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Jason Kipnis is more than a "blue-collar" star

Jason Kipnis has played with a "chip" on his shoulder since his senior year in high school. Boy has it paid off...

Jason Kipnis is more than a "blue-collar" star
April 4, 2014
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The Cleveland Indians used a lot of ‘chips’ today when they signed their All-Star second baseman Jason Kipnis to a six-year, $52.5 million dollar contract, with a club option for a seventh season. If the Indians pick up that option, the contract will turn into a seven-year, $69 million dollar deal. For those counting at home, that’s nearly $10 million dollars a year for a guy that is as underrated as they come in baseball.

What interests me far less are the ‘chips’ that Jason Kipnis earned today with his long-term deal. What interests me far more are the ‘chips’ that Jason Kipnis plays with every day when he puts on the jersey with “Cleveland” stitched on the front.

Jason Kipnis is the ultimate “blue-collar” player. At the end of every game, you rarely have to ask who played the hardest. When you walk into the locker room and see Kip standing there in front of an abundance of reporters, he’s often covered in dirt and sweat, and looks like he’s run a marathon.

He runs to first base as though he’s seen the devil behind him.

He attacks ground balls as though he was wronged by one in a long-ago tee-ball game.

His fluid swing is only matched by his aggressive nature to drive the ball, as though he’s hacking through wood with an axe.

When Jason Kipnis plays, he plays. You will never come away from a baseball game in which Kipnis is playing and think, “I sure miss Milton Bradley.”

The funny thing about the term “blue-collar” is that it often has other connotations that come along with it. If you are blue-collar and play with the ruthless aggression that Kipnis plays with, it often is the results of other misgivings. In other words, if you are blue-collar, it’s generally because you aren’t as talented as everyone else.

Jason Kipnis is 5’11”, and he’s 190 lbs. While that’s not exactly small, in the land of baseball, you don’t stare at a player of his size and think, “superstar.” When you combine a smaller player with a player that plays hard, you immediately have a perceived strike against you.

He was a magnificent high school player. When he graduated from Glenbrook North High School, he was an all-state ballplayer, having hit .455, with 11 homers and 36 RBI as a junior, and topping that by hitting .520, with eight homers and 36 stolen bases as a senior. He was also All-Conference in football, as a receiver, no doubt outworking every defensive back in front of him.

What did that get him?

It got him a $400 book scholarship to the University of Kentucky. You heard that right. Jason Kipnis got a $400 book scholarship to the baseball hotbed at the University of Kentucky. Well, he did get a scholarship to Eastern Illinois, but how many major leaguers come out of Eastern Illinois?

He was irritated. He was agitated. But off he went to Kentucky to play baseball…on a $400 scholarship. You know, he was small, but he sure did work hard. Kipnis headed to Kentucky with the wrong attitude, was redshirted to get bigger, played in 34 games for the Wildcats, then was kicked off the team. According to Kipnis, it wasn’t for anything too big, but he just didn’t see eye-to-eye with the coaches.

Sure, he was immature, and most 18-year olds are. But he was better than this. He sent several letters to colleges hoping for that one last shot, and thanks to a good word from an opposing coach (Vanderbilt), Arizona St. brought him in. During that 2008 season, Kipnis hit .371, with 14 homers and 73 RBI as a starter. He had 16 doubles, six triples and 24 stolen bases while playing left, right, center and second base. He also hit a grand slam against Michigan, which should have made him a star in Ohio right away.

What did that get the “blue-collar” Kipnis? He headed into the 2009 season as the projected fourth outfielder, and a potential utility candidate.

I mean, they likely recruited players with more talent than the diminutive outfielder, right? Surely there was a more prototypical outfielder than he was, right?

Wrong.

Kipnis was drafted in the fourth round by the San Diego Padres, and said no, he had more to accomplish in college. He went to Cape Cod, and played in the Cape Cod league. He came back looking for the first round.

What did he do?

He hit .384 in 2009, and had a ludicrous .500 OBP. He hit 16 homers, had 71 RBI and stole 27 bases, and walked 51 times with only 32 Ks. He was the Pac-10 Player of the year and a First Team All-American, and by the way, as an outfielder. He had the first round locked up…until the Indians took him in the second round.

The “blue-collar” Kipnis just wasn’t a prototypical outfielder, even though he may have been the best in the draft. The Indians got lucky.

At Mahoning Valley, Kipnis was in the outfield, and didn’t make an error playing center and left. He hit .306, cracked eight doubles and three triples, and hit a home run in 29 games. He was really, really good.

That’s when the Indians asked him to move to second base.

They weren’t trying to knock him. They weren’t trying to tell him he wasn’t big enough. They were trying to maximize a really good, athletic player by moving him to a position he was a little familiar with.

His “blue-collar” skills were better suited to the infield. Kipnis was pissed off. It was another deal in which he wasn’t good enough to play the position that he wanted…center field.

Make no mistakes, he would have been a good one, but he decided that he was going to deal with the cards handed to him, and that’s exactly what he did.

The first person to work with Kipnis as a second baseman was Travis Fryman, who had been his coach at Mahoning Valley.  Fryman loved his attitude, but didn’t think second was in the cards. Offensively, he dubbed him “Little Giambi,” and if you look at their two swings, you’ll see why.

Giambi now calls him “son,” according to Bud Shaw in a recent piece that he wrote for The Plain Dealer. The title of that piece? ‘Jason Kipnis: an All-Star made, not born.” No offense to Mr. Shaw, who is a great writer, but thanks for adding another chip.

In 2010, Kipnis made a meteoric rise through the Indians system that really hasn’t been matched in many years, that I’ve covered for years. He ate up second base and spit it out, and his offense only improved.

He started the year off in High A Kinston, and while the Indians’ fan base and media were high on his offense, the shift to second base was something that many couldn’t really deal with. It would take three years of development for a hard worker like Kipnis to get to the bigs.

Patience was a virture…for everyone except Kipnis.

Enter the Carolina League and Historic Grainger Stadium. It was a league built to kill hitters, and Kipnis was there learning a new position. He was there for a grand total of 54 games, hitting .300 with 12 doubles, three triples, six homers and 31 RBI. He was gone before June. He finished the regular season in Akron, hitting .311 there, with 20 doubles, 10 homers and 43 RBI in 79 games. Overall, he had 96 runs, 32 doubles, eight triples, 16 homers, 74 RBI and 9 stolen bases during the regular season. He did make 23 errors at second, but looked a lot better than people thought.

Then the Indians sent him to Columbus for the Clippers’ Governor’s Cup series. In his first game, he went 2-for-4 and scored three runs. In his second game, he went 1-for-4 with a double. He went 0-for-4 in a game three loss, but then went off, going 4-5 in the culminated game against the Durham Bulls, and hitting for the cycle.

That game overshadowed what he was to do in the Triple-A Baseball National Championships. In that game, he went 3-for-4, with a double, triple and a homer, and was a single away from back-to-back cycles, which would have been unprecedented. He hit .455 during the playoff stretch, with three doubles, two triples, two homers and had launched his bid to play in the majors.

Everyone said he had a year to wait, and that Lonnie Chisenhall was the better prospect.

You see where this is going right, so let’s cut to the chase. Kipnis made it to the big leagues for the Indians by July 222011, and he never looked back.

Last season, Kipnis was an All-Star, and he was 11th in MVP voting. Most people outside of Cleveland have no clue who this “blue-collar” player is.

Who is Jason Kipnis? He’s an elite second baseman, and he’s likely the best player on the team. Many consider last season’s numbers, in which he hit .284, with 17 homers and 84 RBI, along with 30 stolen bases, Kipnis at his best. Here’s the thing. In April, Kipnis was terrible. He hit .200. He hit one homer. He did nothing.

That won’t happen again. How good would his season have been had he clicked even a little? How good will he be when he starters to bring up the floor of his bad months? How good will he be when he hits his prime?

While projections are just that, there’s one thing I do know: Cleveland Indians’ fans will now get to see just how good he will be, and he’ll still have “Cleveland” stitched to the front of that jersey.

The Indians just signed a really good ballplayer folks, and before we wrap things up, let’s just clarify one more thing…

…Jason Kipnis isn’t “blue-collar,” he’s “blue-chip,” and it’s time that people realize that why he’s so good is exactly because he doesn’t rest on his talent…

…he uses every ounce of it.

Jim is currently the senior editor and Columnist, as well as  the host of IBI's weekly online radio shows, Smoke Signals and Cleveland Sports Insiders. You can follow Jim on Twitter @Jim_IBI, or contact him via e-mail at jpete@indiansprospectinsider.com.

User Comments

Rocky55
April 5, 2014 - 10:32 AM EDT
Great article, Jim. Great day to be a Tribe fan. I saw Kip play one game in college, he didn't do shit. I wasn't impressed. Draft day there was talk that the Tribe might take him 1st Round. I'm like, Whaaat??? That bum??? Then we draft him 2nd Round & I figure, okay, but we already have Cord Phelps (yeah, I know).

After he signs I heard a couple of online radio games of him playing with the Scrappers & the announcers really like him so I'm coming around but he's still pretty old for that level. By the time of the televised Columbus championship series games I'm almost converted & I really SEE him play, the huge mancrush happens, I'm so happy that Brad Grant & Co. are so much smarter than me.

Cord Who?? I actually still root for Cord Phelps, wherever he is.

Thank for signing Kip. I'm slow but I came around eventually. Humble pie with a side of Crow is my favorite meal today.
Hermie13
April 4, 2014 - 5:03 PM EDT

The $2.5M buyout is included in the $52.5M total. He gets "only" $50M over the 6 years of the deal actually...then in 2020 he either gets an extra $2.5M in the form of a buyout or $16.5M if the option is picked up. So in the end he either gets $52.5M or $66.5M.

Osueddy
April 4, 2014 - 4:48 PM EDT
THAT was a well-written article! I just got more excited for this season.
Canadian Joe
April 4, 2014 - 2:12 PM EDT
Nice read Jim. Corcoran echoed your views in a SI article I just read. Nice signing for both sides here. Now, if some pitching comes through, it could be another great season in Cleveland !!!
yourtribe
April 4, 2014 - 2:09 PM EDT
Love the player especially his work ethic. Front office deserves credit for these signings. Now if we can just close the deal with masty!
Jim
April 4, 2014 - 2:03 PM EDT
Thanks Michael...I've loved Kipnis since he stepped foot on the Kinston green...and could see this coming from a mile away. There was a lot of talk about his defense not being up to snuff, but you could see that it was a non-issue here...in that he was serviceable and a worker.

As to the salary...he either gets $2.5 million buyout, or $16.5, right? I'm missing the $16.5-$2.5 aspect...

I feel like I'm missing something here...lol
Joe
April 4, 2014 - 1:54 PM EDT
Your confusion is there is a 2.5 Million dollar buyout to not pick up the 7th year of the deal. That is the differential between 66.5 and 69
MT88 in WI
April 4, 2014 - 1:45 PM EDT
Love the signing. Great article. Well written.

Really love the fact the Columbus postseason run was mentioned. I remember it well and have been telling people about it for years so they could understand the wealth of talent Kipnis has. Nearly hitting for the cycle in back to back games within a week of returning after sitting at home for a few weeks was a bell ringing that should have had everyone sit up and take notice.
Jim
April 4, 2014 - 1:13 PM EDT
Thanks guys, appreciate it...this one wrote itself...

Hermie, I admittedly haven't read the fine points of the deal. Isn't it a 6-year, $52.5 million deal, with a $16.5 million option? I'm not sure if there's a trigger I'm missing, but doesn't 52.5 + 16.5 equal 69?
Devin
April 4, 2014 - 12:54 PM EDT
Bravo, Jim. Well written. So pumped about this deal!
Hermie13
April 4, 2014 - 12:07 PM EDT
Agree, good read.


One small error though I believe....if the option is picked up, the deal would be a 7 year, $66.5M deal (not $69M). Still a ton of money...and I believe would make it the largest deal in club history?
Peter
April 4, 2014 - 11:40 AM EDT
great read.

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