Loving Rendon, Hating Kipnis

In this series, I will be taking a tour around the diamond for in-depth looks at players who I value differently than the market consensus. Expert ranking lists are not worth the paper they are printed on without analysis as to why players are ranked where they are. Since the featured players in this column will be guys who I value much differently than the mainstream, you may not agree with where I rank them, but it is still important to understand why I have them where they are. Sometimes alternative viewpoints can be more illuminating than group think, even if you do not agree with the opinion.

 

Love – Anthony Rendon, Washington Nationals

Anthony Rendon broke out in a big way in 2014. Many expected the uber talented 24-year-old to make big strides last season, but I don’t think anyone expected the top 20 overall value that he was able to produce. Given that Rendon is eligible at two relatively scarce positions (2B and 3B), he will definitely go off draft boards by the end of the second round. In my mind, his position flexibility along with Cano’s power decline make Rendon a no brainer as the top second baseman, but the real question is whether or not owners should consider Rendon late in the first round.

Splits

Rendon was equally effective against righties and lefties in 2014, posting an identical .361 wOBA against both. The interesting thing is that he got there in very different ways. Against lefties, Rendon is an elite line drive hitter with a career line drive rate of 27.2% and a fly ball rate of just 32.6%. Against righties, he has a line drive rate of 20.5% and a fly ball rate of 39.5% which is much closer to the league averages.

In 2014, Rendon’s batting average against lefties was significantly higher than his average against righties, but his ISO vs. righties was almost 50 points higher (.199 vs right, .150 vs. left).

Rendon was essentially the same hitter against lefties in 2014 as he was in 2014. Most of his progress came as a result of his performance against righties.

Plate Discipline and Batting Average

Rendon has very good plate discipline and strong contact skills. His 8.5% BB rate from 2014 is actually significantly lower than any stretch of his accelerated climb through the minor leagues. Given Rendon’s patient approach and good batting eye (22.5% career O-swing) it would be reasonable to project further improvement in Rendon’s walk rates moving forward.

Rendon’s K rate improved to 15.2% last season. With a swinging strike rate of just 5.2%, a career line drive rate of 22.5% and the ability to drive the ball to all fields, I actually believe that Rendon’s .287 batting average from 2014 is closer to his floor than his ceiling. Rendon has all the skills needed to be a .300 hitter, and I think there is a good chance that he gets there in 2015. Even if he falls short, .280 is about the worst case.

Power

18 of Rendon’s 21 HRs came from the right side in 2014. His overall fly ball rate was 39.6% in 2014 and his HR/FB rate was just 10.4%. When compared to his average fly ball distance of 290 feet, it appears that Rendon’s HR rate might actually be a little bit low.

Looking back at his history, it is very difficult to glean much from Redon’s minor league numbers because he advanced so rapidly. He played 65 games across five different levels in 2012 and appeared in 134 games across 3 levels in 2013. 98 of those were in a Nationals uniform. In 2012, Rendon hit 6 long balls and he followed that up with a total of 13 HRs in 2013. I was not expecting him to reach the 20 HR mark so quickly, but this improvement looks like natural development for an emerging 24-year-old star.

If Rendon maintains his fly ball distance and fly ball rates from 2014, his HR/FB rate should actually increase a little in 2015. I think Rendon could eventually develop 30 HR power, but for now his owners should expect between 20 and 25. 2014 was certainly no fluke from a power standpoint.

Speed

People familiar with Rendon’s college stats at Rice likely were not surprised by his 17 steal explosion in 2014. Rendon stole 9, 14 and 13 bases over his three collegiate seasons. After notching 6 steals in his first 22 games of rookie ball, however, Rendon went quiet on the base paths. He did not attempt another steal in 2012 and was 2 for 3 on steals in 2013.

Rendon was successful on 17 of his 20 attempts in 2014. He also ran more often as the season wore on. Rendon stole 3 bases over the season’s first two months, then stole 14 the rest of the way. His high success rate coupled with his lineup spot near the top of the order will likely yield him plenty more attempts in 2015. Be aware though, players like Rendon whose primary tool is something other than speed are often given fewer running attempts as they age. Rendon is still young enough to be given the green light, but the club may eventually see diminishing returns on his running game if they feel it exposes him to additional injury risk.

Looking at Rendon’s success rate along with his college numbers, it would be really easy to project 20 steals. Realistically, however, I think 10 to 15 is the safer bet.

Lineup Spot

Rendon emerged as arguably the best player on what appears to be the best team in the NL, at least on paper. He will be locked into a prime lineup spot, likely either second or third for years to come. Either way, given his ability to get on base and hit for power in an outstanding lineup his run production is going to be elite. If he hits second, he should again be a good bet to score over 100 runs and to drive in 75 plus. If he bats third, he may knock in 100 and score 90 plus. I think Rendon remaining in the 2 hole is most likely for now, only because it does not look like the team has another player who is able to fit that role as well as Rendon can.

Conclusions

I am projecting the following line for Anthony Rendon in 2015:

.295, 105 Runs, 24 HRs, 80 RBI, 13 SB

In other words, his 2014 breakout is for real. In this year’s drafts, there are three corner IFs I would definitely pick ahead of Rendon (Miggy, Goldschmidt and Abreu). There are also three outfielders I would definitely grab (Stanton, Trout and McCutchen). Kershaw will also go off most draft boards along with these men.

After that? I think it is fair to start considering Rendon as early as 8 overall. There are plenty of players whom you could make a strong case for at that spot, such as Encarnacion, King Felix, Bautista, Gomez, Tulowitzki, Cano, Adam Jones, Anthony Rizzo and possibly a couple more. Rendon absolutely belongs in the conversation though, and it would not be crazy to reach for him in that spot. If he shows any improvement whatsoever, he will be a top 6 pick next season.

Hate – Jason Kipnis, Cleveland Indians

Going into 2014 drafts, Jason Kipnis was a hot commodity. He had a reputation as a somewhat streaky player, but following a 2013 season where he seemed to take positive steps forward as a hitter, many were lobbying for Kipnis as the top 2B option in fantasy baseball. Now, after a disappointing 2014 campaign where he hit just .240 with 6 HRs and 22 SBs, Jason Kipnis is one of the most difficult players to rank. Because of the vast array of opinions on Kipnis, there is bound to be somebody in your league willing to reach for his upside somewhere between round five and seven.

Again, when analyzing these players, it is not about whether or not I think they will be productive in 2015. I think Kipnis will be better than he was last year, but relative to other comparably priced 2B options, there may be better investment options out there.

Ks and BBs

Kipnis’ K to BB ratio from 2014 was right on par with his 2013 breakout season. He reduced his K rate (18%) but his BB rate (9.0%) came down by a comparable margin. One of the trends that most Kipnis supporters loved heading into 2014 was his improving plate discipline. While his discipline was still pretty good, he chased more pitches outside the zone (25.8%) than he had since his rookie season. Kipnis did not improve in this area, but plate discipline was certainly not the cause of his lost season.

Batted Ball Profile

Kipnis had a .288 BABIP in 2014, which is about 20 points lower than his career average. He generally hits a lot of line drives and continued to do so in 2014. His 22.6% line drive rate is actually below his career average. Since his ground ball and fly ball rates were more or less right in line with his career averages, it seems on the surface like Kipnis was a little unlucky in the BABIP department.

Kipnis looks like a .260 hitter, which is his career average. He was just as lucky in 2013 as he was unlucky in 2014.

Power

In 2013, Kipnis delivered an ISO of .168 and an OPS of .818. Last season, those numbers regressed all the way to .090 and .640. Not good. In 2013, he was able to drive the ball to all fields, hitting 7 of his 17 HRs to left field. In 2014, he hit 4 home runs to right and 2 to right center. He still hit the ball to left field quite frequently, just not with the same authority. In 2013, Kipnis averaged over 287 feet on his fly balls. In 2014, that number was down to 267 feet. To put that into perspective, James Loney, Daniel Murphy and Danny Santana all had longer average fly ball distances. In other words Kipnis’ disappointing 2014 HR total was no fluke. He earned it.

There are a couple of theories floating around that could explain his performance. The first is that his oblique injury sustained in early May negatively impacted his ability to drive the ball when he returned. Although Kipnis was hardly tearing the cover off the ball in April, he did hit 3 of his 6 HRs and post his highest wOBA (.337) and ISO (.160) marks of the season prior to the injury. Those numbers are not too far off the pace from what he delivered in 2013.

The other possible factor was in the way that he prepared for the 2014 season. He reportedly bulked up and added muscle mass prior to 2014 that may have slowed down his bat. This offseason, he is supposedly focused on getting back to being light and flexible. For more in-depth analysis on this theory, check this article by Brandon Warne.

There is a chance that Kipnis bounces back in the power department, but don’t expect more than 15 HRs, and 10-12 seems like a more realistic projection given his 2014 struggles.

Speed

One area where Kipnis continued to produce was in the running game. He was successful on 22 out of 25 SB attempts in 2014, which is easily his most efficient clip since he went 5 for 5 over 36 games in 2011. Kipnis was not always a big base stealer, but his MLB success rates suggest that this is one area where we can count on solid production from him. He will need to get on base more efficiently and stay healthy in order to get back near 30 steals, but I would not rule that out as a possibility. 20-25 steals seems like a safe bet.

Splits

The following table shows Kipnis’ righty/lefty splits over the past three seasons:

  Batting Average  ISO  OPS wOBA 
2012 vs. Left  0.215 0.067  0.581 0.265
2012 vs. Right 0.280 0.152 0.787 0.343
         
2013 vs. Left 0.308 0.172 0.850 0.371
2013 vs. Right 0.27 0.167 0.801 0.350
         
2014 vs. Left 0.208 0.036 0.500 0.229
2014 vs. Right 0.256 0.117 0.71 0.318

It is really difficult to say which Jason Kipnis will show up in 2015. He certainly isn’t as good against lefties as he was in 2013, but he may not be as bad as he was in 2014 either. Anytime an everyday player has splits this ugly, however, owners need to be on guard for the potential for lost playing time.

Defense

It is no secret that the Indians’ infield defense was atrocious in 2014. Jason Kipnis was one of the reasons why. He performed well defensively in during his rookie season, but has since fallen off significantly. Perhaps the additional weight last season is at least partially to blame, but Kipnis lacks range. While he is fairly steady on the routine plays, he is rarely able to turn base hits into outs.

While this is not really a huge concern for Kipnis’ fantasy value today, it could end up being a big deal down the road. If he does not either improve defensively or start hitting better against lefties, Kipnis could eventually find himself in a platoon.

Conclusions

I have two projections for Jason Kipnis in 2015:

Likely: .260, 80 Runs, 12 HR, 50 RBI, 25 SB in 150 games
Best Case: .270, 90 Runs, 18 HR, 65 RBI, 30 SB in 150 games

Now, there is significant upside here, but there is also downside risk that reaches below the likely case projection. If Kipnis is still around after pick 100, I think it is easily worth the risk to grab him at that spot. The trouble is that I think he will be drafted far earlier than that in most leagues because of his name brand value.

The bottom line is that I would much rather take a chance on Mookie Betts or wait a few rounds and take a guy like Howie Kendrick who will give me basically the same value as the likely case projection. Jason Kipnis is not quite as good as we thought he was this time last year.

Tommy Landseadel

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Tommy is also known as tlance on the CBS and Sports Hoopla message boards. He has been playing fantasy baseball for 16 years in many different format types and looks forward to helping you with your fantasy baseball questions! You can now follow me on Twitter @tlandseadel