With the 2018 baseball season now two-thirds of the way over, it’s time to start assessing where the Indians are at right now in some various areas. Check back regularly to get my take on post-season chances, streaking and slumping players, Cy Young and MVP updates, and my man crush on Mike Clevinger, among other things.
The Tribe dropped a tough one last night, losing 1-0 to the White Sox in Chicago and making Carlos Rondon (who, to be fair, is a decent young pitcher) look like Cy Young. They also squandered a brilliant performance from their own starter, Shane Bieber, when Neil Ramirez gave up a solo shot to Daniel Palka in the bottom of the ninth which would amount to the game’s only run. Obviously, when you get shut out over 8 innings by an average starter, there is plenty of blame to go around. No one showed up with their bat last night and that’s pretty indisputable. Much of the ire this morning, though, seems to be getting thrown at Jason Kipnis. Whether that is fair or not in this specific case, Kip is definitely struggling and this is a good time to take a look at what Kipnis’ role should be going forward (and open an investigation as to who in the front office is blackmailing Tito into playing him every game).
First, let’s just look at the numbers. Kip is batting .217 on the season with an OBP of .305 and an OPS of .661. That on-base percentage is perhaps stomachable, but the rest of those stats are just terrible. You can get away with hitting .220 if you are bashing home runs, but even Kip’s slugging percentage is by far the lowest of any of the regular starters at just .355. If we take a look at the splits, the picture becomes even sadder. Take away Kipnis’s solid June, in which he hit .266 with 4 homers, and his average drops close to .200. And in away stadiums this season? His average drops all the way to .188.
Second base is an important defensive position, though, right? Your second baseman doesn’t have to be your best batter as long as he can flash the leather. That’s all fair, but Kip’s defense this year has been far from stellar, too. He’s rocking the lowest fielding percentage of his career (not counting 2011 when he played 30-ish games) and his range, which was never amazing, has gotten notably less, as well. I’m certainly not going to call him a huge liability out there, but he’s below the league average in fielding percentage at 2B for the third year in a row. Essentially, we aren’t saving any runs because Jason Kipnis is out there.
If you look at all the numbers combined, Jason Kipnis is undoubtedly one of the worst starters on this Indians team. The question, though, is what do we do about that. Essentially, there are three options:
Ride It Out with Kip: Kipnis has long been a fan favorite and he’s shown brief flashes this year of getting it figured out. He’s a good clubhouse guy and has big game experience. He could very easily have some clutch post-season hits and all would be forgiven. All of those are just buzzwords, though, and the numbers don’t lie. Kip is swinging as bad of a bat as he has in his career and is playing as bad of defense as he has in his career. He’s obviously going to have a role and a spot on the team, but I’m ready to say he should not be the every day starter.
Play Erik Gonzalez at 2B: Gonzalez has started at every infield position this season, but his natural position is second base. He could step in and get the majority of the starts at second, platoon with Kipnis for the rest of the season, and let Tito make the call going into the post-season as to who is his number one guy. From a batting standpoint, Gonzalez is having a much better season than Kip. He’s batting .307 and has a solid .OPS at .785. Of course, we have to keep in mind that fewer plate appearances allow for inflated stats and that many of his at-bats have come situationally where he has pinch hit in a favorable situation, but a batting average of almost a full .100 points better is more than just those two factors. Gonzalez’s problem, though, is his defense. He’s made only 12 starts (25 total appearances) at second this year yet has committed 5 errors. His .914 fielding percentage is abysmal. Kipnis isn’t great out there, but Gonzalez is the definition of a liability. Whether his offensive production is going to offset the runs he will inevitably cost us is the question that Tito has to answer.
Call Up Yandy Diaz: Calling up Diaz would allow Jose Ramirez to shift to 2B, a position he plays just as well as he plays 3B (read: he’s fantastic at it), and Diaz would then step in at third. Diaz was a regular starter during last season’s beautiful second half of the season but has not found his way up from AAA for more than 14 at-bats this season. His power numbers from last season aren’t any better than Kip’s are this year, but his average was a respectable .263 in his first season and he took walks and got on base fairly well, also. He was never a Gold Glove candidate playing third, but I was never scared to see him out there either. Still, Tito has been content to leave him in Columbus all season despite posting pretty decent stats so there’s obviously a reason he’s not getting called up. The numbers make sense in this one, but there seems to be some other factor we might not be aware of.
Honestly, none of those options jump out as a great choice. Infield was not a position we made an effort to improve at the trade deadline (and admittedly, the outfield and the bullpen needed it more), but we are now going to have to pick between three pretty weak options. However, with the Central already essentially won, I don’t see any harm in rolling the dice on Gonzalez as the every day starter. Worst case scenario he makes some terrible defensive plays that cost us a few games in the standings. We’ll survive that without issue. Best case, he plays acceptable defense and his batting average doesn’t suffer too much from being an every day starter. That would bring much needed production from the 7 or 8 slot in a bottom half of the lineup that has been one of the league’s worst.
As for Kipnis? I can’t see him being left off of the post-season roster no matter what happens the rest of the year, so he’s definitely going to play a role on the team for at least all of 2018. If Gonzalez is terrible, he steps back in and starts. If Gonzalez closes the season strong, Kip surely still gets starts and at-bats even into the post-season. Moving into 2019, though, it might be time for the Tribe to move on. He’s owed $31 million over the next two seasons (although we do have a club option on the $16.5 owed in 2020) and, with our window rapidly closing, that is money that could be spent on vastly better production. Either way, Kip’s problems this season have become too much to ignore and, in this extremely strong American League post-season picture, the Tribe needs to make a change in hopes of getting some production out of that position.