The Cleveland Indians (32-26) being in first place is sort of amazing when their injury list is considered. Michael Brantley (shoulder), Lonnie Chisenhall (wrist, forearm), Carlos Carrasco (hamstring), Roberto Perez (thumb), and Joba Chamberlain (chest) have all spent significant time on the DL. Danny Salazar is sitting out starts due to shoulder fatigue. Jose Ramirez (ankle contusion) and Yan Gomes (ball bruise) missed the Wednesday game with hopefully minor injuries. And, of course, the Indians lost Marlon Byrd (PED) last week when he was suspended for the 162 games. And, let's not forget Abraham Almonte (PED) has also been under suspension.
On Wednesday, the injury list was too severe to overcome as the Indians lost 5-0 to the Seattle Mariners to continue their struggles against the elite MLB teams outside their division. Taijuan Walker breezed through the Tribe's lineup with ease as the Indians could not support Carrasco's second solid start since returning from the DL.
It is unfair to place blame on one player for such losses, but, given that Walker is a right-handed pitcher, there was some continued disappointment in not seeing Jason Kipnis (1-for-4 Wednesday) step up in the absence of others. Last year, Kipnis was fresh off completing one of the best months in MLB history, and he spent the season dominating right-handed pitching. So far in 2016, Kipnis has continued to do better against right handers, but his numbers have dipped all-around. If the Indians are going to be able to continue to mask the players lost to injury, then they will need Kipnis to return to his All-Star and MVP-candidate self rather than the league average hitter he has been.
Fall-off on both sides of his splits
Jason Kipnis has always hit better against right-handed pitching, which is not surprising for the left-handed batter. However, his dominance reached new levels in 2015 when he hit them at a MVP-level and carried the Indians offense during their early struggles. Unfortunately, the 29 year old is back closer to his career norms in 2016, which include some early career struggles.
Despite the fall off, Kipnis is still a credible threat here and well deserving of hitting second in the lineup. And, there is also the incredible upside that he could flip a switch and start raking as he did in May of 2015 and June of 2013.
There is a reason Kipnis has famously stated that he saves up some of his off-days for Chris Sale match ups. He struggles enough against southpaws as it is, let alone the best lefty in the AL. He is a below average MLB hitter against left handers in his career, but the struggles thus far in 2016 are far more pronounced. He is barely hitting above the Mendoza Line and is not walking nor slugging enough to make up for those struggles at all. His placement near the top of the order against starting left-handed pitching right now is hurting the Indians.
Even getting back to his slightly below average MLB hitting profile would help bolster the offense.
Worries about second-half Kipnis
Sometimes the narratives about a player are proven out by the numbers. First Half Kipnis is a moniker with some truth to it. Oftentimes, the dirtbag style of Kipnis has led to some nagging injuries as the season has progressed, which has led to a decreased proficiency at the plate. But, whatever the case, the results bear out the story. Jason Kipnis has historically hit the ball much better in the first half of the MLB season.
Now, just because something historically has happened does not mean it is guaranteed for the future. Perhaps, Kipnis is flipping the script in 2016 and will save his best months of hitting for the stretch run (all the way to the World Series?). However, such possibilities do not belie the fact that the past influences the odds for future performance. So, not only has Kipnis struggled in 2016 (relative to himself), but he is struggling during what are typically his best months of baseball, which is worrisome.
Everybody wants to be a pull hitter
The What is covered above, but the table above starts to dig into the Why a bit more. Kipnis is hitting line drives at about the same rate he usually does. He has not increased his soft contact rate either. The increase in hard contact rate usually portends good things for hitters (though we need to have a discussion to include exit velocities and launch angles) and his home run rate has gone up as a result.
So, what is going on here? Well, 2016 Jason Kipnis is much more pull happy than his previous self and is putting more balls into the air. The combination has made Kipnis a much easier player to defend as infield (and outfield) shifts are much more likely to affect him than in past years.
Kipnis has always been a more dominant hitter because of his ability to drive the ball to all fields and slug doubles. Rather than worrying about hitting more home runs, it would be great to see him go back to the hitting profile that made him great. Kipnis certainly still has enough skill to roll off another one of his dominant months and even his current MLB average hitting is not hurting the Indians. It is just that he is capable of carrying the Indians offense.