Ian Kinsler as Shane Victorino

Today, there’s a lot of talk about Ian Kinsler‘s decline. He just finished his age-31 season, and his power seems to be disappearing before our eyes. His ISOs over the last three years: .223/.166./.136, and that’s with playing half his games in Texas. There are signs that he might be slowing down too, as he was just 15 for 26 in stolen base attempts, not anywhere near his career 84% success rate heading into 2013.

Kinsler was still a reasonably productive player last year, but as a right-handed hitter who does most of his damage against lefties, a continuation of these trends might lead to Kinsler ending up as a very expensive platoon player in a couple of years. If the power starting to erode, or was a product of Texas’ ballpark, then Kinsler’s future value is going to depend on his baserunning and defense, both things we expect to evaporate as a player gets into his thirties.

Still, I can’t help but feel like I heard all these same arguments last year when the Red Sox signed Shane Victorino to a three year, $39 million contract. Because Victorino’s 2012 and Kinsler’s 2013 look pretty darn similar.

Shane Victorino 666 8% 12% 0.128 0.278 0.255 0.321 0.383 0.310 93 7.0 1.7 4.4 2.9
Ian Kinsler 614 8% 10% 0.136 0.288 0.277 0.344 0.413 0.334 105 -0.5 2.7 -0.3 2.5

For both players, we’re looking at their age-31 season. Both players experienced significant power drops from their career norms, and were moderate walk/high contact gap hitters who did most of their damage against left-handed pitching. Victorino had a little more baserunning and defensive value, while Kinsler was a slightly better hitter. The overall package was about the same, though, as 2012 Victorino was worth +2.6 WAR per 600 PAs, while 2013 Kinsler was worth +2.4 WAR per 600 PAs.

This isn’t the only year in which the two players are similar. Just for fun, here are their career totals, side by side:

Shane Victorino 4,827 7% 12% 0.155 0.299 0.277 0.342 0.432 0.340 106 42.0 77.8 59.9 30.4
Ian Kinsler 4,791 10% 12% 0.182 0.281 0.273 0.349 0.454 0.351 111 39.8 104.9 18.2 29.1

Kinsler has walked a little more and had a little more power, but the BABIP difference — thanks to Kinsler’s propensity for hitting a ton of infield flies, he regularly runs below average rates of hits on balls in play — cancels a lot of that out. Overall, Kinsler has been a slightly better hitter, even after adjusting for their home ballparks, while Victorino has provided a little more value with the glove. The skillsets are pretty similar, though. Victorino has been essentially the outfield version of Kinsler for the better part of the last decade.

Victorino, of course, had a monster season for the Red Sox in 2013, essentially squashing all the doubts about whether his 2012 performance was a sign that his skills were eroding. He posted a 119 wRC+, the second best of his career, in part because his power rebounded close to his career average. Even after moving down the defensive spectrum, his defensive value was as high as it had ever been, though there are certainly some error bars around that estimate. In retrospect, Victorino should have looked like a +3 WAR player coming off a +3 WAR season, and a lot of the hand-wringing over giving him 3/39 seems to have focused too much on the trees and not enough on the forest as a whole.

That Victorino had a monster season at age-32 doesn’t ensure that Kinsler will do the same. N of 1 doesn’t prove anything. However, I do think that players that project as roughly average hitters who add value with their gloves and legs are probably written off prematurely after a season in which their offensive levels show some decline.

Jimmy Rollins, for instance, posted a wRC+ of 85 and 88 at ages 30/31, as his power trended downwards from his peak, but then rebounded to post wRC+ marks of 103/100 at ages 32/33, and when combined with everything else he did, he was one of the league’s best shortstops. Alex Rios fell apart at age-30, then bounced back to have the best offensive season of his career at age-31. Randy Winn was excellent with this same offensive skillset through age-31, then fell apart at age-32, but rebounded to become a productive player again at 33/34.

Or, perhaps if we want to hit a little closer to Texas’ home, there’s the Michael Young example. Same basic set of skills at the plate, though his power took a big step the wrong way as he got to age-30. From 29-31, he was essentially an average hitter who had lost most of the thump that he displayed in his prime, and was losing his defensive skills as well. His age-31 season included a 95 wRC+, his first year being a below average hitter since his age-25 season. Then, at age-32, Young posted a 128 wRC+, the second best mark of his career. Average again at age-33, then a 127 wRC+ at age-34. Young was a better player from 32 to 34 than he was from 29 to 31.

Guys like this, who hang around league average production, seem to be judged fairly harshly as soon as they have one below average year with the bat. Since they weren’t ever great hitters to begin with, and their value comes through accumulating singles and doubles and avoiding strikeouts, we don’t really view them as offensive threats. When the numbers go south, even a bit, it seems like the assumption is that they’re headed for some kind of cliff of impending doom.

I think there are too many examples that run counter to that idea to take it at face value. It’s easy to look at Kinsler and see a mediocre hitter who is getting worse. It was easy to look at Victorino and see the same thing a year ago. Or any other number of similar players over the past few years. I don’t see a lot of evidence that these early 30s declines actually do spell impending doom for these players, though. Good contact/gap power guys don’t just stop hitting after they turn 30. Defensive and baserunning value might peak early, but it doesn’t evaporate after a guy leaves his twenties.

Ian Kinsler has been an above average player every year since 2007, and at his peak, he was one of the best players in baseball. The Tigers made this deal to get rid of Prince Fielder‘s contract, but getting Ian Kinsler isn’t a bad thing for the Tigers either. Let’s not be so quick to write off players of this ilk after the first sign decline.

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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

31 Responses to “Ian Kinsler as Shane Victorino”

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  1. ralph says:

    However, according to Dave, we should be very quick to write off players of Fielder’s bulk after the first sign of decline.

    (Sorry, couldn’t resist. I understand why Dave largely says that, but I’d feel much more confident that Fielder’s career was all downhill from here if he was a couple years older and not going to a ballpark that should suit him better.)

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  2. triple_r says:
    FanGraphs Supporting Member

    Why don’t you do some sort of study for this (like you did with the piece on Ellsbury and speed players) instead of providing anecdotal evidence?

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  3. Todd says:

    Problem is, it looks like the legs/glove value that Kinsler provides is also declining. And, he actually had a better year with the stick this year than last.

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    • RC says:

      Kinsler looks like hes legitimately going through a multi-year decline. Victorino had a bad year (mostly because of injury). There’s a big difference there.

      Victorino- .340,.351,.352,.331,.368,.310 ->.353
      Kinsler – .351,.355,.364,.327,.334 ->

      Victorino has bounced around quite a bit by wOBA. He seems like a .340+-/20 wOBA player, so .310 with an injury doesn’t seem too bad. Combined with Victorino playing basically average CF, he seemed like a pretty safe bet to me (even at a .320 wOBA, hes still a 3-4 win player)

      Kinsler on the other hand has been remarkably consistent, so a 25 point drop in his wOBA signifies in my mind that something has changed. Combine that with Kinsler going from being elite defensively from 2009-2011, and then being below average the last two years, and that just screams decline to me.

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      • Drew says:

        Downward trajectories don’t necessarily continue downward.

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        • RC says:

          No, they don’t necessarily. But for 32 year old baseball players, a downward trajectory is not a good sign. Plenty of players fall off a cliff at that age.

          There’s a chance that he’ll bounce back, but the chance that he’s established a new (lower) talent level, or that hes going to continue to decline, is most likely higher.

          Every facet of his game has gotten worse each of the last 2 years. That’s a big red flag.

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    • Balthazar says:

      Something missed from these attempts to plot a trajectory is this: It is very common for a player to have a decline in the the first year of a multi-year contract. To what extent that is a psychological thing, a let-down after pushing hard to get the deal, is hard to say. And it doesn’t affect every player. Me; I tend to a) heavily regress to mean great numbers in a guy’s walk year, and b) significantly regress to the mean less-than-great numbers in a guy’s first long-term year.

      There’s the fact, too, that Kinsler was playing unhappy in that the Rangers were trying to get him to move to a position he refused to play so that a guy who’s never done jack yet in the majors could take his job, and this AFTER Ian just committed to stay five years in the org. That’s a fine pat on the back (about two feet lower). Now, he’s acquired by a new org which not only very clearly wants him, but has a major need for him to play 2B and nowhere else. This is all stuff which doesn’t appear in the stats but is relevant context in trying to gauge trend variance. The takeaway to me is that I’d lean more heavily on Kinsler’s overall pattern than on his 2013. Take the over on Kinsler’s 2014-2015 seasons.

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      • RC says:

        His 2012 was just as bad as his 2013, though.

        Thats kind of the thing, it’s possible that Kinsler felt unwanted, etc. But its just much more likely that the last 1200+ PA have set a new, lower, talent level.

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  4. Atreyu Jones says:

    Part of the problem is the misconception among some parts of the analytic community that 30-32 is “baseball old.” It is not.

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    • Mac says:

      Over peak != “old”

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    • Billy says:

      THANK YOU! I always have drawn the line in my head at 33 (mid thirties) where I really start to worry about decline more than just plain 30. I understand mild decline is likely in those years, but it’s not so strong that I see it as the most influencing factor. Just for the sake of sharing experiences and thought processes, here’s how my mind works:

      Age 25 and below: pre-prime
      Age 26-28: prime
      Age 29-32: basically still prime but mild decline maybe
      Age 33-35: probably decline
      Age 36+: only players who age very well are still good

      Also I have what I call “extended prime” which is 25-32.

      Basically I hate how people draw the line at 30 since it’s a nice round number. Technically mild decline starts a year or two before on aging curves, and for individuals, there are some that are even just hitting their best years in the 29-32 stretch. But so many people just see an age starting with a 3 and call a guy old. I understand they’re too old to sign for 7 years, but they’re not too old to be good.

      So yeah, 33 is where I tend to start to worry a bit, but even then, it’s not really a cut-off. It’s a curve.

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    • slackerjack says:

      Yes, but early 30’s is old for a 2B. Because of the physical demands of the position, it’s got a much higher attrition rate than SS or 3B. 35 is pretty much retirement age (or the age when you switch to DH, or a less demanding position).

      There’s a very good chance that Kinsler will be an overpaid DH by the time 2016 rolls around.

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      • RC says:

        2B has a higher attrition rate than SS because the players aren’t as good, not because the position is more demanding.

        Pretty much every 2b is a guy who got moved off of short.

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        • Wobatus says:

          I thought it was because their back is turned toward the oncoming runner on double play balls. And shortstops aren’t better players. They are better fielders.

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      • Bones says:

        He’s not going to be DHing in Detroit. I highly doubt after they give Miggy the moon they are going to take any chances with him in the field. (Especially considering they’ll be a better team with him in the dugout when he’s not hitting regardless of position played.)

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  5. Johnny says:

    To me the trade will probably benefit Texas in the first 2 seasons but years 3-7 of that Fielder contract could look really bad.

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    • Bones says:

      The first 2 seasons are before the $30 mil kicks in. It’s still 18 per season after that, but not quite as ugly. Plus where are they going to find a Prince Fielder in FA? They won’t until 2016 and I doubt they’ll be able to get any of those guys for 18 mil a season.

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  6. Jon L. says:

    Oh sure, they look sort of similar when you cherry-pick 13 or so of the most commonly-used stats.

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  7. Eric Feczko says:

    I agree with your primary point: a datum of one season does not equate to a trend. However, I don’t think Victorino is a great comparison for Ian Kinsler.
    Victorino was a switch-hitter who typically batted left-handed against right-handed pitching. If you look at his career splits, they are pretty substantial.
    This year, Victorino batted right handed for a third of his plate appearances against right-handers with a 149 wRC+. This was the first time in his career where he batted right-handed and left-handed for a relatively equal number of plate appearances. It is possible that Victorino’s resurgence stemmed from this decision. Ian Kinsler, as a right-handed hitter, does not have this option.

    Then again, 115 plate appearances is an extremely small sample size and some of the peripherals suggest it may be a fluke. If Victorino decides to bat right-handed next season, it will be interesting to see whether his resurgence will continue.

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  8. pft says:

    Victorino struggled offensively until August when he gave up hitting from the left side and batted RH against RHP’ers. Not sure Kinsler is a good comp here, and Kinslers career road stats of 710 OPS have to make you wonder if he can overcome that.

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    • RC says:

      Victorino had a 740 OPS at the beginning of August, which is still above league average. If he’d continued to hit that way through August, he would have been roughly a 5 WAR player instead of a 5.6 WAR player.

      I’m not sure thats struggling.

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  9. Randy says:

    The Tigers have a history of signing aging veterans and have had success so it isn’t surprising to see them take a risk on a possibly declining player, especially considering it is at a position of need for them. I also think you have to factor in the position scarcity at 2B. There was no where for Infante to go but down, but there is a possibility Kinsler has a rebound season. In addition, the money that was freed up is going to be spent elsewhere. It puts them in the market for one of the prime free agent outfielders and gives them a chance to re-sign Scherzer and/or Cabrera.

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  10. DD says:

    But Dave, isn’t TWO down years for Kinsler a “trend” downward? One bad year does not a trend make, in Victorino or any other case.

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  11. PackBob says:

    Seems to me the hand-wringing is the key here more so than Kinsler and Victorino being perfect comps. A year or two of downward trend at age 30 doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the age curve taking effect and that a continued downward trend is a given.

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