More than Bad Luck Plays a Part in the Struggles of Jason Kipnis

Jason Kipnis began the 2013 season with such hope. He was coming off a nearly All-Star season; his first full season in the Majors, and Indians management and fans hoped a new star was emerging for the Tribe. Things have not gone as planned. Through the first 12 games of the Indians season, Kipnis is batting a lowly .125. Many will contribute this plunge to a tiny sample set, or bad luck, and many will say it’s too early for judgment, but there may be a reason for this awful batting average.

Kipnis’ 2012 season was nothing spectacular, but it was a decent season for a second baseman in his first full year at the Major League level. He batted .257, an average that took a huge hit (no pun intended) from an abysmal month of August. He batted just .180 in that month. If you remove August from his record, his average stands at a more respectable .271. Despite the average and the late season struggles, most experts ranked Kipnis very highly among second baseman heading into 2013. He typically stood between six and nine on such rankings. The season is very young, still too young for drastic measures to be taken, but those experts analysis now seems a bit silly. Something has gone wrong besides just bad luck for Kipnis.

Two things to look at when investigating a hitter is his ability to read balls and strikes and his ability to make contact with those pitches. This information can be gathered by looking at his zone ratings. Zone ratings measure how often a hitter sees pitches in and out of the strike zone, how often he makes contact with those pitches, and how often he swings and misses in general. Looking at Kipnis’ zone ratings yields some very interesting finds.

Kipnis is staying disciplined; he is not swinging at any more or less pitches out of the strike zone than usual. For his career he swings at 24.6% of pitches outside the zone, thus far in 2013 his percentage stands at 25.1%, not a large difference. Inside the strike zone he is also showing typical discipline, swinging at 57% of these pitches with a career mark of 56.8%.

The interesting part comes from his contact. In 2012 he made contact with 70.3% of pitches he swung at outside the zone, a very high mark for any player. In 2013 that has plummeted to 36.8%, nearly half as often as last season. The trend continues with pitches inside the zone. He made contact with strikes at a very high rate of 89.4% in 2012. That number has fallen by nearly 10% to 80.5%. Looking at the total number of times he swings and misses makes this matter even worse. Kipnis swung at misses only 6.6 percent of the time last season, in 2013 that number has sky rocketed to 13.2%. That puts him on par with some of the worst in baseball. Not quite on Matt LaPorta’s level, but not far off either. His strikeout rate is through the roof at 31.2%. This number is akin to the likes of Mark Reynolds, Adam Dunn, and Josh Hamilton. The only difference being that those other guys are capable of hitting the ball out of the park 30+ times; Kipnis has displayed no such power.

That is not the entire story. His balls in play have also taken a major hit. Last season he hit a lot of line drives. In fact, he hit a line drive 22.9% of the time he put the ball in play. That figure has dropped to 13.6%. This does not bode well for a hitter, in 2012, line drive were hits 64% of the time. That means if a hitter hit a line drive every time up he would essentially bat .640. A drop in line drives will never equal hitting success.

His ground balls have also taken a major hit. Last year a lot of Kipnis’ hits were ground ball singles. His grounders haven’t taken a big hit but according to Baseball Info Solutions, ground balls in 2012 were a hit only 24% of the time, or a .240 batting average. Relying heavily on the ground ball is also not a good way to rack up hits at the Major League level.

Fly balls have the worst rate of success of any ball in play. A fly ball was only a hit 21% of the time in 2012. Kipnis has increased the worst possible type of hit. In 2012 he hit fly balls only 30.1% of the time. That number has increased significantly in 2013 to 40.9%. He is flying out and striking out at a torrid pace. This may have something to do with the way pitchers are pitching him.

In 2012, 58.7% of the pitches thrown to Kipnis were fastballs. Thus far this season, Kipnis is only getting fastballs 46.2% of the time. He is now seeing more cutters, splitters, and curveballs than he has ever seen in his career. He posts negative career pitch values against all those pitches. A good pitch value, which measures the success a hitter has against a particular pitch, is around six or seven. In 2012, his pitch value against a fastball was 5.8, not bad, but against the cutter it was -.6.  He is even more feeble when facing a curve ball, rating out at -2.56. He may as well not even use his bat when faced with a daunting splitter, his pitch value is a depressing -4.3.

His struggles may be due to his placement in the Indians order. Three hitters tend to see more off speed pitches than players that hit near the bottom of the order or in the leadoff spot. The way he is being pitched could also be contributed to pitchers in the Majors adjusting to his abilities and pitching to his weaknesses. The answer is most likely a little bit of both. Whatever the reason, the Indians need Kipnis to pull through and turn his poor start around. With his bat in the lineup, hitting the way most people thought he would hit, the Tribe could start racking up the runs and the wins.

Photo: Jason Miller/Getty Images

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