Why Jason Kipnis Will Be a Superstar


For anyone who hasn’t been paying close enough attention, Jason Kipnis is having a great 2012 season. He’s murdering the baseball and has stuffed the stat sheet in a manner that has made Indians fans and fantasy baseball enthusiasts drool. What makes Kipnis’ 2012 season so impressive is that all of this success has come during his first full year in the major leagues. After an impressive 36-game debut last season, Kipnis gave us a reason to believe the future of second base in Cleveland was in good hands. He hit for power with a decent average, and his defense steadily improved each and every game.

Now it appears Kipnis may be headed for his first All-Star appearance. One could argue he should be starting for the American League, but given the nature of fan voting he’ll more than likely have to settle for a reserve role. If Ron Washington chooses to overlook Kipnis, that will be the travesty to end all travesties. I’d even go as far as to call it a travashamochary.

However, the success Kipnis has had so far in his 95-game career made me curious as to how he compares with some of the best second basemen in the game today. So I decided to do my own comparison. First, I had to make the executive decision of which players are considered the best second basemen in the game today. I was able to settle on six players, three from each league, who most teams fans would love to have playing for them. They were, in no particular order: Dustin Pedroia, Brandon Philips, Chase Utley, Robinson Cano, Ian Kinsler, and Dan Uggla. Here’s what I uncovered:

A few things jump out. First, you can see that you can’t accurately project a player based off the first 95 games of their career. If that were the case, Philips would probably be a utility player and Uggla the most decorated player on this list, both of which are laughable. Second, role plays a huge part in these numbers—Kipnis, Cano, Kinsler and Uggla were thrust into primary starting roles from the start, while Utley, Pedroia, and Philips had more limited roles in their first 95 games.

But, most importantly, Kipnis has blown the competition out of the water. According to Baseball-Reference, Kipnis has been worth 3.3 wins above replacement for the first 95 games of his career, by far the highest on this list. Statistically, Kipnis most closely resembles Dan Uggla; both displayed an unusual amount of power in their first 95 games (17 homers for Kipnis, 15 for Uggla) and they’re basically the same in both runs and RBI.

In terms of rate stats, Kipnis is on par with or better than the competition, and one would expect these numbers to only improve as Kipnis gets a better feel for how pitchers are trying to get him out. The extra dimension in Kipnis’ game is his speed. In his first 95 games he’s stolen 20 bases. The next closest on this list is Kinsler, who swiped nine bags in his first 95 games—and he’s widely considered one of the better basestealing threats in the game today.

Then again, consider Uggla. He leads this list with a .297 batting average, but through the better part of seven seasons his career slash line is .259/.345/.480. Given his added focus on hitting home runs, Uggla’s average has never been higher than .287 and he regularly strikes out 150 times a season. Can Kipnis avoid falling in love with the long ball and continue to be a well-rounded hitter? Only time will tell.

Going a step further, how would the season for which Kipnis is on pace compare to the best seasons of the other six?

Looking at WAR alone, Kipnis’ ranks only ahead of Philips and Uggla on this list, although you could argue they had seasons that were just as good if not better than Kipnis from a traditionalist point of view. As for the others: Pedroia won the MVP in 2008 for the Red Sox, Cano finished third in the AL MVP voting and won the Silver Slugger and Gold Glove awards for second base in 2010, and Kinsler posted his second 30/30 season and helped lead the Rangers within one win of the World Series crown in 2011. Then there’s Utley, who averaged 7.7 bWAR a season from 2005-9—the fact that he didn’t win an NL MVP in that span seems like a crime.

But remember that we are comparing what Kipnis is on pace to do in his first full year to what the best second basemen in the game have done in their primes. Kipnis is only 25 years old and he has fewer than 100 MLB games under his belt. That he is even in the same league as these star infielders at their best is a true testament to his extraordinary talent.

Plus, one could argue that Kipnis’ numbers are lower than we should expect going forward because of few doubles Kipnis has hit so far in 2012. His six doubles in 59 games put two-baggers on pace to account for to just 16 of his 47 projected extra-base hits. Considering he hit nine in 36 games in 2011, that number could and should finish somewhere in the upper 20’s, boosting both his slugging and OPS substantially. If that happens, his WAR would also increase, so stay tuned.

So where does Kipnis stand in the grand scheme of things? Who does he best compare to at this extremely early point in his career? It’s hard to say given the sample size. You could make a case that Kipnis compares favorably to any of them. He has the speed of Philips and Kinsler, the RBI and home run prowess of Uggla, Cano, and Utley, and the all-out hustle of Pedroia. Right now it looks like Jason Kipnis is going to be the very first Jason Kipnis, an excellent combination of all of the aforementioned players.

Time will only tell which direction he goes, but so far it appears that what we’ve been thinking is true: The Indians have something special in Jason Kipnis. But how special? How does he rank in terms of the two most special talents the Indians have had at second base in recent memory, Carlos Baerga and Roberto Alomar?

When looking at these numbers, it’s important to remember that both Baerga and Alomar came up in a different era. Both made their major league debuts 20-plus years ago. Still, the results are startling. In his first 95 games, Baerga posted numbers far below what we would later come to expect from him during his tenure with the Indians. In a limited role (283 plate appearances) he was worth just 0.6 WAR. Looking at a more comparable number of plate appearances (338), his WAR for 1990 rose to 0.8. For Baerga, it was all a matter of consistency—once he was given the everyday job at second, that’s when his career took off—but the fact remains that Kipnis blows Baerga’s rookie numbers out of the water.

As for Alomar, from the time he debuted for the San Diego Padres you knew he was special. In his first 95 games, he posted a WAR of 1.6 and by the end of his rookie campaign he would finish with a bWAR of 4.1. That doesn’t mean Kipnis will end up to be better than Alomar, but again the comparison works in his favor.

In fact, looking at Baerga and Alomar’s best years in relation to Kipnis’ projected 2012 numbers, it already appears that Kipnis his way to inserting himself into the conversation as one of the best second basemen to ever wear an Indians uniform:

If Kipnis can keep doing what he’s been doing, he would compare quite nicely to Carlos Baerga. Both hit for a decent amount of power with serious RBI potential at the top of the order. Kipnis’ batting average isn’t at the level Baerga’s was during his monstrous 1993 season, but again, there’s no reason to think he can’t improve the older he gets. As For Alomar, he’s in a league of his own. He’s in the Hall of Fame just as much for his glove as he is for his bat. In 1999, Alomar had one of the greatest offensive seasons ever for a second baseman while continuing to be a vacuum in the field.  He was an all-around great baseball player and a true once-in-a-lifetime talent.

So is Jason Kipnis the next big thing at second base? Truth be told, it could go either way. It’s certainly too early to predict where Kipnis’ career will end up three, five, or 10 years from now. All we can do is sit back and appreciate what he’s doing for as long as he’s going to do it. He’s a fun player to watch with an old school approach and work ethic.

This could be a flash in the pan year that he will never come close to repeating, but it could also be the start of some very big things for Jason Kipnis and the Cleveland Indians. Just take a look at what he was able to do Sunday in St. Louis with a game-winning three-run home run. It’s not the first time Kipnis has won a game in the late innings for the Indians and it doesn’t seem like it will be the last. No matter where you think he’ll end up when his career is said and done, we should all enjoy the ride he is taking us on for however long it’s going to last.