On August 31, the Indians acquired one-time MVP third baseman Josh Donaldson from the Toronto Blue Jays as Cleveland was wrapping up a 3-0 win over the Tampa Bay Rays. The next day, one of the key players displaced by the move, Jason Kipnis, pinch-hit in the ninth inning and in dramatic fashion hit a solo home run in his first at bat as a man being forced out of his regular job.
It marked one of several special moments for one of the longer tenured members of the Tribe and a player who at times has been referred to as a leader in the clubhouse and one of the beating hearts of the Indians. Rumored to be a candidate for relocation in the offseason when Cleveland could have gone with Jose Ramirez at second base and Yandy Diaz or Gio Urshela at third, Kipnis remained in town for his eighth season with the Tribe, to the chagrin of some and the delight of others.
Now heading into the playoffs for the third straight season and the fourth time in the Terry Francona era in Cleveland, the Indians will need all of the production that they can get from Kipnis to combat the threats on the American League side of the postseason picture. The pitching staffs of the other two division winners – the Boston Red Sox and the Houston Astros – are both heavily touted and accomplished, and both Wild Card clubs – the New York Yankees and Oakland Athletics – have weapons on the mound as well.
The struggles regarding Kipnis have been discussed frequently throughout the year, especially by those referencing the lack of offseason activity by the club and his costly $13.5 million salary for 2018. The second-baseman-turned-center-fielder (for the second time now in three years) was hitting a paltry .227 at the time of the Donaldson acquisition with 24 doubles, 13 homers, and 56 RBI in a tough year. His job at second base was lost, but improving play at the plate in August was going to allow Kipnis a chance to become the team’s center fielder for the postseason once again.
With the season’s starting center fielder Bradley Zimmer done for the year after a demotion and surgery and a pair of other outfielders (Lonnie Chisenhall and Tyler Naquin) on the shelf with injuries of their own, the cupboard was thin for Cleveland in the pastures. All-Star Michael Brantley was locked in out in left field, but other players in the mix (Melky Cabrera, Greg Allen, Rajai Davis, and Brandon Guyer) each had knocks about various elements of their game.
Kipnis may have found his way in August in a Missouri hotel room during a road visit with the Kansas City Royals. Using a rolled up magazine, he watched video of his plate appearances from the 2016 season trying to replicate his hand placement. Incidentally, Kipnis’ numbers perked up in August, prior to the Donaldson trade, and were followed by a season-high five homers, 19 RBI, a .494 slugging percentage, and an .812 OPS in September. His 19 driven in were the tops on the club and sixth overall in the American League for the month, all while doing so in fewer AB’s than anyone else with him at the top of that leaderboard.
The move to center did not hurt the 31-year-old converted second sacker. In his 14 games in the lineup as an outfielder, Kipnis hit .261 with a .522 slugging mark, hitting three doubles and three homers to account for half of his hits while driving in eleven runs.
Last season, the blame for Kipnis’ down numbers could have easily been placed on his three stints on the disabled list. This season, however, he has been healthy and on the roster for the year.
While many will eye Kipnis’ lower-than-desired season batting average of .230 as proof of his woes at the plate and will hold his early season underproduction against him, the rest of his numbers did pull closer to his 162-game averages. His 18 homers and 75 RBI were right on pace with his previous career 162-game average of 17 and 74 and would have been another notch higher with 15 more games under his belt. Moving Kipnis out of the second spot in the batting order gave the lineup as a whole a boost, as he was able to be productive at the bottom of the order while not slowing down the guys at the top of the lineup, where the team received a jolt from the trio of All-Stars in Francisco Lindor, Brantley, and Ramirez, who set the table for Edwin Encarnacion and the middle of the lineup. Hitting in the two-hole, Kipnis slashed just .181/.259/.282 with nine doubles, two homers, and 16 RBI in 36 games. The lower in the order that he hit, the better that he fared, putting up a .216/.339/.412 mark in the six-spot, a .245/.324/.397 line batting seventh, and a .316/.355/.579 slash in a smaller sample size when eighth on the lineup card.
With Kipnis, much of his success at the plate in 2018 came with patience, but every now and then some aggressiveness paid dividends. He hit .364 when ahead in the count 2-1 and .533 in a 3-1 count. But on the first pitch, he hit at a .419 clip. When the moment called for it, he was also reliable in the clutch, hitting .304 with 24 RBI in 65 plate appearances with two down and runners in scoring position (compared to .283 with 34 RBI in 74 trips with zero or one out and runners at second and/or third).
In a roller coaster season of turmoil for Kipnis, there were also milestones. He scored his 500th career run on May 29th at home against the Chicago White Sox. His 100th career homer on August 26th came in unusual fashion as he hit his second career inside-the-park homer in order to reach the century mark, ironically doing so for the second time against the Royals at Kansas City’s Kauffman Stadium at the expense of Alex Gordon for a second time. It capped a four-hit, four-RBI day at the plate the day after his late night magazine session. Kipnis’s 1,000th career hit came on September 19th in dramatic fashion, as he blasted a no-doubt walk-off grand slam in the bottom of the ninth inning at Progressive Field to give the Indians a 4-1 win over the White Sox.
“Going into the ninth inning, I thought, ‘Wouldn’t this be a way to get the 1,000th?’” Kipnis shared following his memorable milestone. “As it turned out, I got closer and closer to the on-deck circle and home plate. The thought would keep creeping into my head and actually gave me a little more confidence. I was like, ‘It’s meant to be.’”
Game #162 of the season also marked the 1,000th game of his career.
With the American League Division Series kicking off on Friday, Kipnis will have to overcome a big Game 1 obstacle in Houston’s Justin Verlander, who has owned the eight-year man throughout his career. Kipnis has hit just .123 (7-for-57) against the longtime Tiger with 16 strikeouts in 68 total plate appearances. He has shown better results against Gerrit Cole (.286; 2-for-7) and surprising results against southpaw Dallas Keuchel (.292; 7-for-24), who is scheduled to toss in Game 3 in Cleveland.
Aiding his cause, Kipnis has had some big performances in his postseason career, including homers in all three rounds of the 2016 playoffs, a .364 average in that season’s sweep of Boston in the ALDS, and a .290 mark against the Chicago Cubs in the World Series.
The Indians need the kind of production that Kipnis can bring to the table, especially with some offense lacking in the second half from the MVP candidate Ramirez in the heart of the order. While the defensive side and the running game both presumably take hits with Kipnis in center and Allen off of the bench, he has a more proven track record with the stick, and it all comes as a means to get the dangerous bat of Donaldson into the lineup and on the field at third base. When Kipnis’ bat is working to his advantage, he gives the lineup better balance and a run producer at the bottom of the order.
Cleveland will need those kinds of contributions, like those provided throughout much of the second half of the season, to thrive against the dangerous Astros and their tough pitching staff. The ‘Dirtbag’ has shown himself to be a driving force in the past, and the Indians will need that from one of their lightest offense-producing positions on the field to ensure a longer run through the postseason than that of a season ago.
Photo: Ed Zurga/Getty Images