Terry Francona’s legendary — sometimes to a fault — loyalty to veterans could soon be facing one of its sternest tests.
Jason Kipnis, who’s been the Indians’ second baseman for so long he played for two years under Manny Acta, is hitting .197. That ranks 150th out of 158 qualifiers in the major leagues. Against right-handed pitchers he’s hitting .179.
Kipnis’ .274 on-base percentage ranks 148th.
His .301 slugging percentage ranks 154th.
His .576 OPS ranks 154th.
This is not a small sample size. It’s the middle of June. We’re 2ﾽ months into the season, so these numbers carry some weight. They mean something. There’s enough there from which conclusions can be drawn.
Is there enough there to warrant action being taken?
But these are the facts: A 31-year-old veteran, in his eighth year with the Indians, his sixth year playing for Francona, is having the worst year of his career. By far.
Kipnis’ batting average, on-base percentage and OPS have all declined in each of the last three seasons.
This year his offensive runs average (number of runs above or below average a player has been worth offensively) is -12.7. That ranks 154th in the majors and 20th out of 20 second basemen.
Kipnis’ isolated power of .104 ranks 143rd in the majors and 16th among second basemen. His wRC+ (Weighted Runs Created Plus) of 58 ranks 151st in the majors and 19th among second basemen. BABIP (Batting Average on Balls In Play)? Kipnis’ is .239, which ranks 145th in the majors and 19th among second basemen.
His weighted on-base average of .258 ranks 152nd in the majors and 19th among second basemen. Kipnis has a WAR of 0.0, meaning his value to his team is about the same as a replacement player or a minor league free agent.
Then there’s wRAA, for weighted runs above average, which is the number of runs above or below average a player has added as a hitter. In 2016 Kipnis’ wRAA was 16.5. In 2013 it was 22.2. This year it’s -12.3, which ranks 155th overall and 19th among second basemen.
Kipnis is a two-time All-Star, but those two times came three and five years ago. Two and a half months into the 2018 season the numbers say he is the worst second baseman in the American League.
But he’s also the Indians’ second highest-paid player at $13.6 million, and one of the club’s longest-tenured players. He’s been the Indians’ second baseman since 2012.
So this is tricky turf to tread for Francona.
Because statistically speaking, Kipnis is one of the five best second basemen in Indians history. Among all Indians second basemen, Kipnis ranks second in career homers, second in doubles, second in stolen bases, fourth in games played, fourth in hits, fourth in RBIs, fourth in walks and fourth in runs.
We’re not talking about Joe Inglett here. Kipnis has had a very substantial major league career. He’s been a model citizen and teammate and has carved out a significant place for himself in Tribe history.
But at age 31, he is clearly on the downside of his career, to the point that he is now only the third-best second baseman on the Indians roster, behind Jose Ramirez and Erik Gonzalez.
Offensively, Kipnis has shown no signs of progress this year. He hit .178 in April, .221 in May and is hitting .184 in June. Even some swings against a pitcher he’s traditionally worn out haven’t helped.
In the loss to the Twins Friday night, Kipnis was hitting fifth in the lineup, presumably because his career batting average against starter Kyle Gibson was .480. Kipnis went hitless in three plate appearances against Gibson.
One of Francona’s strengths as a manager is his patience. But with the Indians struggling with run prevention due to a major decline in the bullpen, and an apparent reluctance, so far, to trade for a proven upgrade, an alternate strategy would be to upgrade the run production by making a change at second base.
Francona has acknowledged that second base is Ramirez’s best position. Gonzalez, who has shown promise offensively in his utility role, could play third.
Another option would be Columbus third baseman Yandy Diaz, who is hitting .288 with more walks than strikeouts, resulting in a gaudy .429 on-base percentage. Diaz’s minor league career .313 batting average and .416 on-base percentage suggests there’s nothing left for him to prove at Triple-A.
Last winter, Kipnis’ name surfaced in trade rumors, after his injury-plagued 0.4 WAR 2017 season. His high salary, and low production this year, plus the $14.6 million he’s owed next year in the last year of his contract (there’s a $2.5 million buyout on a $16.5 million club option for 2020) makes him all but untradeable.
So Francona continues to play the patience game.
But when does all that patience become too much patience?