There are two big concerns or questions surrounding Tigers’ acquisition Ian Kinsler going into the 2014 season. The first question, raised recently by Tom Gage among others, is that his offensive production might not be so good outside of Arlington. The second, perhaps as serious if not more so for a player with 4 years remaining on his contract, is that Kinsler may be in decline.
On the surface, both appear separate and worrisome. Kinsler’s home run totals have declined from 32 in 2011, to 18 in 2012 to 13 in 2013. He has gone from 32 steals in 37 tries in 2009 to 15 steals in 26 tries in 2013 (which is a net negative impact on the basepaths, you need to be successful at least 2/3 of the time to add value). He has gone from star to slightly above average player over the span of a couple of years, and at 32 has probably already seen his best years.
Over his whole career – which includes some very, very good seasons – Kinsler has put up an OPS of .898 at home (in The Ballpark at Arlington) and an OPS of .710 on the road. In Comerica Park, it’s ever so slightly worse.
If you dig deep enough – into stats and peripherals and splits – it seems that the two are actually much more closely related and not necessarily so much a cause for gloom and doom as it appears “on the surface”. Kinsler does not look like the same hitter (statistically speaking) that he was up to 2011 – but he appears to be much more a “different” hitter than a simply “inferior” hitter and it is an open question how much of this “difference” is age-related decline vs. deliberate change in approach and whether the new Kinsler will flounder or thrive in spacious Comerica Park.
Kinsler used to be faster than he is now. We know that. It also appears that he may have less raw physical strength (as shown in HR/FB) than he had before. But… the biggest reason that Ian Kinsler used to hit so many more homers than he does now is that he used to be an extreme flyball hitter and he appears to be in the process of transitioning to more of an average GB/FB spread – raising his line drive rate significantly (and an average GB/FB rate appears to be the sweet spot, generally speaking, for maximizing liners). Comerica Park is built to reward line drive hitters and to punish fly ball hitters, especially right-handed ones. The 2009 edition of Ian Kinsler, when he hit 31 home runs and put up a career-best .235 ISO, would probably have had a hell of a time in Comerica Park (with a FB% of 54% and a LD% of only 15.9%). The 2013 edition of Ian Kinsler, though less productive overall, would have fared much better (with a FB% of 39.4% and a LD% of 23.7%).
Basically, this transition is what has allowed Kinsler to continue to be a fairly productive player despite the drop in his power numbers. A big, big question – related to the “decline” issue – is whether he has changed the hit trajectory because hitting the ball in the air wasn’t working for him. It has coincided with a drop in his HR/FB rate from roughly average (a bit above 10%) to well below (6.7% in 2013 – putting him right between Michael Brantly at 6.8% and Michael Bourn at 6.6%). It’s great that he isn’t hitting so many flies, because they really are not working for him like they used to. But… he still hits quite a few, compared to somebody like Austin Jackson, and if the HR/FB falls further with age or with the bigger park that will be an increasing liability.
I should clarify that it isn’t just Kinsler’s falling HR/FB rate that “isn’t working for him” when it comes to fly balls. Kinsler’s fly ball BABIP is also low (relative to league average) and falling. As anyone who has looked at this kind of stuff before is well aware, given that the ball is in play line drives are very likely to fall for hits (approximately 68% of the time) with grounders and flies far behind. Grounders typically go for hits about 24% of the time, and assuming that they make it out of the infield flies go for singles, doubles or triples about 20% of the time. Guys with high BABIPs, batting averages on balls in play, tend to hit a lot of line drives and also more grounders than flies since flies are so unlikely to be hits (and especially to avoid infield flies, which are almost never hits). Of course it also matters if you have wheels to get some extra infield hits on grounders and if you hit the ball hard, since hard hit balls give the defender less time to react. That shouldn’t be anything new for anybody reading this.
The thing is, Kinsler’s BABIP has typically been low and this transition to “high line drive” guy has only brought it up to approximately league average. His BABIP on liners is a little above average, his BABIP on grounders is a little below (despite assumptions you might make about his speed). The big issue is that his fly ball BABIP was always pretty mediocre and in 2013 was downright bad. Miguel Cabrera had a fly ball BABIP (including infield auto-outs) of .165 last season, Kinsler had a fly ball BABIP (including infield auto-outs) of .077. If we do strip out those infield flies, we see that Cabrera has a roughly average propensity to reach base on a fly ball in play while Kinsler is only half as likely. That’s bad, bad, bad, bad.
You get hits on flies from hitting ’em where they ain’t (and there’s a lot of luck there) but you also get hits on flies by hitting the ball hard. Guys with low HR/FB rates do often have lower-than-average BABIPs on flies as well, high flies are being caught on the track and balls with slightly lower trajectories are rarely going over heads. If Kinsler just isn’t hitting the ball hard anymore, that’s a problem – given that he isn’t and probably won’t be a “slap hitter” type that puts everything on the ground and tries to aim it. What we’re hoping for from Kinsler is that his progression towards lower strikeout rates and higher line drive rates is real and permanent (not just statistical noise). If he starts hitting 47% flies again without hitting them any harder, the results are going to be ugly. We’re also hoping that a significant portion of Kinsler’s ugly numbers on flies in 2013 was just a statistal anomaly – luck – and if all that comes to pass we’ll be hoping for a 2014 that’s a fair proxy of Dustin Pedroia. If none of that comes to pass, I’m afraid to say it but we’ll be more likely to see a fair proxy of Brandon Inge.