There’s a real risk of conflating perceived laziness or underachiever status with the idea that said player is actually bad at his sport. - Jonah Keri, 07/15/10
I'm usually not that big on revisiting something which I already wrote about in the last week, but it's become increasingly clear to me that an exception is warranted in this case. There's a battle being waged right now in the Rangers blogosphere -- and, perhaps even more visibly, through Twitter -- that involves Ian Kinsler and the great divide between those who believe he is one of the Rangers' best -- if not the best -- players this season, and those on the other end of the spectrum who believe he has been a massive disappointment and, depending on who you talk to, is one of their worst everyday regulars. I'm guessing that most of the people who end up reading this aren't the people who should be reading this, but let's give it a whirl anyway.
On the one hand, Kinsler is hitting just .235/.344/.399 with eight home runs as of Tuesday morning, has developed a seeming propensity for making really bad-looking outs, and casts forth some of the worst body language on the team when things aren't breaking right, which to some extent helps fuel the perception that he's having a poor season, that his emotional displays of frustration drag down his teammates (read: poor clubhouse influence), or both. On the other, he boasts the greatest number of wins above replacement (2.6) of any player currently on the 25-man roster, which, in the view of some, merely exposes the metric as deeply flawed or even outright fraudulent.
And, as always, there's some manner of grey area/middle ground here that captures various aspects of the two arguments -- but my sense is that most people who have a dog in this hunt cleanly fall on one side or the other of the divide and have become deeply entrenched with one viewpoint or the other. With that in mind, let me try to address some of the prime drivers of both arguments:
● First, understand that the reason why Kinsler can still lay claim to the title of one of the eight best-hitting second basemen in the game despite his career-worst batting line is because (a) second basemen aren't especially good hitters to begin with, as only catchers, shortstops and arguably center fielders hit worse on average, and (b) offensive levels have plunged dramatically across baseball, such that a second baseman residing in the middle offensive tier of his position is hitting only .257/.314/.356 on average this season; that's a 70-point deviation in OPS from the period spanning 2008-10. And what about the top 10? Try .272/.344/.449. Kinsler's performance has downshifted, but so too has the league-average baseline. I still won't pretend to be satisified with his hitting to date, but once you bring context into the mix you find that he's still about as far above the bar as his career average would indicate.
● The rest of Kinsler's team-best WAR is derived from sturdy baserunning and defense, positional adjustments (e.g. good-hitting second basemen are scarcer than good-hitting first basemen), and his ability to avoid injury and amass a large quantity of playing time. A big caveat: the defensive component does rest on shaky ground because a half-season's worth of defensive data tells you about as much as a month's worth of offensive data, which is to say not very much. That said, I'm also going to tell you to try and purge the memories of his seeming laziness-induced errors and concentrate far more on his above-average range, which is a far, far more important component of defensive value than error avoidance.
● I won't deny the ugliness of some of Kinsler's outs, though I wonder to what degree that perceived ugliness is exacerbated by his tendency to sigh heavily and slam the bat down when things go awry; would they look as bad if he simply put his head down and ran out every can of corn pop fly? And that's something I've been thinking about, lately -- bad body language in a pitcher can be indicative of either injury or an undercurrent of frustration that can snowball quickly if he should lose control during the course of an inning. In a hitter, though? After a poor at-bat, it's back to the dugout, then to the field, with what I would assume to be far less risk of such a snowball effect because hitting is more of a discrete act than it is continuous (e.g. pitching).
I don't want to play the role of amateur sports psychologist here, but I do question the role that Kinsler's actions and mannerisms play in how he is perceived by the fan and media contingents alike, and how much that has contributed to him becoming perhaps the Rangers' tallest lightning rod for criticism ... despite the fact that he actually has been one of this team's most valuable players this season irrespective of the lousy batting average, and despite the possibility that how he carries himself on the field may not matter nearly as much as some are inclined to believe.