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Ian Kinsler and the Value of Hitting Leadoff

From a fantasy perspective, Ian Kinsler performed almost exactly as I expected. After an incredible 30-30 season in 2011, I assumed a bit of regression would be in order. I also wondered if he could manage to stay healthy and play in over 150 games in two straight seasons, so in that regard he was a smashing success.

For the second straight season, Kinsler led the Texas Rangers in both plate appearances and runs scored. Given that the Rangers ranked third and first in runs scored in 2011 and 2012 respectively shouldn’t come as a surprise either. Kinsler possesses the rare gift of being able to hit for power and draw walks all while keeping his strikeouts in check and his contract rate high. That he can steal bases is just the icing on top. If only we could pencil him in for a .300 average, he would be the ideal fantasy player.

This past season brought a little less power and a little less speed than what we’ve been accustomed to seeing from Kinsler. Other than his 103 game, injury plagued 2010 season, 2012 was the first season that he didn’t have a slugging percentage above .440. An arbitrary mark to be sure, but his career low .326 on-base percentage combined with his poor slugging produced a below average offensive player: 2012 was the first season that Kinsler dropped below the 100 wRC+ mark. Or the .345, let alone the .330 wOBA mark.

A big part of the offensive (both fantasy and real) drop is that his BB% dropped over full four points, from 12.3% in 2011 to 8.2% this past year. Comparing the two seasons given roughly the same number of PA’s — 723 and 731 — Kinsler drew 89 walks then a mere 60 this past season. Fewer walks means fewer chances to get driven in and score some runs, let alone fewer chances to grab some stolen bases. The good news is that he did set a career high in HBP. That alone gave him first base 10 times. With no real discernible difference comparing his 2012 swing rates against his career, I feel safe in thinking that his BB% will be back in the 10% neighborhood next season.

As optimistic as I am about his walk rate, I am rather wary of his stolen base rate. After an outstanding ratio of 30:4 in the SB/CS department in 2011, this past season did not run as smoothly. Pun intended. Yes, 2012 was a much tougher go for Kinslers, as he still stole 21 bases — but he was caught nine times, a career worst. I don’t have to tell you that caught stealing’s are frustrating, perhaps only bested by TOOTBLAN’s.

According to the excellent work by our very own Zach Sanders, Kinsler was still the third most valuable second baseman as far as dollar value goes. Kinsler’s relatively poor average is what drags him down, but his value comes from hitting lead-off and scoring a ton of runs. As we all know, runs are not totally an individual achievement a prolific offense that hits behind him definitely helps him out too. Kinsler finished in a tie with Robinson Cano for the most runs scored by a second basemen this season, both scoring 105 runs.

Even without setting the world on fire with his batting average, Kinsler still has enough value in his bat — and to a lesser extent in his legs — to be a viable keeper and a corner (or more accurately key) stone player next season. I’ll be ranking and hopefully drafting him nearly the same as ever.