This is a piece for the unloved.
It's hard to imagine a landmark season less feted by a player's fans than Ian Kinsler's 2009 campaign.
In his fourth year in the majors, the Rangers' second baseman became only the 34th member of the 30-30 club, hitting 31 home runs and stealing 31 bases. Along the way, he posted a .253/.327./488 line, good for a .358 wOBA.
He also had a breakthrough year defensively. After three years of consistent complaints about his lack of concentration and effort with the glove, Kinsler turned in an elite performance in the field. He racked up 22 DRS (tops among qualifying AL second basemen) and a 10.1 UZR (second to Detroit's Placido Polanco). Overall, Kinsler was good for 4.7 WAR -- the best mark of his career, including his stellar 2008 campaign (4.5 WAR).
But a large number of Texas fans -- possibly even the majority of them -- were not happy with Kinsler's output. In fact, many were distinctly furious with him. The primary target of their wrath? Kinsler's approach at the plate. It wasn't terribly difficult to understand why.
In surpassing the 30-homer mark -- representing a full 50 percent more dingers than he'd ever hit in a major league season -- Kinsler employed his pronounced uppercut swing to produce fly balls a whopping 54 percent of the time he put a ball into play. (He hit 30 percent on the ground; only 16 percent were line drives.) More damningly, 11 percent of the fly balls he hit didn't make it beyond the infield. Also heavily criticized: Kinsler's frustrated reactions to poor (or unlucky) at-bats, and his perceived lack of effort on the base path, especially in terms of running out ground balls.
As a result, the 30-30 second baseman with the surprisingly above-average glove was labeled a disappointment. He was called lazy, arrogant, stubborn, and worse. He was derided for swinging for the fences in every plate appearance. He was accused of putting his individual accomplishments before the good of the team. He was, unbelievably, compared to Hank Blalock. His improved defense didn't help stem the tide of criticism. His somewhat defensive public comments regarding his approach and swing spurred new waves of scorn, as did his complaints about low attendance and support by Rangers fans.
Kinsler's scattered advocates pointed out that his batting average on balls in play (BABIP) was only .241; part of his problem, they argued, was that he'd been definitively unlucky. And there was something to that argument. Even with the low line-drive rate and the high infield fly ball (IFFB) percentage, a .241 BABIP is extremely low -- so low as to suggest a degree of bad luck. Kinsler's defenders observed that he seemed to be feeling pressure to pick up the slack in an offense that was unexpectedly mediocre for much of the year. They also noted that many major leaguers don't run out every ground ball, and that it's preferable for a player to have a passionate reaction to outs and bad luck than to act as if he simply doesn't care.
Those arguments, however, generally fell on deaf ears. And whatever the rationalizations, it was hard not to pine for the sparkling .319/.375/.517 (.393 wOBA) line that Kinsler had put up in 2008. It was even harder to forget the way he'd achieved those results: 24.2 percent line drives, 32.4 percent ground balls, and 43.3 fly balls -- only 7.7 of which were infield flies.
That was a huge improvement from both 2006 and 2007. Kinsler's IFFB percentage in those two years was 13.8 percent and 12.6 percent, respectively. Those marks might have indicated that Kinsler's 7.7 percent in the next season was the aberration, of course -- but Texas fans had banked on the downward trend being a sign of Kinsler's evolution as a ballplayer. His regression toward his offensive career means in 2009 left a very sour taste in many mouths.
So, too, did Kinsler's heavy reliance on pulling the ball. Here is his spray chart for 2008, courtesy of Trip Somers' Pitch f/x database at TexasLeaguers.com:
Here it is for last season (again, credit to Trip and TexasLeaguers.com):
While Kinsler's left field-skewed distribution of hits was neither new nor surprising, then, it was somewhat more pronounced in 2009 relative to 2008.
Over the 2009 offseason, of course, the Rangers bid goodbye to much-loved-and-lauded batting coach Rudy Jaramillo. In his place they installed Clint Hurdle, who promised to sell Rangers batters on a more patient, more efficient, less feast-or-famine approach.
So many observers were eagerly anticipating (or, in many cases, dreading) Kinsler's reaction to Hurdle's pitch. They would be kept waiting for most of the season's first month, as Kinsler was sidelined by a high ankle sprain until the last day of April. But he lost little time in providing some preliminary answers upon his return from the disabled list. The numbers, after last night's game against the Orioles: .313/.446/.448 (a .385 wOBA). That line resembles Kinsler's 2008 much more than his 2009, with one glaring exception: the lack of power. Indeed, Kinsler had not hit a home run in his first 75 PA, and finally left the yard for the first time this season in Tuesday's game against the Angels.
Kinsler, commenting on that first homer of the season to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram's Jeff Wilson, observed: "I'm kind of happy about that, honestly. I'm staying away from hitting the ball in the air. I'm hitting it the other way, hitting it on a line. It just makes me a better hitter. Eventually, home runs will come, but right now I'm really happy with where I'm at offensively. I'm going up there trying to hit the ball the other way, trying to be a better hitter this year."
Does Kinsler's self-analysis ring true? Dear reader, it does. So far, Kinsler has hit 25 percent line drives, 36.5 percent ground balls, and, happily, only 38.5 percent fly balls. Even more encouraging: only one infield fly (a pop-out to first in last night's game, on an admittedly 2009-esque swing).
And here's Kinsler's spray chart for 2010 (with a final hat-tip to Trip):
This graphic illustrates two key points.
First, Kinsler does appear to be using the entire field, quite possibly for the first time in his major-league career.
Second, we're dealing with small sample sizes here.
As Russell "Pizza Cutter" Carleton showed back in late 2007, line-drive percentage doesn't stabilize until 150 PA; ground-ball percentage doesn't level until 200 PA; and fly-ball percentage doesn't even level out until 250 PA. (Kinsler is still shy of 100 PA.)
But here's the encouraging news: while Kinsler has always swung at relatively few pitches out of the zone (his 21.2 out-of-zone swing percentage is only a point below his career average), he is offering at a startling 14 percent fewer strikes than in 2009, and 6-10 percent fewer pitches in the zone than in the three seasons prior to that. Yet his contact percentage hasn't changed a whit from last season -- Kinsler is matching his career high of 71.4 percent out-of-zone contact from last year, and setting a new career mark by making contact on 95 percent of the strikingly reduced number of strikes at which he's swinging.
And swing percentage stabilizes at around 50 PA.
The bottom line for all these numbers? Kinsler appears to have bought into a more patient and selective approach at the plate -- one in which he waits for his pitch, and doesn't shy away from going opposite field. Kinsler's walk and strikeout rates support this conclusion. He's walking an astronomical 18 percent of the time (almost double last year, and way above his career 9.4 percent), while striking out 21 percent of the time (well over 2009's 13.6 percent and his career average of 14.8 percent). The higher strikeout rate isn't a good thing in and of itself, of course, but it speaks to Kinsler's willingness to let more pitches go by and to work deeper into counts.
As for Kinsler's missing power: hard to believe that -- as he himself anticipated -- the dingers won't come with time. (Home run rate and HR/FB ratio doesn't stabilize until 300 PA, by the way.)
So why, it's fair to ask, has Kinsler not been given a returning hero's welcome by the Rangers faithful? This is a question no numbers can answer. It's certainly not regression in his defensive work ethic; despite being hobbled by a still-sore ankle, Kinsler's posting a positive DRS and UZR. Lack of hustle? Maybe I've missed a lot of lackadaisical running down the first-base line, but I simply haven't seen much of it. (Kinsler's patented pout also seems to have made fewer appearances in these early stretches.) And it's worth noting that even after missing the first 20-odd games of the season, Kinsler's already seventh among AL second basemen in WAR, and is moving up that list rapidly.
This is the musing for one last cry.
So you tell me, dear reader: why isn't Ian Kinsler getting anything resembling the same sort of love as, say, Elvis Andrus? Is it that you don't believe Kinsler's 2010 performance is for real? Is it lingering resentment from his on-air call-out of last season's turnout? Is it a personality disorder? (And if so: his, or ours?) Fill me in. Because as surprising as Kinsler's return to form has been, it's even more astonishing to me that a player who's well on his way to posting a third consecutive season of at least 4.5 WAR -- at age 27, and at an extremely reasonable price, thanks to his 2008 contract extension -- isn't garnering more appreciation from Texas fans.
This is a prayer that tomorrow will help Ian leave the past behind.