Sometimes, change is good. This particular change is the kind that could force Cleveland Indians second baseman Jason Kipnis to make different plans than some of his teammates for the All-Star break this season.
When Indians manager Terry Francona shuffled up the lineup card a few weeks ago, Kipnis was elevated into the leadoff spot more out of necessity than because he was showing steady production at the plate. It was the continued struggles of the incumbent game starter Michael Bourn that precipitated the move and forced Francona’s hand to pencil Kipnis in as the first man up nightly.
The move has paid off and continues to do so, day after day, night after night.
Is there a hotter hitter in the game right now than the “Dirtbag”?
A game-winning, two-run second-deck blast with two outs in the top of the ninth inning on Saturday night pushed the Indians to a 10-8 win in a game dominated by offense, and it was once again Kipnis at the top of the lineup setting the table.
Kipnis reached in the first on an infield single. He moved to third on a double by Michael Brantley, originally ruled a foul ball but overturned on the Francona replay challenge. David Murphy’s sacrifice fly pushed Kipnis across the plate with the game’s first run.
He was tied to scoring again in the second, when he grounded out to second but moved Jose Ramirez to third. The Indians shortstop scored as the next batter, Carlos Santana, drove him home with a sacrifice fly to left. 4-2, Cleveland. The fourth inning mirrored his prior at bat. Ramirez walked, stole second, and moved to third on a Kipnis grounder. Brantley’s sacrifice fly to left pushed the run across. 6-4, Indians.
After a strikeout in the sixth, Kipnis busted out of the box and hustled into a double in the eighth but got stranded at third base with the would-be go-ahead run. He stepped up against the Rangers closer after Ramirez tied the game at eight with two outs in the ninth and his towering drive deep into the Texas night put the Indians up for good, 10-8.
He ended the night 3-for-6 with two runs scored and two runs batted in, the ever-elusive triple short of the cycle. The impressive night at the plate pushed his season batting average to .340 and his on-base percentage to .400, but it did drop his average in the month of May to .517 and his OBP to .586. His on-base plus slugging for the month increased to a ridiculous 1.419.
The turn of the calendar page has seen Kipnis jump into the top ten in the Major Leagues and top five in the American League in batting average, trailing the .348 mark of teammate Brantley amongst just a few others.
Kipnis leads all AL hitters, regardless of the number of plate appearances, with his May average and OBP. He is tops amongst all MLB second basemen in hits, runs scored, doubles, slugging percentage, and OPS in the month. His three May home runs are just one behind Minnesota’s Brian Dozier for the most by any second baseman in all of baseball and his RBI production trails just the ten of St. Louis’ Kolten Wong by one.
“I feel good, my confidence is high right now, my swing is where I want it to be, and so is my approach,” said Kipnis after Saturday night’s roller coaster ball game. “I’m just trying to ride it as long as I can.”
The Indians go as Kipnis goes.
In the club’s 14 wins, he is hitting .475. His on-base percentage in those contests is .515. He has scored 16 runs in Indians wins and driven in 15. Ten of his 28 hits have been for extra bases, including all four of his home runs on the season. Just four of his 19 strikeouts this year have come in those 66 plate appearances.
In losses, he has hit .250 with a .320 on-base percentage, scored eight runs, and driven in just two. Fifteen of his strikeouts on the season have come in the team’s 21 losses entering play Sunday afternoon.
Kipnis has hits in 13 of the 14 games at the midway point of the month and is in the midst of an eight-game hitting streak, a season-high. It is the second time this season he has reached base safely in eight straight. He has ten multi-hit games in the month and has reached base safely at least three times in a game in each of the last seven games, a streak accomplished just one time in franchise history. Riggs Stephenson, also a second baseman, reached base three times in a game in seven straight games from August 31st through September 5th, 1924. The streak concluded an eleven-game hitting streak put together by “Old Hoss”.
Since taking over as the leadoff hitter, Kipnis is hitting .425 with nine doubles, one triple, four home runs, 13 RBI, and has scored 19 times. He has drawn eleven walks and struck out eight times.
“I don’t think it has a lot to do with moving him into the leadoff spot,” said Francona of Kipnis’s recent numbers following Saturday’s win. “We’ve seen him get hot like this before. He could have been hitting third or fourth. When he’s seeing the ball like this and using the whole field, I do think leading off it kind of gets him going early. His first inning at bats have been so good. He’s been seeing a lot of pitches in that first at bat, getting a lot of hits, getting on base, and then he’s involved in the game. As the game goes, he just gets more dangerous.”
He may have been the most logical of a limited number of internal options to fill in at the top of the lineup. He had shown flashes of being able to get on base in bunches in the past, but had not shown much prior success in the leadoff spot of the lineup card in previous years. In appearances at the top of the batting order over the last three seasons, Kipnis was 51-for-233 (.219) with a .294 OBP, 58 strikeouts, and 22 walks. He had scored a total of 34 runs in 58 games with 23 RBI.
But any sort of production from the top of the lineup was going to be an improvement over Bourn’s numbers. The Indians’ former leadoff man was hitting just .180 in the top spot with 16 strikeouts in 68 plate appearances and had scored just six runs in 15 games in the lineup there. Since settling into the seventh spot in the lineup, he is hitting 9-for-23 (.391) and has drawn five walks.
Bourn hit .258 last season and .262 in his first year with the Indians while in the lineup as the leadoff hitter. His OBP leading off was .314 in each season.
The resurgence from Kipnis in the leadoff spot is made all the more impressive because he struggled throughout April this season and was lost at the plate for the majority of 2014. He had a tough time getting going in April last year and was hitting .234 when he injured his oblique on April 29th against the Los Angeles Angels. After returning, he hit .241 the rest of the way, getting 98 hits in 102 games, including 19 doubles, one triple, and three home runs, while driving in 29. He had hit three homers and six doubles while knocking in a dozen in his first 27 games of the season prior to be shelved for a month.
This April was even worse than the season before, as he ended the month with a .218 batting average and .263 on-base percentage. Power and extra base hits in general were limited, as he had just one double, one triple, one homer, and drove in eight runs in 21 starts.
The slow Aprils have been a part of Kipnis’s career. He is a lifetime .228 hitter in the month, easily the worst month by the splits of any of the six of the baseball season. In May, however, he has played at the top of his game, hitting .326 in his career in what is hands down the most productive month of any throughout his career. Missing nearly all of May last season and the lingering effects of the oblique injury may have helped to curve his numbers negatively versus those of the rest of his career.
If Kipnis continues to trend as he has in the past, June could be another interesting month for the red-hot hitter. He is a career .308 hitter in June, including a .419 month in 2013 when he played his previous best stretch of baseball in his MLB career and used the onslaught on opposing pitchers to catapult himself into the Midsummer Classic for the first time in his career.
Kipnis is doing more than just getting the ball in play at this point. He is also seeing a high number of pitches, which helps the other eight guys in the lineup prior to their trips to the batter’s box.
He has seen 618 pitches this season, tied for the eleventh-most of any AL batter so far this year, an average of 3.75 per plate appearance. In May, he has seen 261, the seventh-most in the league, and an average of 4.08 per plate appearance. He has also seen the seventh-most pitches per trip amongst AL leadoff hitters to play at least a dozen games in the leadoff spot.
New number two hitter Santana is second in the AL with 660 pitches seen this year, an average of 4.23 per plate appearance, and has seen one more pitch than Kipnis this month (with 4.30 pitches per appearance).
The results may not be paying off just quite yet in the win column for Cleveland, but it is no fault of #22. Kipnis’s numbers do not lie – he has elevated his production to its highest level of any one time in his Major League career.
If the Indians offense has any chance of scoring enough runs to win on a nightly basis and remaining competitive and turning around the disappointing start to their 2015 campaign, they will need an igniter at the top of the lineup.
Kipnis has been just that.
Photo: Jason Miller/Getty Images