It’s been about a month.
One month – give or take a day or two – since we took a long, hard look at Ian Kinsler. In that time, according to Baseball Reference, Kinsler’s played 27 games. He’s had 122 plate appearances, and 105 at-bats. What’s the damage?
26 hits. No homers. Four doubles. 11 walks. 17 strikeouts. 3 times hit by a pitch. 4 stolen bases (with no failures on attempts). A couple sacrifice flies; a questionable sac bunt. One GIDP. A ton of frustration. And one serious question:
What’s wrong with Ian Kinsler?
There are a lot of possible answers. Some of them were supplied in response to the last question we raised about him – namely: Why isn't Ian Kinsler getting anything resembling the same sort of love as, say, Elvis Andrus? Kinsler’s attitude was cited repeatedly, with examples ranging from his power-happy approach in the leadoff spot to his fan-unfriendly comments in the local press.
What was interesting to me, however, was that most readers were largely complimentary of Ian. They defended him. They were loyal. They expressed hope that he’d keep up his strong return from the DL by reestablishing his power at the plate, without sacrificing his improved plate discipline and recharged ability to get on base. And many of them agreed with the prediction that, “as for Kinsler's missing power: hard to believe that -- as he himself anticipated -- the dingers won't come with time.”
But they haven’t. A month later, Kinsler’s still just got one home run. He’s sporting a home run to fly ball (HR/FB) percentage of 1.7 – meaning that fewer than 1 out of every 50 fly balls he hits is leaving the park. (His season low was 8.8 percent, from his rookie year.)
And that’s far and away the best answer to the question of what’s wrong with Ian Kinsler: missing power. Even during the past 10 games, during which Kinsler put up a healthy .333 batting average and an even healthier .413 on-base percentage, his power has been conspicuously absent. He racked up only two extra-base hits – both doubles – in that 39-AB stretch, and as a result, his slugging percentage over the period was .385 (which is still 30 points higher than his mark for the season).
Really: if someone had told you before this season that after 205 PA in 2010, Ian Kinsler would boast a .273 BA and a .377 OBP, wouldn’t you have just mentally filled in the last third of the slash line with a figure between .450 and .480, and been pretty damn pleased?
Instead: .349, and a .076 isolated power metric (ISO). The league averages for those stats are .405 and .147, respectively. Players with an ISO above .076 this season (with at least as many PA as Kinsler): David Eckstein, Jerry Hairston, Jr., Ronny Cedeno, and Julio Borbon.
That’s right: Julio Borbon.
And this one’s for the fans who locked their faith inside.
So what’s the scenario? It’s a good news, bad news situation.
The good news is not just that Kinsler seems to be aware of his lack of power. (How could he not be?) It’s that he also seems to be trying to adjust to it. He may not be happy about it. (The numerous grimaces and bat flips indicate as much). But despite the lingering claims from some parties that Kinsler’s “pulling a Blalock,” Kinsler hasn’t been swinging out of his shoes during every plate appearance the past month. He hasn’t been hacking away at every pitch. He’s swinging at only slightly more pitches out of the zone as he ever has, and is five percent under league average in that category; he’s also offering at many fewer pitches in the zone, though making contact with them more frequently.
He hasn’t even been popping up as often as some might have you think. In fact, according to the TexasLeaguers Pitchf/x database, Kinsler popped out (very slightly) less frequently in the last month than he did from April 30 through May 19. And according to FanGraphs, he hasn’t had an infield pop fly in June. His post-Memorial Day ground ball/fly ball ratio is right around even, as it was throughout May.
And Kinsler’s still using the whole field. Recall his comment to the Star-Telegram’s Jeff Wilson a month or so ago: “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.”
Let’s reevaluate that self-assessment. Here’s Kinsler’s spray chart for the past month:
And, as in the last piece, during his first 19 games:
Kinsler’s pulling the vast majority of his infield outs, but his hits are, indeed, scattered to all fields. Very few of them, however, are deep. It’s not just the home runs; he’s posting a career low fly ball percentage thus far, and his line on such balls is .182/.175/.291, per Baseball Reference.
And that starts us in on the bad news. In his early action, Kinsler was somewhat compensating for his lack of high-trajectory power by (as he claimed) hitting a high number of balls hard, low, and all over the field. And when he has hit line drives, Kinsler’s continued to be extraordinary (.815/.815/1.037 for the season). He’s just not hitting the ball on a line often enough. In June, he’s only posting about 14.5 percent line drives – down 3.5 percent from May, and more than five percent off his career average.
In addition to the plethora of weak fly balls, Kinsler’s simply hitting many, many more balls (40.4 percent, to be precise) on the ground than he ever has before. A lot of those ground balls are ending up as outs (a .263/.263/.281 line), and his .324 BABIP (and .306 expected BABIP, based on Chris Dutton’s quick calculator) indicates that overall, he’s been a bit fortunate in his batted-ball outcomes.
The most likely explanation for all of this would appear to be injury. It’s very plausible that Kinsler’s balky ankle is preventing him from hitting the ball with any consistent authority. Trouble is, he’s stated definitively that his ankle won’t be 100 percent this season – and considering the wear and tear that he’ll accumulate through the next 90-odd games (assuming he stays “healthy” throughout), it seems quite likely that Kinsler will finish with the worst slugging numbers of his five-year career.
On a sardonic note, Kinsler’s approach has, in some ways, been exactly what many fans were howling for last season – he’s being more patient at the plate, hitting fewer balls in the air, and has sacrificed power so as to reach base more frequently.
But even with tongue squarely in cheek, it’s worrisome that in the past month, Kinsler’s stopped walking at his early, prodigious pace. Just 9 percent of his PA in the last 27 games have ended in a base on balls, compared to the 15.7 percent from his first 19 games of the season. (His strikeout percentage decreased much less markedly, from approximately 17 to 13 percent.)
The walks are going to be a key statistic to watch if Kinsler’s power outage continues. Right now, his .377 OBP and his glove are his saving graces; without a steady stream of free passes, however, Kinsler’s offensive productivity could drop to a dire level. Even in the midst of his recent 10-game tear, Kinsler walked just over 9 percent of the time (and 3 of his 4 bases on balls came in one game against the Astros). Over the same period, he struck out in 16 percent of his PA.
(It’s also worth noting that Kinsler’s displaying the massive platoon and home/road splits that he avoided in 2008 – though given the small sample sizes, it’s probably too early to say much more than “keep an eye on them.”)
Ian Kinsler’s too talented a ballplayer to write off, even if he’s not 100 percent. And for all his vaunted stubbornness, there are encouraging signs that he’s trying to find ways to fight through his pain and misery in relatively productive fashion. But at some point, if Kinsler’s offensive woes continue – and if his ankle is truly a major culprit – then the Rangers are going to have to weigh the merits of a return trip to the DL. It may well be more effective to feature a stronger, healthier, more-rested Kinsler during the stretch run than to push him to play every day up through the All-Star break.