Is It Time to Worry About Ian Kinsler?

The 2016 season was a great one, statistically, for Ian Kinsler. By WAR, wRC+ and wOBA, it was (at least) one of the best three seasons of his career — a career that should garner a modicum of Hall of Fame debate when he retires. But in looking at his Steamer projection for this season, I started to wonder — is this the season we should start to worry about Ian Kinsler?

What immediately stands out in Kinsler’s Steamer projection is a drop in wOBA and WAR. Steamer forecasts him for just a .320 wOBA. It would be the second-worst mark of Kinsler’s soon-to-be 12-year career, and only by one point (he posted a .319 wOBA in 2014, his first year in Detroit). Steamer calls for Kinsler to produce 2.8 WAR. While that would represent a good year for most second basemen, it would be the second-worst mark in 10 seasons for Kinsler (who posted 2.6 WAR in 2013). Simply put, Kinsler is generally a lot better than those numbers.

So I wanted to take a broader sampling of projection systems. Along with Steamer, FanGraphs also has the FANS and ZiPS projections readily available. To those, I added David Pinto’s Musing Marcels, while Mike Podhorzer was also kind enough to share his projections, giving me five in total. Let’s have a look:

Ian Kinsler 2017 Projections
Projection PA H HR BB% K% ISO BABIP AVG OBP SLG OPS wOBA
Fans (18) 700 185 22 8.0% 15.0% 0.164 0.320 0.292 0.354 0.457 0.811 0.350
ZiPS 631 160 17 5.9% 13.6% 0.155 0.297 0.275 0.325 0.430 0.755 0.333
Marcel 607 156 17 6.1% 14.3% 0.157 0.303 0.279 0.328 0.436 0.764 0.329
Podhorzer 676 171 19 6.5% 14.4% 0.161 0.298 0.275 0.328 0.436 0.764 0.329
Steamer 656 160 17 6.3% 15.2% 0.152 0.294 0.268 0.321 0.420 0.741 0.320

The FANS are the most bullish — no surprise there — and Steamer is most bearish. The differences in OBP are slight among four of the five projections, but there’s a wider gulf in how the systems see Kinsler’s slugging percentage playing out. Steamer also sees him recording the highest strikeout rate of the five systems. An inspection of his slash stats reveals that none of the projections see him coming close to a repeat of his 2016 performance. The FANS, at an .811 OPS, are again the most bullish in this regard. Even so, that marks still falls 20 points short of his .831 OPS from last year. And the other four projections place his slugging mark somewhere between .741 and .764, which is a huge drop off from 2016, and also would come in lower than his 2015 season (.770 OPS). In Steamer’s case (.741), quite a bit lower.

Of course, it’s no surprise that the projections would scale back from what was a late-career-type year from Kinsler. But it also got me thinking of just how rare his age-34 season was.

Qualified Second-Base Seasons by Age, 1947-2016
Age Qual. Seasons 2.0-2.9 WAR 3.0-3.9 WAR 4.0-4.9 WAR 5+ WAR
32 63 12 8 5 14
33 50 6 6 8 8
34 34 7 4 3 7
35 20 4 1 4 0
36 13 4 2 4 1
37 9 6 1 0 0
38 6 2 0 0 1
39 2 2 0 0 0
40 1 0 0 0 0
41 1 0 0 0 0

Kinsler’s 5.8 WAR, age-34 season was one of just seven such qualified seasons since baseball integrated in 1947. That’s, like, pretty rare. As you can see, it’s pretty rare for a second baseman even to qualify for the batting title at his age, occurring on just 34 occasions in 70 seasons. And as he ages, things won’t get any easier. The age-40 and -41 qualified seasons belong to Craig Biggio, who the Astros let hang around in a fairly naked attempt to allow him the opportunity to notch/profit from his 3,000th hit.

More tellingly, look at those cells in the table below the yellow one highlighting Kinsler’s 2016 season. The only rays of hope are Randy Velarde‘s 1999 campaign (6.1 WAR) and Joe Morgan‘s 1982 campaign (5.2 WAR). One of those players may have been the best second baseman ever to play baseball, and the other shows how delightfully random the sport can be. That 1999 campaign accounted for 27% of Velarde’s career WAR. He only accumulated 2.3 WAR in the preceding three seasons, and just 4.0 WAR in the following three. To say that his age-36 season was an aberration is a bit of an understatement.

All told, Kinsler would have to be very impressive this season to overcome the weight of historical precedent. Especially interesting is that Kinsler may have been cheating on pitches last year. His 16.9% strikeout rate was a career high, and it was supported by a near career-worst contact rate. His 4.2% drop in Contact% from 2015 to 2016 was the biggest year-over-year drop in his Contact% over his career. He made less contact on pitches in and out of the strike zone, even though he swung at fewer pitches in the strike zone. Also of note was that barreled fewer balls last year than he did in 2015:

Ian Kinsler Barrels, 2015-2016
Season BBE Barrels Brls/BBE Brls/PA
2015 485 26 5.4% 3.9%
2016 455 18 4.0% 2.7%
SOURCE: Baseball Savant
BBE = Batted Ball Events

When someone pops off for their highest home-run total in six seasons, one would think that he had barreled more balls, but that wasn’t the case for Kinsler. Adding to that is Podhorzer’s xHR/FB calculation. In 2016, Kinsler’s actual HR/FB tied for his career-best mark, 12.5%. But Podhorzer’s xHR/FB for Kinsler was 8.4%, a drop from his actual HR/FB, as well as a drop from his 2015 xHR/FB. This is also supported by ESPN HitTracker, which shows that nine of Kinsler’s 28 homers last season were of the “just enough” variety, which is slightly higher than average. It was also two more JE homers than he had hit in his previous two Detroit seasons combined.

Finally, there’s Kinsler’s batted ball profile. Close Kinsler watchers will know that the overwhelming majority of his hits for power come when they are pulled down the left-field line. To wit:

So, combined with the possibility that his bat may be slowing and that he was guessing a lot more is the concern about his power-generation methods. What happens when he loses the ability to turn on pitches altogether? Will he be able to adjust and find a different way to hit for power, or will that power vanish quickly? And will that happen this year?

I’m not here to say Kinsler isn’t capable of continuing to excel, just that the odds are stacked against him. Of course, they have continuously been stacked against the former 17th-round pick throughout his career. But this does raise the question of what the Tigers should do with him if they get off to a slow start this season. Detroit only has Kinsler signed through 2017. There were rumors this offseason that the team would start to sell off players and settle in for what is likely to be a major rebuild, though that plan didn’t come to fruition in advance of owner Mike Ilitch’s passing. Now that the team will be denied one more chance to win it all for their beloved owner, it’s worth contemplating when the sell-off may begin. History certainly suggests that, if Detroit isn’t contending this season and can get something good for Kinsler, they should jump at the chance.

In order for them to do so, Kinsler will have to keep on chugging. The projections are skeptical, as is their wont, but perhaps it will be much ado about nothing. Few players have been as consistently good as Kinsler for the past decade. In discussing him with a friend the other day, he remarked that Kinsler feels like clockwork. The clock may slow a little each year, but there Kinsler is, putting up All-Star seasons, one right after the other. If he does so again this season, it will be an impressive feat indeed.



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Paul Swydan is the managing editor of The Hardball Times, a writer and editor for FanGraphs and a writer for Boston.com. He has written for The Boston Globe, ESPN MLB Insider and ESPN the Magazine, among others. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan.


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