Where’d Ya Go?

For months, the baseball community has been trying to figure out what happened to Ian Kinsler. Just like Texas, everything about this guy’s season has been BIG. Big expectations, big home runs, big highs… and even bigger slumps. 

Heading into 2009, Kinsler’s young career had been filled with three brilliant, injury-riddled seasons. The 2008 season was his best yet, as he posted a .319/.375/.517 slash line, with a (great) 12.9 K%, 9.2 HR/FB %, and a .339 BABIP. Not bad for a second baseman, especially considering Dustin Pedroia took home some serious hardware in a season short on MVP candidates with a .326/.376/.493 line. 

Kinsler followed up ’08 in stellar fashion, with a .322/.384/.656 run at the dish in April, including 7 HRs in 90 ABs. Then, things slowed down a bit in an unseasonably cold .243 BA/.812 OPS May, and .245/.773 June, before completely fallling off the cliff in July, when he posted a .159/.207/.341 line.

So what happened?

One of the more popular theories out there is that Kinsler is the victim of some terrible, unforgivable luck. I can personally testify that this has been a part, as I played witness to Kinsler’s June 7th performance against Boston. Here, he went 1 for 5, despite ripping four line drives; one which landed in the glove of Jacoby Ellsbury in deep center field, and probably also landed in the top 3 of ESPN’s Top 10 plays of the week. There is more to this poor luck theory than just one game, however, as Kinsler is ripping his line drives, with a .837 BABIP, while barely making a dent with his ground balls (.144 BABIP) and fly balls (.074 BABIP). This screams of poor luck on balls in play, especially when his career ground ball BABIP is .226 and his fly ball BABIP is .109. While his 2009 line drive BABIP (.837) is up from his career line of .738, this has not been nearly enough to even out the rest of his line, leaving him with a .235 season BABIP. This brings me to my next point.

A few colleagues of mine have brought up the fact that Kinsler may be swinging for the fences too much this season, contributing to such a low BABIP. A few points: Kinsler’s power is way up this season, and I mean WAY up. His previous career high in HRs is 20 in 483 ABs in 2007. He already has 23 HR this season through 389 ABs. By all accounts, his triple slash lines should have been his best of the season in his poor months of May and June, when he struck out just 25 times in 217 ABs. As Dave Allen points out in one of the more interesting articles I’ve read in some time, adding uppercut to a swing can have some detrimental effects to a batter’s BABIP.

As per Allen, high-HR, high-K players tend to hit ground balls more poorly than low-HR, low-K players. Enter Kinsler, who has seemingly morphed into a different kind of hitter this season, having abandoned his balanced, line drive approach of the past to post a 55.1% FB rate this season, compared to a 46.6% in his career. When you combine the fact of how poorly Kinsler has hit ground balls this year (.144 BABIP), the picture gets a little clearer. Maybe Kinsler has gained a little uppercut on his swing this season. More home runs, fewer hits on ground balls. It sounds likely.

But before all the mail starts coming in, let it be known that Kinsler is not the same hitter as those outlined in Allen’s article. Kinsler has only struck out at a 15% clip this season, and has a HR/FB % of 12.8, not exactly an elite bomber. Still, the principle makes sense. Ground balls off of the bat of an uppercut swing will deflect harmlessly into the ground when compared to those of a level swing, which will be hit with more velocity; hence, Kinsler’s low BABIP on GBs. More fly balls are an indicator of an uppercut swing, hence Kinsler’s increased FB%.   

After reviewing all the evidence, Kinsler seems to be going through what many thought Jimmy Rollins was going through this season: abandoning a disciplined approach for a fly-ball oriented one. While Kinsler is showing that he can hit for some serious power, it has come at the expense of his batting average. But really, when everyone knows that chicks dig home runs, who can blame him?

From here on out, I would expect the triple slash stats to greatly improve and everyone will benefit from it, especially Kinsler’s agent. Before this happens, however, Kins will have to regain his eye at the plate. His July has been absolutely abominable, with 16 Ks against 2 BBs in 87 plate appearances. That is not Kinsler, and neither is the power hitter we saw in April. While I wouldn’t expect a B.J. Upton-esque spiral into oblivion, I wouldn’t expect him to pace 30 HRs the rest of the way either. Kinsler will be just fine, but it is going to take some serious time in the A/V room to regain his touch at the plate. Hopefully he can put it back together before Texas falls competely out of the race. The lineup cannot afford another Chris Davis imitator, especially at the top of the lineup. Then again, he just went 0-4 tonight against Detroit.


Thanks to Fangraphs.com and Baseball-Reference.com for their contributions to this article.

Mike Silver recently completed his requirements for the Sport Management Major at THE University of Massachusetts-Amherst, where he is a brother of Theta Chapter of Theta Chi Fraternity, the best house in the country. He is a huge Red Sox and Bruins fan, and longs for the days of the REAL Boston Garden, Cam Neely, and the ultimate Dirt Dog Trot Nixon. If you have any questions, you can reach him at mjasilver@gmail.com. Have a good night readers, and know that Mike hopes to hear from you soon. If you quote Mike in an article, please let him know. He’d love to hear it.


One Response to Where’d Ya Go?

  1. Peter Jensen says:

    Mike – A player’s fly ball rate is not solely determined by his swing angle. Equally important is the amount of offset between the ball and the bat at contact. The more negative offset (bat center line lower than ball center line) the more initial vertical angle off the bat angle plane and the more backspin on the ball which causes it to rise even futher. The other factor to consider is where in the arc of the swing the ball makes contact. A batter’s bat swing angle typically increases the farther along the arc (more pull). So if a batter is pulling the ball more the effect is an increase in bat swing angle even though the batter has not changed his swing at all.
    I think you are correct that the decrease in Kinsler’s BABIP is related to a desire to hit more home runs and a subsequent change in Kinsler’s approach to hitting. But exactly what that change was will be difficult, if not impossible to determine until we have the full set of Hit f/x data from 2008 and 2009. It could be that he has actually increased the uppercut of his swing as you suggest. It also could be that he is pulling the ball more which would decrease the distance he needs to hit the ball to reach a home run, but also lowere the BABIP of balls that are not home runs. It could be that he has increased the negative offset to increase the backspin of hit balls. That would cause more fly balls that would carry farther, but also more pop ups and missed swings. Or it could be that he is overswinging in an attempt to get more bat speed, but having the additional effect that he misses the ideal conact point more often. Or a combination of the three.

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