a big deal, I’ll be trying to make it every year.”
Photo: Getty Images