Jason Kipnis Catches Fire in May (Hot Streak Breakdown)


May 19, 2015; Chicago, IL, USA; Cleveland Indians second baseman Jason Kipnis (22) hits a single against the Chicago White Sox during the fifth inning at U.S Cellular Field. Mandatory Credit: Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

It’s always fun to watch a batter tear the cover off the ball for weeks at a time, or watch a pitcher mow down lineup after lineup over a bunch of starts.  But amidst the hype, sometimes the best numbers get lost.  In this segment, we’ll attempt to analyze what exactly is behind a player’s hot streak, along with a few impressive statistics you may not have noticed.

Player:  Jason Kipnis

May 22, 2015; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Indians second baseman Jason Kipnis (22) hits an RBI single during the seventh inning against the Cincinnati Reds at Progressive Field. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Breakdown Time Frame:  May 1st through May 25th, 2015

Performance:  113 Plate Appearances, 42 hits, 67 total bases, three home runs, three stolen bases, 13 walks, 13 runs batted in, 25 runs scored.

Nerdy Stats:  If Kipnis continues at this pace for the final week of the month, he’d become the first Indian to bat at least .447 while slugging at least .713 for a full calendar month since Earl Averill all the way back in July of 1936 (minimum 100 plate appearances).  The only other Indian to do it was Tris Speaker in July of 1923.  Neither of those players added three stolen bases to their performance.

Even if Kipnis comes back down to earth a bit, a .400/.475/.650 batting line for the month is a realistic achievement at this point.  The last Indian to put up at least those numbers for a full calendar month (besides Jason Kipnis himself back in 2013) was Jim Thome with a .407/.538/.813 line back in August of 1996 (minimum 100 PA).  Before that, Albert Belle batted .416/.587/.809 in May of 1994.  In order to find another month like that in Indians history, we’d have to travel all the way back to Averill in 1936.  Simply put, Kipnis is in good company.

Kipnis is the first Cleveland Indian to score at least 25 runs while stealing at least three bases in a single month since Grady Sizemore back in September of 2006.

Beneath the Surface:  The most obvious thing that stands out about the current Kipnis firestorm is his clearly unsustainable .500 BABIP.  However, he managed to have a BABIP of exactly .500 during his June tear back in 2013, so it seems fair to say that there’s some other factor in play in addition to good luck.  He isn’t striking out a lot, which helps.  In fact, he’s lowered his strikeout rate to 11.5% compared to 13.7% in April, and he’s walked as many times as he’s struck out in May.  Striking out less means he’s putting the ball in play more, so that helps to at least partially explain the swollen batting line.  But it doesn’t explain the enormous BABIP and power inflation.  Compared to April, his May BABIP is nearly double and his isolated power (ISO) has nearly quadrupled.

We know that better contact generally correlates directly with a higher BABIP.  Looking closely at Kipnis’ batted ball types, we can see that he’s increased his line drive rate to a whopping 33.3%.  In April it was 21.3%, and he averaged 22.6% for all of 2014.  So he’s been squaring up the bat on the ball a lot better.  That’s also evident in the hardness of his contact.  Based on batted ball velocity, fangraphs.com sorts batted balls into soft, medium and hard contact.  Kipnis’ soft contact rate has hovered around 10.5% all year, but since the calendar flipped to May he’s turned a lot of medium contact into hard contact.  In April, his medium contact rate was 68.4%, while his hard contact rate sat at 21.1%.  In May, his medium contact rate currently sits at 56.6%, while his hard contact rate has jumped to 32.5%.

So we can at least partially explain the giant swell in Kipnis’ BABIP through the type of batted ball contact he’s induced.  But why has his contact improved so greatly in the first place?  One thing to take note of is Kipnis’ performance against fastballs.  Fangraphs has pitch type linear weight statistics which are used to judge how many runs above average a player has contributed against a certain pitch.  If we dig into that mess of nerdiness, we can see that Kipnis has made ridiculous improvements at hitting fastballs.  In 2014, per 100 pitches, Kipnis contributed .02 runs BELOW average against fastballs (-0.02 fWB/C).  In April of 2015, he had a -0.13 fWB/C.  In May, Kipnis has contributed 5.21 runs above average per 100 pitches against fastballs (5.21 fWB/C).  As I’m writing this, Kipnis has seen 267 fastballs in May, and linear weights statistics judge that he has contributed about 14 runs above average against them.  Maybe something has just clicked in his swing, or maybe he finally defeated the lingering effects of last year’s oblique strain.  I can’t say for sure.  What I can say is that the timing couldn’t be better, as Kipnis has been seeing fastballs about 10% more often in May.  It’s possible that the increase in fastballs has something to do with him moving into the leadoff spot, but regardless, it’s good news.

Lastly, it’s also worth noting that Kipnis has been choosier with his pitches.  In April, he was swinging at 45% of pitches he saw.  In May, he’s been swinging at just 41%.  Most of that decrease comes from laying off pitches outside of the zone, as we can see by his 27.5% outside-of-the-strike-zone swing rate in April and his 23.7% rate in May.

May 25, 2015; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Indians second baseman Jason Kipnis (22) hits an RBI double in the second inning against the Texas Rangers at Progressive Field. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

Conclusion:  Kipnis has certainly had some luck on his side, but his .500 BABIP has been at least partially driven by an improvement in contact ability, particularly on fastballs.  A slight improvement in patience hasn’t hurt, either, as we can see by his swing rates that Kipnis has been chasing fewer pitches outside of the strike zone.  It’s obviously easier to make solid contact on pitches in the strike zone that outside of it, so the patience is certainly a contributing factor to Kipnis’ rampage.

What To Expect Moving Forward:  Despite all the improvements Kipnis seems to have made, it’s nearly impossible for one out of every two batted balls to drop for a hit over a full season.  His batting average is likely to normalize, and it’s possible that he’ll see fewer fastballs as pitchers start to realize he’s ripping them apart.  In addition, we all know by now that Kipnis is a streaky hitter and will suffer through a cold spell at some point this season.  But the one thing I think he can sustain is the power.  Maybe he won’t slug .713 all year, but it’s easy to imagine him smacking 40 doubles this season if he can maintain the line drive and hard contact rates to some degree.  All told, this version of Kipnis is closer to what we expected after the Tribe signed him to a 6-year, $52.5 million deal.  I’d be shocked if he didn’t make his second all-star game and finish the season with a .280 batting average and at least 15 homers and 15 steals.

Notice a hot streak or slump we haven’t broken down yet?  We try to keep an eye out, but we don’t catch everything!  If you see a player get hot or cold for a few weeks at a time, and you’d like us to break it down, leave a comment or e-mail us at wahoosonfirst@gmail.com