For many years, the Indians offense has been linked to what Jason Kipnis could provide the lineup with his bat in his work near the top of the batting order. In recent years, the team has had to look elsewhere for that production as the popular second baseman has not provided the All-Star level numbers that he did during some of his early years in a Cleveland uniform.
That has all changed this season after a slow start to his 2019 campaign. Now, like fellow infielder Jose Ramirez, Kipnis’ bat has come alive and has stayed that way as the team has surged its way back up towards the top of the American League Central Division.
Kipnis is an important piece of the lineup and his resurgence at the plate has coincided with the Indians’ improved results in the standings. He quietly ranks third on the club in runs batted in as he has capitalized on opportunities to hit with men on base in front of him, namely Francisco Lindor, Oscar Mercado, and Carlos Santana, a trio of hitters who have set the table nicely for him for much of the year.
Heading into Wednesday’s doubleheader with the Texas Rangers, Kipnis was riding a six-game hitting streak, hitting .391 over 24 plate appearances with two doubles, three homers, and nine runs batted in. It is hardly the first stretch of better play from the veteran second baseman, as he put together a seven-game streak in the middle of June and then hit in eight straight games in the days following the All-Star break.
After a stint on the injured list to open the year, Kipnis has put together steadily improving numbers at the plate as he has made a positive impact on the club. While his name has been scattered across six different spots on the lineup card, the ninth-year fan favorite has primarily hit out of the cleanup spot (an unusual role for a previously inconsistent hitter, to be sure). With a lineup devoid of a true four-hitter (outside of maybe Santana and the then-slumping Ramirez) until the trade deadline acquisitions of Yasiel Puig and Franmil Reyes, Kipnis was plugged into that role due in large part to his success hitting with men on base. Initially, the numbers poured in slowly as he slashed .200/.280/.222 in 12 April dates, but those efforts improved to .243/.302/.383 in 27 May contests with an encouraging nine doubles and two homers out of 26 hits for the month. He appeared to come alive in June, posting a .273/.309/.455 mark with two doubles, four homers, and a season-high 18 runs driven in over 24 games, and he maintained that offensive prowess with three more homers and 15 RBI in 22 July games (with a drop in his average to .256 but a jump in his on-base percentage to .344).
Through his first 90 games, Kipnis owns a .255/.317/.405 line with 16 doubles, one triple, 11 homers, and 51 RBI. His numbers have been strong in key clutch times, as he has hit .303 with 46 RBI in 172 plate appearances with men on base and .308 with 45 RBI in 99 plate appearances with runners in scoring position. These numbers included a healthy .293 effort with 20 RBI in 50 plate appearances when hitting with two outs and runners in scoring position.
Kipnis as recently as last October was a man without a dedicated position. During a season in which he put up a .230/.315/.389 slash over 147 games, he lost his infield job late in the season as the Indians looked to bolster the offense by adding Josh Donaldson at third base and sliding Ramirez over to second. The move forced Kipnis into center field for the second straight year and came because of his underproduction at the plate, but a desperate need in the outfield for anyone that could contribute. Otherwise, he may have been relegated to bench duties.
The 32-year-old is a two-time All-Star (2013, 2015), but had not looked that part since 2016 when he hit a career-high 23 homers while adding 41 doubles and 82 RBI (both second-best marks in his career) with a respectable .275/.343/.469 slash. He was limited to just 90 games in 2017 (.232/.291/.414 with 25 doubles, 12 homers, and 35 RBI) as a right shoulder injury early and a pair of right hamstring strains later in the year tapped into his time on the lineup card. He was healthy for 2018, appearing in 147 games, but the offense came in bursts. He posted a .230/.315/.389 slash, but he did provide 18 homers and 75 RBI while stepping up his walk production.
For years, the adage was that the Indians lineup went as Kipnis did at the plate. That may not have been the case over the last couple of seasons, but with a steady flow of bodies on the base paths in front of him now, Kipnis has returned to that old form and at the perfect time with the Indians desperate for production at the plate after offseason purges of Michael Brantley, Edwin Encarnacion, and Yan Gomes.
The better efforts from Kipnis may not get his expensive $16.5 million option picked up by the Indians for 2020 (cutting him loose from that pact will cost the Tribe $2.5 million for his buyout), but it could keep his name on the radar for teams looking for a buy-low player looking to show his midseason revival is no fluke. He could even return to Cleveland on a more team-friendly deal to continue to rebuild his value (after banking more than $50 million from the club over his nine seasons in town) while keeping the seat warm if the organization is not ready to throw the keys to second base to recent pickup Christian Arroyo, minor league infielder Yu Chang, Ramirez (with someone else sliding into his role again at third base), or another option yet to be determined.
With less concern about the future and more on the present, the Indians are benefiting from Kipnis’ clubhouse leadership on and off the field and can once again enjoy the perks that he brings to the plate on a daily basis.
Photo: Joe Robbins/Getty Images