Every year, we all have our short list of “must have” guys on draft day. I used to be so concerned about value that I’d begrudgingly let those “must have” guys slip away when they became a couple dollars too expensive, but as I’ve gotten more experienced, I’ve started to trust my analysis a little more and ensure I acquire the players I covet. This year, I drafted Mike Minor, Jean Segura and Jason Kipnis in all four of my leagues. Those were my guys.
Prior to the season, I strongly advocated for Jason Kipnis at the second base position, positing that fantasy owners who missed out on Robinson Cano and Dustin Pedroia should target Kipnis for production and value. The 26-year-old infielder ultimately ended the season as one of the elite fantasy producers in the league, not just at second base. He ranked as a top-15 position player in ESPN leagues and was either the second-or-third best second baseman, depending on the ranking system.
He was largely the same player as he was a year ago — roughly 15 home runs and 30 stolen bases — but his improved fantasy stock came from a 27-point jump in batting average from .257 to .284, respectively. That step forward in batting average allowed him to provide value in every standard category, and in OBP leagues, he was arguably more valuable because he’s always owned a healthy walk rate.
Much of that increased batting average came from improved production against left-handed pitching, something against which Kipnis struggled significantly a year ago:
One must be cognizant of the fact that much of the improvement stems from his .390 BABIP against southpaws this year, but it would be hasty to completely discount the significant power increase from the left side, as well. It’s one thing to have a few more ground balls and bloopers fall in against lefties. It’s another thing entirely, though, to have a 105-point jump in ISO on the strength of a 24.0% line drive rate. It seems Kipnis enjoyed some legitimate improvement in this area and wasn’t just a recipient of positive luck, although that was certainly a portion of it.
Not only should fantasy owners be wary of his potential BABIP regression, but legitimate questions surround his power production. Some have suggested Kipnis is a candidate to hit 20+ homers in 2014 because he’s on the correct side of the aging curve and increased his home runs from his first to second year. That’s overly simplistic. In fact, according to ESPN’s Home Run Tracker, Jason Kipnis had nine of his 17 home runs be “just enough” homers, meaning nine of his long balls barely cleared the fence. I’m not comfortable projecting him to launch 20+ bombs in 2014 when more than half of his 2013 homers were barely gone.
Again, that’s not to take away from the core skills. Kipnis is a good bet to offer around 13-15 home runs with 30+ steals and should score plenty of runs. That’s quite valuable, especially considering the second base position was a black hole of offensive production this season. I simply want to caution fantasy owners from thinking he’s a sure bet to hit .280+ with 20+ homers because that seems to be where he’s trending. It’s possible. I just don’t think it’s likely.
One area I’ve seen a lot of criticism levied in Kipnis’ direction, though, surrounds his increased strikeout rate. It jumped from 16.2% in 2012 to 21.7% this past season, and it’s been characterized as a significant red flag. I’m not seeing the huge concern. His swinging-strike rate remained level and his overall contact rate didn’t fall off the table. Instead, much of his increased strikeout rate seems to be a product of his decision to swing less often.
Those five had the lowest swing percentages of qualified hitters, and they’re all quality major-league hitters. Kipnis saw his swing percentage drop from 41.3% in 2012 to 38.7% in 2013, and not surprisingly, both his strikeout rate and walk rate increased. He’s not swinging and missing more often, which would be a red flag that his swing developed significant holes or opposing pitchers started to attack him differently. He’s simply watching more pitches, which have resulted in more strikeouts and walks.
Thus, fantasy owners who have Kipnis in keeper or dynasty leagues should consider shopping him this winter. Not because he’s a potential fantasy dud next season, but because he’ll likely be overvalued as an elite fantasy producer when he’ll likely taper off a bit in 2014. But those looking to sell high should do so because his batting average and power may not be what they seem, not because his strikeout rate increased — his strikeout rate is a product of fewer swings and fewer balls put in play (both positively and negatively).
When reflecting on his past season, though, it’s clear he was a stud. Fantasy owners who waited on draft day and selected Kipnis over guys like Ian Kinsler, Ben Zobrist and Brandon Phillips were likely doing backflips throughout the season. He was well worth the slight risk.
J.P. Breen is a graduate student at the University of Chicago. For analysis on the Brewers and fantasy baseball, you can follow him on Twitter (@JP_Breen).