Leadoff Hitter Kipnis Regaining Form at the Plate

Indians second baseman Jason Kipnis has shown in years past that a move to the leadoff spot can be a good cure for what is ailing his bat.

In a small sample size, the Indians have seen a good uptick in production from their two-time All-Star since manager Terry Francona inserted him into the leadoff spot of the batting order last Sunday.

That same lineup restructuring worked wonders for Kip in 2015 when he got off to a slow start. That year, his second season as an All-Star, Kipnis hit .311 when leading off and just .245 in other spots in the lineup. Needless to say, after a late April move, Kipnis batted leadoff most of the year thereafter.

The move up the batting order seems to be working similar magic already this year. In his first 19 games after coming off the disabled list with a spring training shoulder injury, Kipnis was hitting just .155. He had no home runs and six RBI.

Following Saturday’s contest against Houston, Kipnis had spent the last six games in the leadoff hole and was finally getting hot.  Hitting in the No. 1 spot of the batting order, the Tribe veteran was hitting 10-of-26 for a gaudy .385 average, with three bombs and eight RBI. He took to batting first in Indians batting order right away, going 4-for-5 against the Twins in his initial game leading off. He collected his first two taters and drove home four RBI. He had a hit in each of his first six affairs in which he was the first Cleveland player to take a swing.

Those dire numbers after the first 19 games after his injury are now seemingly in the review mirror. While still not his usually standard, Kip has pumped the batting average up to .216 and the power numbers are starting to climb with the three homers and now 14 RBI. He is finally ascending to totals more befitting one of the Tribe’s top players over the past six years.

It is hard to say if the move to the leadoff position is directly responsible for Kipnis’ improved production or if it was just a matter of time before his bat got going. A career .270 hitter, who last year hit .275 with 23 homers and 82 RBI, probably was not going to hit with such a minimal output all season, no matter where he hit. He likely just needed to get his timing back after missing most of spring training and then the first 15 games of the season with the ailing shoulder.

Kip had a minimal rehab assignment, playing just seven minor league games with 22 plate appearances before returning to the Tribe on April 21. The 30-year-old was basically finishing off his spring training during the regular season in Major League Baseball games. That is a tough task for anyone, including one of the team leaders of a club that went to the 2016 World Series.

That Kipnis finally got hot last week could very well have been a case of working back into game shape. However, Francona is likely to keep him at the top of the batting order. You just do not mess with a good thing. Besides, Kipnis is possibly the most traditional choice on the roster to hit leadoff.

Francona started having Carlos Santana hit leadoff last year. It was a bit of an experiment, batting a guy No. 1 who has more traditional middle of the order numbers throughout his career. The idea worked with flying colors last year. In 327 at bats as a leadoff hitter in 2016, Santana hit .260 with 19 home runs and 41 RBI. He only had five stolen bases, far less than a normal leadoff guy would have. However, his on-base percentage was .366. He worked as a leadoff guy because he got on base and set the table for the guys behind him.

Santana’s numbers have not been so hot in the leadoff position this year. In 141 at bats, he was just hitting .227 with three jacks and 18 RBI. A move back to the middle of the order, where he frequently hit from 2010-2015, could rejuvenate his bat as well. If the Indians could get two important hitters going again with one lineup switch, that would be big for the team going forward.

Kipnis is the much more traditional leadoff hitter as he is a pure threat to steal a base whenever he gets on. Santana’s career best is eleven swipes in a season. Kipnis has twice hit the 30 mark. He stole 15 last year and is at two so far this season. His career on-base percentage is .343. That is not too far off Santana’s .364 when it comes to being a table setter for the middle of the order.

Along with his work on the field, Kipnis is just as vital to the team off of it. A year ago, during Cleveland’s run to the Fall Classic, Kipnis became one of the Tribe’s vocal leaders. It is probably hard for him to take charge in a clubhouse and motivate others when he is scuffling to get himself going. Getting Kipnis righted would go a long way toward the Indians moving from toeing the .500 mark towards taking off and perhaps taking control of an A.L. Central Division that they won somewhat easily a season ago. Obviously, as Kipnis goes, the team will likely follow. If he can get life back into his game and swing, it could have a trickle-down effect to the rest of the roster. A resurgence of life for a club working to stay over .500 right now and underachieving a bit would be just what the doctor ordered.

The move to the leadoff spot may or may not have been catalyst for Kipnis starting to catch fire. However, the Indians are surely going to find out for sure. As long as he is batting first in the lineup and hitting well, he will continue to be the Tribe’s leadoff hitter. It worked once, why couldn’t it work again? Perhaps ascending to the leadoff spot could also ascend Kip to a spot in a third Mid-Summer Classic.

More importantly, the Indians are hoping he can help drive them to another memorable October. Kipnis’ bat is now recovering from what was ailing it, which can only help the health of the team going forward.

Photo: Ron Schwane/Getty Images

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