While the Detroit Tigers’ decision to trade Prince Fielder to the Texas Rangers for Ian Kinsler prior to last season initially came as a shock to Tigers fans, the positive early returns on the trade seemed to provide a calming influence. As I wrote in late April 2014,
Kinsler has provided some real spark, though. Looking at the right side of this graph, you can see that, while he and Prince posted similar batting averages last season, Kinsler has kept the pace this year, but Prince has dropped off sharply with the Rangers.
While Fielder has the edge in on-base percentage, probably due to his ability to draw walks (of the intentional and unintentional varieties), Kinsler’s hitting for more power (.133 ISO vs. .121 ISO) and is posting a better wOBA— a catch-all offensive metric– than Fielder (.319 vs. .277). They also have the same number of home runs (two), with Kinsler driving in nearly twice as many runs as Fielder (14 vs. 8), while stealing three bases (to Fielder’s zero, obviously).
Less than a month later, Prince’s season would be over, a completely understandable side effect of probably overdue neck surgery.
Kinsler powered right along, though, making 726 plate appearances in a career-high 161 games. His bat seemed to cool off in the second half of 2014 (.353 wOBA vs. .276), but he still managed to finish the season tied with Miguel Cabrera for the title of most valuable Tiger, as determined by fWAR (5.1 fWAR apiece), although much of that was due to Kinsler’s defense (and Cabrera’s lack thereof).
In reviewing last year’s statistics in anticipation of this season, Kinsler’s numbers jumped off the page for one main reason: his walks had disappeared. (Statistics through May 13. Click image to enlarge.)
At four percent, Kinsler’s 2014 walk rate was roughly half his previous worst season rates. What made this look especially odd, though, is that all of his other numbers appeared to be in line with career norms.
More attentive observers noticed this tectonic shift as it was occurring. FanGraphs’ Scott Strandberg wrote in August 2014 that Kinsler “has suddenly stopped taking walks. . . . [M]uch of Kinsler’s low walk rate can be explained by the fact that he’s simply being more aggressive this year than ever before. He’s swinging at more pitches (47.4%) than ever before and, more importantly, swinging at far more pitches outside the zone than he ever has.” To what end (besides a vanishing walk rate), though? Strandberg continued:
He started the season in typical Ian Kinsler fashion, but built on that foundation each of the next two months, ending up with a red-hot June:
- April (101 PA) – .295/.327/.421, .748 OPS
- May (129 PA) – .331/.357/.488, .844 OPS
- June (115 PA) – .303/.356/.560, .916 OPS
By July 3, Kinsler’s season line had ballooned to .306/.342/.487, and he was well on his way to his most productive season since his 30/30 campaign in 2011. There’s a reason I chose July 3, though. That’s the date Kinsler hit his last home run.
Kinsler hasn’t homered in his last 177 trips to the dish. In those last six weeks, he’s hitting a woeful .234/.254/.269.
What happened? What Strandberg found was signs of waning stamina, particularly including a noticeable decrease in fly ball distance. He also found that 2014 wasn’t the first year Kinsler’s offensive production had faded down the stretch. While the effect was most severe in 2014, the trend actually began two seasons prior.
An exploration of Kinsler’s vanishing walks in 2014 thus led to two different conclusions: 1) he was more aggressive at the plate, and 2) his overall offensive production suffered as an apparent result of fatigue over the course of the season, which would turn out to be Kinsler’s most rigorous in terms of games played. Those two conclusions aren’t necessarily related, though they could be if, for example, he was swinging more in an attempt, however futile, to restore his lost power.
At first blush, 2015 looks like a return to normalcy for Kinsler. His walk rate is back up above ten percent, and his on-base percentage shows it: his current .376 mark would be his best full-season OBP in five years and his second-best overall.
Backing up Kinsler’s restored walks is a much-improved O-Swing%, the percentage of swings on pitches outside the strike zone, which makes 2014 look like an outlier, at least in terms of plate discipline, rather than a trend. (Statistics through May 14. Click to enlarge.)
What’s missing so far this year, though, is Kinsler’s power, to the tune of zero home runs and a .093 ISO through thirty-five games. This appears to be an isolated issue indeed, as the rest of his offensive line– .307 batting average, .376 on-base percentage– frankly looks great.
In addition to a strongly rebounding walk rate, some have detected a new hitting approach from Kinsler, in which he’s trading fly balls for line drives. It certainly looks that way. (Statistics through May 14. Click to enlarge.)
In fact, Kinsler’s LD% places him, along with teammate J.D. Martinez, among the top thirty line-drive hitters in baseball this season.
Because batted-ball speed is less important to the success of a line-drive hitter than it is to a fly-ball hitter, what Kinsler may be doing by shifting his batted-ball profile away from fly balls and popups and toward line drives is preempting anticipated second-half fatigue by setting himself up now as the sort of hitter whose success is impaired to a lesser degree by that fatigue.
Kinsler’s second-half declines in overall offensive production in each of the last three seasons are as undeniable as the evaporation of his walk rate in 2014. While it remains too early to speak too conclusively about his 2015 profile, especially in light of that second-half trend, it looks very much like Kinsler has taken affirmative steps to address his two recent batting weaknesses. Taking fewer swings at bad pitches has boosted his walk rate, and turning fly balls into line drives should set him up for a relatively better second half. Given the Tigers’ thin bench, Kinsler isn’t likely to get much of a workload break this year, so this tactical shift probably represents the best practical measure for keeping his bat warm for another 160-plus-game season.
While any team would miss a guy’s home runs, the Tigers happen to be fairly well-equipped in that department. What Detroit hopes Kinsler can offer now is more opportunities to move those lumbering boppers (to say nothing of their newer crop of speedsters) around the bases when they don’t get out of the yard. Oh yeah, and the kid can still play some defense too.
The Tigers undoubtedly were pleased when their new second baseman made the all-star team in his first season in Detroit, and even though he’s eschewed odd-year ASGs, they surely would like to see him make it to the Great American Ballpark for the 2015 edition. Perhaps even more important, though, will be what Kinsler does after the all-star break. At age thirty-two, has the Tigers’ senior infielder found a way to beat the grind?
[Cross-posted at FanGraphs. -Ed.]
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