Let's shove all of the equivocations aside for a moment and cut right to the chase: as the active roster currently stands, Ian Kinsler is the Texas Rangers' best player. He's a sensational talent, a success story of the highest magnitude for the amateur scouting department -- and, even more specifically, for Rangers crosschecker Mike Grouse -- and one of the single biggest reasons why Texas has clearly transitioned from "rebuilding" to "win-now" mode.
And yet, if you take a moment to reflect back upon the summarized basics of what Grouse once wrote about Kinsler (via Mike Hindman), you'll find something that just might resonate a little bit: "Great feel for the game, athleticism, solid defensive actions, intensity. [Kinsler] had leadership qualities. It was mostly just a matter of waiting for the physical part of his game to catch up to the mental part of the game."
Six years after the fact, might the case be that the tables have completely turned and the mental aspect of his game is now lagging behind the physical aspect? Forget his controversial mid-September remarks about attendance and fan support; those aren't relevant to his on-field production. What is relevant is, of course, the widely held belief that Kinsler's adoption of a more pronounced uppercut swinging motion was a prime contributer to his offensive downfall in 2009, as well as Kinsler's insistence that no facet of his hitting mechanics had materially changed.
The reason I mention all of this is because there appears to be an existing school of thought positing that Kinsler's abysmal batted-ball statistics -- including line drive/fly ball/ground ball rate and BABIP -- will naturally regress back towards the mean, and that with that regression will come a pronounced offensive rebound. Perhaps that is exactly what will end up coming to pass, but here's the million-dollar question: if that perceived, albeit subtle change in his swing plane isn't corrected, is he going to remain exactly where he is right now production-wise, or (even worse) begin to emulate Hank Blalock's career path?
Once upon a time, Blalock was a fantastic pure hitter capable of lacing the ball to all fields and posting sky-high line drive rates ... but something happened. Something that the Rangers evidently never foresaw. Something that probably, but not certainly, could have been prevented.
Opinions vary on exactly when Blalock began to lose "it," and frankly, I'm not sure he ever did lose "it," because there were those oh-so-tantalizing moments when he made you forget about his teeth-grinding hacks at pitches in the dirt and would lock in, shorten up and drive the ball with authority the other way. It's just that "it" was no longer happening enough, and there were times in 2009 when Kinsler resembled present-day Blalock in much that same way. It was unnerving, to say the least.
The Hardball Times' Mitchel Lichtman recently published an in-depth study indicating that the year-to-year offensive performance of the modern-day baseball player typically crests around age 27-28, followed by gradual decline until around age 33 and then a slowly steepening decline in the seasons thereafter. Kinsler is entering an extremely pivotal year -- that is, his age-28 season -- in which we should logically be expecting some of his best work to date, but I'm not sure that anybody can state with utter conviction that it's actually going to happen.
If anybody was looking for an important early-tenure litmus test for new hitting coach Clint Hurdle, his forthcoming one-on-one work with Kinsler and his ability to modify his swing for the better -- to the extent that it can actually be improved, or that Kinsler will accept and incorporate his teachings -- stands out in my mind as an potential leading indicator of how he's going to be perceived by the fan base. And, hey, if Kinsler ends up remaining what he is right now (a 30-homer, 30-steal, .350-.355 wOBA second baseman with above-average defense), that's still very, very good, because 4½-win players are extremely valuable properties.
And yet in spite of that bright side, I simply cannot shake the feeling that Kinsler could be something even bigger and better than what he is right now. It seems like it's right there within his grasp, and yet he hasn't managed to reach out and grab it. Being right on the cusp of superstardom is great and wonderful, but to be so close and yet so far away ... well, I can't fathom too many things more maddening than that.