It’s not surprising that Ian Kinsler can knock some pitches out of the park with ease. He’s always been at least somewhat of a power threat, hitting 30 homers twice in 2009 and 2011, and over 200 in his career so far. As a second baseman, that’s an impressive trait to carry, especially when he’s also managed a .277 batting average along with it. Plus power and good contact from a middle infielder? It’s no wonder Kinsler has been a staple on successful fantasy teams over the better part of the last decade.
But with age comes decline. For the following four seasons, after his last 30+ bomb campaign, Kinsler had failed to even crack 20 again, opting instead for more contact (his four year rolling average hovers around the low .270s). He had an incredibly hot start to the season in 2014, his debut with the Tigers after being traded for Prince Fielder (and his albatross contract), but came crashing down to earth once again since his streak was inflated by an increased number of fastballs instead of being caused by any real change.
And then comes 2016. Like many other hitters in the league, Kinsler saw a power resurgence this season as the league set all sorts of home run records across the board. His 28 dingers and .196 isolated slugging were the best he’s posted since 2011, and overall the third best marks of his career (for full 600 plate appearance seasons). Even his .288 batting average climbed up, making him one of the most valuable players not just at his position, but in the entire sport for the season.
Unlike his hot streak in 2014 this wasn’t caused by more fastballs, but there was a similar boost to his productivity. He’s regained his effectiveness against the heater, something that had been missing over the past few years. For the past three years he averaged just under 3.0 runs above average on four-seamers, but last season he shot back up to 6.9 runs above average. Kinsler has always been a neutral hitter on off-speed pitches, so without him mashing heaters he loses a big part of his power profile. With its return, we can start to see if his power comeback is real.
Another part of what made him better in 2016 was a changed approach at the dish, catered for more power. He put up his highest fly ball percentage since 2009 at 44.5%, while also pulling the ball more often than the last few seasons as well. In addition, it seems he’s been swinging harder more often, selling out for contact, trading a few extra strikeouts for homers. His strikeout rate shot up to a career high 16.9% along with a career high 34.0% strikeout rate. You want to know how good Kinsler’s discipline it? His career high strikeout rate is still well below league average 21.1%. Swinging harder and getting under more balls is almost always going to lead to more power, which is exactly what we saw last season.
While selling out for power is often a move than can only work for so long until pitchers catch on, and then catch hitters out ahead too often for the approach to remain effective, Kinsler’s unique batting eye helps give his return to form more reason to believe. He still managed to cut his swing percentage down last year to 44.9%, despite the last two years both being at 47.2%. This has allowed him to lay off pitches that he can’t drive, so when he swings he knows it’s at a pitch that he can do some damage with.
Another interesting number is his contact percentage which was at a career low last year at just 84.9%, despite hovering over 90% the past few years. While on the surface this can be concerning, what makes this actually helpful is that he’s going to make weak contact less often. He’s swinging harder at pitches, pulling them more, and then getting them lifted into the air. When he’s not doing that, instead of popping up or dribbling a weak grounder, he simply is missing the pitch. While it’s not always great to whiff, letting the at bat live on a little longer gives him more opportunities to make the hard contact that’s been driving his success.
Betting on someone who’s turning 35 next season to defy age after a random All-Star caliber season seems like a perfect storm for overrating, and hence, overdrafting. But Kinsler’s changes show that he’s actually taking steps to allow himself to be a dangerous hitter as he’s crept up in age. Better launch angles and being more selective is an approach that ages like a fine wine, and one that we don’t see hitters take often enough. Kinsler has always been a good option at second base, but he’s back to being elite at the position thanks to his bat’s revival. Don’t be afraid to take him on draft day as his power and contact are both legit.
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