Kipnis Leading Off and On the Field

Few could argue that one of the highlights to the 2015 season for the Cleveland Indians was the comeback of second baseman Jason Kipnis.

The 2014 season, both for Kipnis and the Indians, was one of high hopes and shortcomings. While Cleveland ended that season positively in regards to its number of wins, it fell short of the postseason just one season after winning an American League Wild Card spot. For Kipnis, an early injury derailed his season and, while he came back and played through, he was not the same player that he had been in previous years and its impact both at the plate and in the field were noticeable.

A new year brought a new opportunity and Kipnis cashed in, putting together a May for the history books while making his second All-Star team and taking on a pronounced and vocal leadership role in the clubhouse.

He emerged with new responsibilities this season after a horrible April may have cost the Indians any postseason chances before the season had even reached the quarter pole. In what appeared to be a disjointed locker room, one full of veteran ball players not taking the task of captain and the younger, but softer spoken rising stars who had never worn such shoes, Kipnis laced up and helped to refocus the roster back in a more meaningful and successful direction.

Those efforts were visible several times throughout the season, whether it was during the year when he criticized the efforts and intentions of some of the players he shared a locker room with, or in his comments following Sunday’s season-ending win over Boston.

“We would rather be talking about different things right now than saving a season in the second half,” said Kipnis. “That being said, we finished strong a couple years in a row now. We’re playing well, we’re getting better. We’re close. There are a lot of reasons to be excited every single season, but we’re going to have to keep getting better and we’re going to have to keep growing.”

Kipnis, like so many fans of the Tribe, knows that it will take more than just the gradual progression of the career arcs of all players on the roster and a return to health for others in order for the Indians to move higher in the win column. Unlike so many others who predate him wearing Cleveland across his chest, he has been much more vocal about what he thinks the club needs.

“I think the front office knows that [the team is close]. We’re not far away. We’ve definitely got a good foundation here, we’ve definitely got good players and now, we could be just one piece away, one bat away, one pitcher away, and I think it’ll be important for us to go out and get it. It’s not like we’re at the tail ends of our career. We’re all entering our primes, a lot of guys, so there are going to be reasons for excitement. That’s why I just think that if it is one piece or if it is one person that we need or type of player that we need, I’m hoping we go get him.”

Not just any player can make such a statement and get away with it. Kipnis earned the privilege with his second All-Star caliber season in 2015 while juggling the pressures of staying healthy and on the field for a whole season and also becoming a figure looked up to on the roster.

For Kipnis, his evolution both on and off the field is clear.

Since joining the Major League club in 2011, the 28-year-old has had the reputation as a gritty, hard-working player and easily earned the moniker “Dirtbag” from then-manager Manny Acta. He hit seven homers in 36 games in his rookie season and played well enough in the first half of his first full season in the Bigs to merit some potential All-Star attention. By 2013, he was posting career highs in most categories and used a strong couple month stretch to punch a ticket to Target Field for his first All-Star Game while helping lead the Indians to a sniff of the postseason.

While injuries seemed to deprive him of his effectiveness in the field and with the bat last season, he showed that it was just a fluke and is giving the Indians reason to believe that the six-year, $52.5 million contract they inked with him while buying out several arbitration years was not money poorly well spent.

While operating in his new role as one of the clubhouse’s leaders, he also jumped into a role he was not initially all that comfortable with, but being a true team guy, he handled the task and relocated in the lineup for manager Terry Francona.

When Cleveland needed a spark in the lineup and was not getting any production out of the leadoff spot, Francona needed to make a change and turned to Kipnis, who was hitting in the second and third spots. His effectiveness had been hindered because the guys in front of him were not getting on base. Instead, Francona moved Kipnis to the top of the lineup with the hopes that he would be able to get on base and the guys after him in the lineup would be able to drive him home.

After a slow first week in the new role, Kipnis proved more than up for the task and he turned it into a second trip to the Midsummer’s Classic with a 51 hits in 29 May games, five better than the next closest player and good for a .429 batting average and .511 on-base percentage for the month. He went from hitting .237 in the second spot and .281 in the third spot to hitting .311 leading off, far exceeding the .180 average provided by Michael Bourn in 15 games or the .229 mark from Jose Ramirez in 20 opportunities. His 153 hits leading off in 121 trailed only Chicago’s Adam Eaton in the AL; he was 21 more hits in 30 more games played in the leadoff spot. His batting mark was just 13 points lighter than Jose Altuve’s .324 average leading off for Houston amongst regular starters at the top of the order.

He added 81 runs from the top spot, third best in the AL, and a Major League best 42 doubles.

He ended the season with a .303 batting average, .372 on-base percentage, a team-high 171 hits, and trailed only teammate Michael Brantley for the AL lead in doubles for the season with 43.

Kipnis’s game may not be best suited for the top spot in the lineup, but he provided Francona with what he needed out of a hitter at the top of the order. He got on base and he scored runs. There was a strong correlation to the fact that the Indians started winning in May when Kipnis was settled into the leadoff spot.

Where the future takes Kipnis remains to be seen, but he is locked up long term with Cleveland. He has the heart and the hustle to have the respect of those around him in the locker room. He has overcome being “too small” and “too short” and has grown up from tumultuous college experiences leading to his transfer from Kentucky to Arizona State. He endured being in the public spotlight as a multi-sport high school star and dealing with the various forms of backlash that came out of a legal issue involving his father and his one-time employer.

Now, wherever he hits in the batting order, he should help contribute to a dangerous looking top of the order for the Indians, joining with Brantley and Francisco Lindor as the table setters in the lineup.

In an offseason filled with questions about what the Indians can and will do to get better, Kipnis, who will not turn 29 until the day before Cleveland’s season opener with the Boston Red Sox, appears to be a certainty and someone the front office and coaching staff can count on, both on and off the field, for years to come.

Photo: Jason Miller/Getty Images

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