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Jason Kipnis to Hit Seventh? Why?


Cleveland Indians manager Manny Acta tipped his hand Monday in discussing his plans for the Tribe’s 2012 batting order. Though two spots are still up for grabs—the third base job could go to either Jack Hannahan or Lonnie Chisenhall, and it’s anyone’s guess who will replace Grady Sizemore in the Opening Day lineup—Acta seems to have a pretty good handle on how he’ll be filling out lineup cards this year.

The first half of the projected batting order is fairly unsurprising. Michael Brantley will bat leadoff. Asdrubal Cabrera will bat second, and Shin-Soo Choo will reclaim his No. 3 spot. They’ll be followed by Carlos Santana at cleanup and Travis Hafner batting fifth.

They’ll be followed by Jason Kipnis and Casey Kotchman—though not in that order. And I’m not sure why that is.

Let’s get this out of the way: this isn’t an issue of handedness and Acta wanting to break up the gaggle of lefties in the lineup. Both Kipnis and Kotchman are left-handed, so there’s no platoon advantage to be gained from switching them around. And neither the No. 6 nor the No. 7 spot are traditionally filled with a specific type of player—you’re not looking for a speedy on-base machine like you would in the leadoff spot or a powerful slugger like you need to hit cleanup.

The No. 6 hitter should be better than the No. 7 hitter both because he’ll have more opportunities to drive in his teammates in the heart of the order and because he’ll have more opportunities, period. The only question here should be who is the better hitter. And with all due respect to Mr. Kotchman, that isn’t really a question.

Let’s start out by looking at their numbers from last year:

It’s fairly close, but the edge goes to Kipnis—his big advantage in power overshadows Kotchman’s superior on-base ability. But Kipnis’ lead is much greater than these context-less numbers suggest.

Kotchman’s advantage in counting stats is just the result of having had more chance to compile stats. Kipnis played just 36 MLB games last year; Kotchman appeared in 146. At his pace, if Kipnis had had as many plate appearances as Kotchman, he would have hit 26 home runs with 71 RBI, 90 runs scored, and 19 stolen bases. In other words: way better than Kotchman.

Beyond that, Kotchman’s success was almost entirely based on his .335 BABIP; given that his career hit rate is just .280 and he had a meager .229 BABIP in 2010, it’s safe to say his inflated hit rate was largely due to luck. Not to mention that Kipnis, who is not yet 25 and barely lost his rookie eligibility last year, has far more room for growth than Kotchman, who just turned 29 and first appeared in the majors in 2004.

What say the 2012 projections? Let’s start with Bill James: (OPS+ calculated with 2011 park-adjusted numbers; all projections courtesy of FanGraphs)

James sees both Kipnis and Kotchman regressing somewhat in 2012, but Kipnis still comes out looking far better. His slugging advantage here is less than it was in 2011, but 55 points is nothing to sneeze at and Kotchman’s on-base advantage essentially melts away.

On to RotoChamp:

RotoChamp is more conservative for both players (as is their projections’ want), but the trend is the same: Kipnis is 10 points behind Kotchman in on-base percentage, but he’s got almost 50 points on Kotchman in slugging, plus huge leads in all the counting stats.

ZIPS is more favorable to Kotchman:

Kotchman has the upper hand in OPS+ here, but it’s quite close and Kipnis still has the edge in every counting stat. It should also be noted that the Kotchman projection is the most optimistic I’ve seen, while Kipnis’ is the most pessimistic; Kotchman at his best may beat Kipnis at his worst, but that’s not a serious strike against Kipnis.

If we take the average of the three projection systems, we get:

I think this understates Kipnis’ advantage—I’m pretty bullish on him, so I’d put more weight on James’ projections than the others—but even so, this shows that Kipnis is clearly better than Kotchman. It’s not a huge difference, and if it were a question of handedness or a specialty of the lineup spot it’s close enough that I could see hitting Kotchman over Kipnis. But in this scenario I’m not sure why you’d hit Kipnis behind Kotchman.

It’s not a huge difference, and it’s definitely not the most questionable lineup decision Acta’s made—Orlando Cabrera hit in the top two-thirds of the order in 86 percent of his starts while he was OPSing .598. But even though nothing’s set in stone yet, I’m not sure what the possible rationale is for planning to hit Kipnis behind Kotchman.

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