|1. Jason Heyward (ATL)||159||.252||.225|
|2. Dustin Ackley (SEA)||162||.255||.298|
|3. Jason Kipnis (CLE)||181||.256||.244|
|4. Chris Davis (BAL)||165||.261||.416|
|5. Adrian Gonzalez (LAD)||176||.261||.327|
|6. Michael Bourn (CLE)||154||.268||.301|
Jason Kipnis was horrific against lefties in 2014.
Among left-handed batters with at least 150 plate appearances against lefties, Kipnis posted the third-worst on-base percentage in the majors.
Given Kipnis’ lack of power the performance was inexcusable, and it led to him barely achieving replacement-level status. However, it came on the heels of what appeared to be a breakout year in 2013 during which Kipnis had the third highest OBP in the majors against lefties at .370.
So what went wrong in 2014?
For starters, we have to consider injuries as an explanation for Kipnis’ downfall. He spent time on the DL in late April/early May with an oblique injury.
Prior to his DL stint, Kipnis was batting .168 against lefties. It’s not a leap to assume the injury was bothering him and playing a role in his slow start. From his return in late May through the All-Star Break, Kipnis’ performance against lefties spiked considerably.
During this time, he raised his average to .245 and his OBP to .315 – not quite at his 2013 level, but certainly acceptable rates for an everyday second baseman.
What raises the most concern about Kipnis, however, is the fact that his performance plummeted after the break. After returning from break through the end of August, Kipnis managed a .212 OBP with a dismal .195 slugging percentage.
In September his production fell even further, but he was sidelined by a few minor injuries (a hamstring strain and another undisclosed lower leg injury). So we can probably be generous and throw out his .192 OBP from this month.
But what do we make of the overall performance? Can the entire year’s struggles be attributed to injuries?
Given his relative success immediately upon returning from his time on the DL and his inexplicable collapse after the All-Star Break, it’s hard to confidently expect a return to form in 2015 simply based on the assumption that he’ll enter the season in full health.
The bad luck theory basically states that over a small sample size, sometimes the ball just doesn’t bounce your way. An average hitter will post a BABIP at or around .300 over a significant length of time (or some other number that they establish as their baseline for veteran players).
In 2013, Kipnis posted an unsustainable .390 BABIP against lefties, strongly suggesting that his .308 average against lefties that year was more of a fluke than anything. Given his high strikeout rate, he isn’t capable of sustaining a .300 average without the benefit of a ridiculous BABIP.
Entering the 2013 season, Kipnis had a .263 career BABIP against lefties. That’s not quite enough of a sample size to conclude that his BABIP will remain so low, but it is just over a years worth of data, so it’s certainly fair to say he isn’t a .300 BABIP hitter against left-handed pitching.
With this stat in mind, it shouldn’t have surprised anyone when Kipnis posted a .260 BABIP in 2014. We knew his .390 mark from 2013 was a fluke because no one can sustain that rate, and we had a reasonable sample size telling us that he was simply a below-average hitter against lefties already.
We’ve established that injuries played a role in his poor performance to an extent, but it’s tough to attribute the rest of the struggles to bad luck based on these numbers.
Holes in his Swing
It’s impossible to know why (change in approach, injuries, etc) but Kipnis developed an obvious hole in his swing in 2014.
During his first three years in the majors, against outside fastballs from lefties (which accounted for 30 percent of all pitches he saw) Kipnis posted a .316 average, .474 slugging percentage and whiffed on only 13.7 percent of his swings.
In 2014, however, Kipnis’ average on outside fastballs plummeted to .111 with a matching .111 slugging percentage and a ridiculous 60 percent increase in his whiff rate (to 22.2 percent of his swings).
The images below show Kipnis’ heat maps versus left-handed pitchers fastballs from 2011-13 (first map) and from the 2014 season (second map).
The heat maps illustrate just how inept Kipnis became at handling fastballs on the outside part of the plate.
Given his prior success against fastballs, the drop in production is most stunning against this pitch, but it carried over to off-speed pitches as well. Against all pitches on the outside portion of the plate, Kipnis was a miserable 6-60 (.100 BA) in 2014 and 37 percent of his swings resulted in a whiff.
So can it be fixed?
Taking everything into consideration, it certainly seems reasonable to assume Kipnis can rebound from his 2014 performance, but without knowing the root cause of the issues it’s tough to draw any real conclusions.
Maybe the hole in his swing was a result of his oblique injury, and maybe the injury lingered longer than the stats appeared to indicate. Or maybe he was swinging for the fences too much. Or maybe 2013 was just a fluke, and the real Kipnis showed up last year.
Based on his BABIP, it’s safe to assume 2013 will be Kipnis’ career year – at least in terms of his performance against lefties. But that doesn’t mean he can’t move closer toward a league-average hitter against southpaws, somewhere between his 2013 and 2014 campaigns.
At this point all we can do it hope that he’s healthy and that the coaching staff can help him sort out the rest.