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Jason Kipnis watches the world go by

Jason Kipnis watches the world go by
February 1, 2014
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On April 29th, the Cleveland Indians sought to split a road series against the Kansas City Royals to put an end to a mediocre road trip. Rather than closing the book on a disappointing set of games, however, 9-0 victory against the Royals helped spark a torrid 18-4 run that propelled the Indians into contention in 2013.

As was the case throughout 2013, Jason Kipnis's offense was a linchpin in that April 29th game, yet that performance proved emblematic of his 2013 - he went 2-for-5 with one walk, one home run, and a looking strikeout.

While the author addressed in a previous article that Kipnis's 2013 Home Run prowess may be short-lived, perhaps the most notable development in his 2013 campaign was his substantial increase in both strikeouts and walks, a change in plate discipline that saw his walk rate increase from 10% to 11.6% and his strikeouts increase from a better-than-league-average 16.7% to a worse-than-average 21.7%.

Plate discipline stats, above all other metrics, are the most stable, repeatable stats in the game, reducing the component of 'luck' solely to the quality of the opposing pitcher and, more rarely, the whims of the umpire - in short, not luck in the least. Unlike batting average or BABIP, the numbers that we see from a batter's plate interaction give us a clear narrative of a batter, one not muddled by fortune's caprice.

The narrative of Kipnis's plate discipline in 2013 was that of an incredibly low swing rate which fueled a very high walk rate and, in part, an increase in strikeouts - an increase as much a result of a diminished contact rate as the low swing rate.

By far the most notable facets of Kipnis's plate discipline was his puzzlingly low rate at which he swung at pitches, a rate that was fourth-lowest in the majors among qualified batters.

Lowest Swing Rates, 2013

Name

Swing%

O-Swing%

Z-Swing%

IZ/OOZ

Matt Carpenter

37.30%

22.10%

55.60%

2.52

Mike Trout

37.90%

24.20%

55.60%

2.30

Joe Mauer

38.00%

23.90%

55.70%

2.33

Jason Kipnis

38.70%

21.60%

58.90%

2.73

Marco Scutaro

39.00%

20.10%

55.70%

2.77

Source: FanGraphs

There are three possible conclusions one can draw from this graph - most obviously, that this is a genuinely excellent group of batters; a low swing rate is in no way a condemning force, since Kipnis is surrounded by batters who range from elite to merely very good. Obviously, one can’t say that a low swing rate itself causes good offense, but the two certainly aren’t mutually opposed.

Moreover, Kipnis's In-Zone to Out-of-Zone swing rate is second in the group, behind Scutaro. It's not as though Kipnis's plate discipline is clearly an outlier in this group. As far as basic plate discipline, Kipnis doesn't lag behind a group that is – in every way – a very good set of hitters.

Finally, one might draw the conclusion that Kipnis greatly enjoyed the Dark Knight Rises, as he seems to have embraced the statement, "It's the slow knife, the knife that takes its time... that's the knife that cuts deepest." Jason Kipnis takes his time. Jason Kipnis could go years without offering at a pitch. Jason Kipnis is the slow knife.

And the slow knife strikes out looking a bunch. Per TruMedia data via Gammons Daily, Kipnis's 45 called-strike-three count was 9th in the majors, but the fourteen players who amassed more than 40 looking strikeouts is indeed a very unusual selection of players - an indication that his looking strikeout count may not be a terrible problem to have.

Called Strike Three Leaders, 2013

Name

Called K

BB%

K%

wRC+

SO

Swing%

Chris Carter

59

12.00%

36.20%

113

212

46.00%

Justin Upton

55

11.70%

25.00%

129

161

44.50%

Mike Trout

53

15.40%

19.00%

176

136

37.90%

Mike Napoli

52

12.60%

32.40%

129

187

42.20%

Ryan Zimmerman

48

9.50%

21.00%

125

133

41.90%

Chris Davis

47

10.70%

29.60%

167

199

51.10%

Adam Dunn

46

12.50%

31.10%

105

189

41.10%

Dan Uggla

46

14.30%

31.80%

91

171

42.70%

Jason Kipnis

45

11.60%

21.70%

130

143

38.70%

Joey Votto

44

18.60%

19.00%

156

138

40.30%

Evan Longoria

44

10.10%

23.40%

133

162

42.00%

Ian Desmond

44

6.60%

22.10%

116

145

51.10%

Shin-Soo Choo

42

15.70%

18.70%

151

133

39.60%

Nick Swisher

40

12.10%

21.80%

116

138

41.80%

Source: TruMedia via Gammons Daily; FanGraphs

This data set does have limitations. It does not necessarily confirm that looking strikeouts are harmless - since strikeouts are a counting statistic, the only players capable of accumulating the plate appearance count to collect this many looking strikeouts are above-average batters - with the apparent exception of formerly-above-average Braves Second Baseman, Dan Uggla.

Given that caveat, however, the group encompasses a surprisingly diverse set of plate approaches; as one might expect, the group contains such distinguished strikeout connosieurs as Adam Dunn and Chris Carter, but it also encompasses certain low-strikeout hitters - Joey VottoMike Trout, and Shin-Soo Choo. Yet there are traits shared by most of the group: a below-league-average swing rate (i.e.: all but Carter, Davis, and Desmond) and well-above league average walk rate (all but Desmond).

Such was the case with Kipnis in 2013. While his strikeout rate increased from a lower-than-league-average clip in 2012 to an above-average 2013 rate, a major cause of this increase - his dramatic decline in swing rate - was the very same cause of his increased 2013 walk rate, good for 14th in the AL.

But change in swing rate alone did not prompt his increased strikeout rate; his total number of swings-and-misses increased despite a much lower total of swings (and, therefore, fewer opportunities to swing and miss). In general, his swing was much more whiff-prone in 2013 than 2012. Yet from the basic plate discipline data, it's not obvious that this is as a result of plate discipline - his In-Zone swing rate decreased, certainly, but his Out-of-Zone swing rate declined more so.

Plate Discipline, 2012-13

Season

O-Swing%

Z-Swing%

Swing%

O-Contact%

Z-Contact%

SwStr%

2012

24.1%

60.5%

41.3%

70.3%

89.4%

6.7%

2013

21.6%

58.9%

38.7%

64.0%

89.6%

6.8%

Source: FanGraphs

The biggest component of the increase in whiffs is the decline in Out-of-Zone Contact. Yet rather than merely say that he's hitting pitches out of the zone worse, one ought turn to his performance and plate discipline against individual pitch-types. While Kipnis (as one would expect from lefty batters) was at his best against right-handed pitching, it is apparent that it was against this group that his whiff rate increased most, most notably off-speed pitches and fastballs.

Kipnis – Change from 2012-13 vs. RHP

 

Ball

Strike

Swing

Whiffs

Hard

3.20%

0.89%

-3.11%

0.96%

Offspeed

-2.61%

5.34%

-2.21%

0.82%

Breaking

10.00%

-3.66%

-4.96%

0.42%

TOTAL

3.70%

0.68%

-3.29%

0.93%

Source: BrooksBaseball.net

His performance against opposite-handed breaking balls was an improvement in every sense, improving his ball percentage from 34% to 44%, while at the same time, taking fewer called strikes than in 2012. Likewise, his recognition of opposite-handed fastballs improved as well – he greatly improved his called ball ratio more than his called strike ratio. However, his fastball whiff rate, while still the lowest among all pitch types, was nevertheless unusually high, up to a 15.7% whiff-per-swing percent against righties and 16% overall - a fairly high whiff rate for a pitch type that (with the exception of the Danny Salazars of the world) does not typically induce swinging strikes.

Yet it's his recognition of opposite-handed offspeed pitches that set off brazen alarum bells. Fewer right-handed change-ups were called balls, more of these pitches fell in for called strikes, and he whiffed more frequently despite fewer swings. It intuitively makes sense that off-speed pitches against opposite-handed pitching would be poor - but his performance against this pitch type declined in every possible category.

It's worth noting that these increases are, generally, not massive. They are, on one hand, small enough that he could feasibly close the gap to his 2012 numbers. Yet however small the margins the difference, this change in plate discipline against individual pitches were all clear components of an increase in strikeout rate, a change that heavily curtailed his 2013 batting average.

Holistically, Kipnis's on-base percentage, speed, and power made him an excellent complement to Carlos Santana's offensive skill set. The decline of his swing rate has allowed his on-base percentage to carry him to an all-star caliber performance. On the other hand, this same decreased swing rate, coupled with increasing whiff rate and strikeout rate, however, might hold Kipnis's otherwise good offensive profile back from becoming truly great.

John can be reached on Twitter at @JHGrimm.

User Comments

anonymous
February 2, 2014 - 1:31 PM EST
Seth,

Thanks for reading - and I agree, the Indians' plate discipline is quite desirable. While it is the case that the Indians were most certainly up there in Ks, it is also the case that Drew Stubbs and Mark Reynolds, who might appear on Hoarders: Strikeout Edition, contributed to that high K total. Indeed, the Tribe's O-Swing was second-lowest in the majors only behind the Rays, and their Unintentional Walk total (i.e.: Walks minus intentional walks) was also second, behind only the Athletics.

Not a bad place to be for a team that in many ways attempts to implement similar strategies to those two. The OBP emphasis ia greatly beloved by yours truly.
Seth
February 2, 2014 - 10:06 AM EST
Santana was actually a little more aggressive this past year. In 2012 Santana was at, 21.4%, but he was up to 25.8% last year, which is high for Santana. It seems to be a trait that the Indians encourage and seek out. If you look at 2012-2013, you have Kipnis, Brantley, Santana, Swisher in the top 20 in lowest o-swing rate. And Stubbs and Bourn not far behind.
John Grimm
February 1, 2014 - 10:43 PM EST
Mike,

Glad you liked it! Thanks for reading!
Mike
February 1, 2014 - 2:45 PM EST
Great article!! I really enjoyed reading this on a rainy Saturday morning. Keep it up.

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