For the last few seasons, Ian Kinsler has been one of the more under-appreciated stars in Major League Baseball. From 2009 to 2011, Kinsler produced +15.8 WAR for the Rangers, putting him in a near dead heat with Robinson Cano (+16.4) and Dustin Pedroia (+16.2) at second base, and ranking him ahead of high profile players such as Prince Fielder (+15.3), Matt Kemp (+14.3), and even his teammate Josh Hamilton (+14.1). Even if you think defensive metrics are completely useless and you want to assume that every player is an average defender at their position, Kinsler would still grade out as top 25 position player, and he’d still grade out ahead of Hamilton. His combination of plate discipline, elite contact skills, rare power for a middle infielder, and his ability to add value on the bases makes him one of the most complete players in the game.
Recognizing his value to the franchise, the Rangers rewarded him with a new five year contract extension today, agreeing to pay him $75 million from 2013 to 2017. This deal will keep Kinsler from becoming a free agent after the 2013 season and allows Texas to retain one of the core players at a price that shouldn’t prove too prohibitive going forward. At $15 million per year, Kinsler won’t have to remain a superstar in his mid-30s to justify the contract – as long as he’s healthy and retains some of the skills he’s shown up to this point in his career, it should prove to be a solid investment by the Rangers.
However, there’s a bit of an asterisk when you deal with second baseman on the wrong side of 30 – they don’t age very well at all. While the reasons behind the phenomenon aren’t perfectly understood (best guesses at the moment include the physical toll taken via turning the double play, and a selection bias effect based on what traits 2Bs get selected for having), the evidence is too strong to ignore.
To illustrate this point, I used the fantastic age filters on our leaderboards to create a list of second baseman in the last 50 years who posted similar numbers to Kinsler from ages 27-29. Since Kinsler posted a 119 wRC+ over the last three years, I wanted guys who had hit similarly well in order to find the closest possible comps, so I took all the regular second baseman with a WRC+ of between 110 and 130 in their 27-29 years.
I had to throw out contemporaries like Rickie Weeks and Ben Zobrist, but in the end, we were left with 23 second baseman who were well above average hitters. As a group, these 23 players hit .280/.361/.430 during their 27-29 years, good for a 118 wRC+, so Kinsler fits into the overall average pretty well. Looking at the same 23 players from ages 31-35, the drop-off is pretty severe – the median performance is just .266/.345/.402, or a 103 wRC+, and the corresponding drop in playing time is even more severe; they averaged 574 plate appearances per year from 27-29 but just 347 from 31-35.
There are some guys who beat the norm and continued to be productive into their mid-30s: Lou Whitaker, Bobby Grich, Roberto Alomar, Davey Lopes, Julio Franco, and Ryne Sandberg all posted at least +17.5 WAR during this five year stretch by maintaining their offensive value (though Franco moved off the position at age 32), and Placido Polanco also topped that mark through his elite glovework and durability. But, there are also a lot of somewhat inexplicable collapses from guys who were really good before they were 30 and pretty lousy afterwards.
Chuck Knoblauch was even better than Kinsler from 27-29 (125 wRC+, +17.8 WAR), but completely fell apart at age 31 and was a replacement level player until age 33, at which point he was out of baseball. Jose Vidro was a very similar hitter to Kinsler through age 29, but his power disappeared and he was also basically worthless after age 31. Jose Offerman went from posting a 110 wRC+ from 27-29 to an 85 wRC+ from 31-35. Dick McAuliffe went from 127 to 98. Jorge Orta went from 114 to 94. Denis Menke from 115 to 91 and didn’t even rack up 900 plate appearances after turning 31.
For whatever reason, the aging curve for second baseman is fairly steep, and even some of the best players at the position have just stopped being productive in their early thirties. So, while the Rangers signed Kinsler to be their second baseman now, I’d imagine they realize that he’s probably not long for the position.
In Jurickson Profar, the Rangers have one of the game’s most exciting young prospects. This is a kid who, as an 18-year-old in full-season low-A, hit .286/.390/.493 last year. He drew more walks than strikeouts and finished second in the league in doubles, a pretty astonishing performance for any player, and especially for one who also carries a lot of defensive value as a shortstop. Profar is so advanced that the Rangers started him at Double-A as a 19-year-old this year, and he could legitimately be forcing his way onto the team’s roster at some point in 2013. With Elvis Andrus at short and Kinsler at second, someone is going to get out of Profar’s way in the next 12-18 months, and considering what we know about Kinsler and Andrus’ expected aging curves, it should almost certainly be Kinsler.
Moving a good defensive second baseman to the outfield is going to cause a loss of value, as Kinsler’s bat is simply not as good relative to the competition in left (where most speculation suggests he’ll end up) as it is at second base. Better expected health should offset that to some degree, but even if we project him as a 110 wRC+ hitter with slightly above average defense in left, that makes him about a +3 win player rather than the +4 win guy he projects out to as a second baseman. The difference in expected declines between the positions evens that out a bit over the five year window, but Kinsler is likely to be somewhat less valuable as a left fielder than a second baseman.
However, the Rangers aren’t making this decision in a bubble, and it makes more sense to move a wrong-side-of-30 Kinsler than it does to trade Andrus or keep Profar in the minors, and Kinsler can still be worth this contract as an outfielder, especially if the lack of wear and tear of second base keeps him healthier in the process. 5/75 for a good-not-great left fielder isn’t a massive bargain, but considering where the Rangers are on the win curve, the value of each additional win to them is higher than it is for most franchises, and they probably couldn’t have replaced Kinsler at a significantly lower cost without taking a performance hit. The fact that he can stick at second base for a bit longer if Profar or Andrus get injured or significantly regress gives him additional value over a pure outfielder, and makes this deal worth doing for Texas.
Whether Kinsler can remain an elite player going forward is a legitimate question, but at 5/75, he doesn’t necessarily need to in order to make this contract worth signing for the Rangers. This looks like a win-win deal for both sides, even if Kinsler isn’t going to stick at second base long term.