What does Ian Kinsler have left in the tank?

It seems like a different century back when Kinsler got traded for Prince Fielder. It was four years ago when the Rangers sent the power-hitting second baseman, coming off a couple down years, in exchange for a mammoth hitting first baseman with a terrible contract. Kinsler felt spurned, made some comments, and even pointed at the Rangers dugout when he hit a homer in a return visit to Arlington (although the seriousness of this gesture is well-disputed). He went on to have a strong career for the Tigers, posting above average to All-Star caliber seasons in each of his four years with them, before ending his tenure with a trade to the Los Angeles Angels this offseason.

The Angels have been making some more moves this offseason, so as to not completely waste the prime of one of the greatest players of all time, and although Kinsler isn’t the shiny piece some fans may have wanted (Shohei Otani is pretty nice, though!), he certainly appears as an upgrade over Kaleb Cowart and his .225 batting average and miniscule .382 slugging percentage.

Kinsler is a power and speed threat, although the latter is a little less so as he’s aged. Still, his last season has some wondering what he has got left in his tank. His 2016 was one of the best in his career, hitting for a 123 wRC+, powered by 28 bombs and a consistent .288 bating average. Then in 2017, we saw his success fall back. Though power was still present (22 homers), his contact suffered, and his batting average dropped to .236. Part of this is bad luck; his BABIP took a drastic turn from .314 to .244, the largest drop among second basemen. Some of it is a little more curious, because he actually improved his discipline, reducing his strikeout rate from 16.9% to 14.0% and increasing his walk rate from 6.6% to 9.0%.

We saw virtually the exact same batted ball profiles from Kinsler in 2016 and 2017, although his HR/FB rate dropped from 12.5% to 10.2%. Sometimes a drop in this ratio is because of an unsustainable mark the year before, but Kinsler is right around league average as well as his career average. HR/FB can be used as a proxy for strength, and it’s an intuitive conclusion to draw that Kinsler just is losing some of the extra muscle he used to have.

But then we look a little deeper, and Kinsler’s hard contact percentage actually increased last season, three points up to 37.0%. Want some context? That was the top mark for all second basemen in the majors. So how does he make better contact and lose power? Kinsler went the other way more often, shooting for more gap hits than homers with more of a line drive or fliner (fly ball plus line drive) approach. His 44.1% pull rate in 2016 dropped to 38.9% last year, and he saw a jump in opposite rates from 20.9% to 26.2%.

So we could conclude Kinsler is taking a more contact-oriented approach, where he could still get 20 homers but with a healthy heap of extra-base hits, but his BABIP is still confusing. Hard contact usually equals high BABIP and, in turn, high batting average. Something minor of note, his infield hit rate dropped from 6.9% (around his career average as well) in 2016 to just 2.6 in 2017. He’s aging and the wheels aren’t as quick as they used to be, so there’s a possible explanation for the low BABIP. But overall, that number should bounce back exceptionally, as the peripherals are all there to make it happen.

Another quirk of last year’s with Kinsler was how he was pitched. With the Rangers, Kinsler saw mid 30s percentages on four-seam fastballs. But with the Tigers, that number approached 40% for his first three years. There’s no secret that heaters go for homers more than other pitches, and Kinsler didn’t stray from this because he was worth 13.6 runs above average on the pitch in 2016. But in 2017, he saw the pitch back in the mid-30s at just 36%, and his value dropped on it to 8.5 runs below average. Declining bat speed can cause a hitter to struggle on the heater, but the huge drop seems to be some noise as well. A career fastball masher should be able to be hitting better than we saw. Plus, he can adapt to the newer approach pitchers have on him, it’s still one he had success with in the past.

Ian Kinsler is a great buy low candidate; with age and performance concerns looming large, many are growing wary. But Kinsler not only has the pedigree to come back, but he also has the peripheral numbers that show he has still got what it takes to have success at the highest level. Even though his average dropped last year, there was a lot of underlying stats to like about what he did, plus his power still played large enough for a respectable 91 wRC+.

At his worst, Kinsler is stealing around 15 bags with about 20 homers. But there looks to be plenty of gas left in the tank, and Ian Kinsler is still fantasy relevant as he goes into his age 37 season.

 

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James Krueger

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James lives in Tampa, Florida and is often one of the 10,000 people you can see at Rays' home games. He's a huge fan of prospects, loves analyzing swing mechanics, and will eat a "Top 100" list for breakfast. Dynasty leagues are his forte, especially rebuilding teams; building a farm system is the best part.

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