Examining an enigma: Ian Kinsler

Examining an enigma: Ian Kinsler

Ian Kinsler's blend of power, contact, plate discipline and speed make him the rarest kind of a star.




Posted on September 8, 2011 at 1:56 AM

Updated Thursday, Sep 8 at 12:52 PM

Ian Kinsler is one of a kind.

He probably isn't the best second baseman in baseball. He certainly doesn't have as high a profile as Robinson Cano, Chase Utley or Dustin Pedroia. But whatever you think of Kinsler, he definitely does one thing better than anyone else: He stands out.

It all starts with Kinsler's backstory. The 17th rounder was never a highly heralded prospect, with most scouts praising his feel for the game and defensive ability as opposed to outstanding skills as a hitter. But Kinsler kept moving through the system, putting up impressive numbers and gradually winning over evaluators. He became a solid major league player, then busted out in 2008, putting together a superstar season before going down with an injury. He hit 319/.375/.517.


He came back the next season and fell in love with the longball. Kinsler took more walks and hit a career high 31 Home Runs, but sold out for that power, popping up on more than 11% of his at bats and hitting  lot of harmless medium-depth flyballs. He hit 253/.327/.488


Kinsler decided to take a different approach last year. He hit more line drives and grounders and popped up less -- but his power disappeared. However, his walk rate spiked all the way up to 12.2%  while his strikeout rate was a very solid 12.4%. He played like a traditional leadoff hitter, and a very good one. He hit .286/.382/.412.


Kinsler's 2011 has been arguably the strangest of the bunch. If all goes right through the next three weeks, it'll be his first injury-free season. He's used the opportunity to put up big-time counting stats in homers, walks, steals and runs. He's also drawn criticism from every end of the spectrum for hitting too many flyballs, "dogging it" on the bases and poor body language. The statistically progressive crowd has rallied around the Second Baseman, most proclaiming him the team's MVP. A middle ground in this debate only exists in some barren, uninhabited wasteland in the deepest corners of the internet, but it would be very difficult to chalk up this season as anything but positive. He's hit .245/.344/.469.


To paraphrase four paragraphs' worth of information: Every one of these seasons is distinct. Ian Kinsler has no rhyme and Ian Kinsler has no reason. But here's the freaky part. Let's take a look at a stat called Weighted On-base Average, or wOBA. This is a stathead favorite which shows an overall offensive picture, factoring in both hitting and baserunning. It's scaled to On-base percentage -- so .320 is right around league average, .350 is quite good, and .380 is great. For reference's sake, Mike Napoli (.416) is the only Ranger above this mark.

Ian Kinsler's wOBA in 2009: .358

Ian Kinsler's wOBA in 2010: .357

Ian Kinsler's wOBA in 2011 (before Wednesday's barrage): .359

Kinsler's steady offensive profile is nothing short of shocking, considering how far his play has spiked in varying directions over the years. One more freaky stat to really make you wonder if higher forces are at work...

Ian Kinsler's wOBA in 2007: .357.


All that is incredibly weird. But the strangeness isn't done yet. Because the real reason Kinsler stands out as one of the most distinct players in baseball are his...


Peripheral Stats

Ian Kinsler leads the league in Walk to Strikeout rate. This isn't a small stat; those are two huge parts of a player's offensive profile. Limiting strikeouts and drawing walks is the most foolproof recipe for high on-base percentage. Kinsler is fantastically patient, swinging at only 20.7% of pitches outside the strike zone (#2 in baseball). And when he lets loose, he's nearly always on the money; his 3.1% Swinging Strike rate is baseball's fifth-lowest. It's no coincidence that Kinsler is one of the league's best leadoff men, a fact partly fueled by...


Ian Kinsler leads all leadoff hitters in home runs. Even an MVP-worthy season from Jacoby Ellsbury hasn't managed to take that honor from Kinsler. The Second Baseman has been gifted with a strong pull stroke that, when it's on, can be absolutely lethal for 5-6 game stretches. It's absolutely puzzling that he's able to maintain such a powerful swing without sacrificing any contact ability. That's a skillset normally seen from generational superstars like Albert Pujols. The power numbers are also fueled by a very high flyball rate, which is part of why...


Ian Kinsler has MLB's second-lowest Batting Average on Balls in Play. This stat tends to fluctuate a lot between years, but with Kinsler's profile, he'll never put up gaudy numbers in this regard. Kinsler makes a ton of contact, much of it hard. But he puts so much loft on the ball that fielders have plenty of time to settle on it. While there's some measure of bad luck in his .234 Batting Average in play (On average, balls in play become hits at a 29% clip) he'll always struggle to convert his contact into hits -- there are too many fielders, too much time and not enough grass. But this is the biggest reason Kinsler vexes many mainstream fans and media figures; he hits into seemingly "easy" outs. And because of his position in the order, not many runners are on board to advance along the basepaths on the long flyballs he regularly strokes. So he's seen as a player who throws away at bats. But in reality, he does the little things very well. Among them...


Ian Kinsler is one of the best baserunners in baseball. Over his career, he's stolen 129 bases and only been caught 20 times, a fantastic success rate bested only by Jimmy Rollins, Jayson Werth, Chase Utley and Carlos Beltran. He's also graded out very positively on Fangraphs' "Baserunning Runs" statistic, where he's fourth in baseball since his 2007 premiere. (Fun fact: Elvis Andrus is 3rd despite spending 2007 in High A ball and 2008 in AA).


So, to summarize: Ian Kinsler is one of baseball's unquestionably elite in three very important offensive categories (he's also an elite defender), and one of the absolute worst in another. There's no other player like him; finding a comparison is a truly futile task. What does this mean for Kinsler long-term?


Nobody knows. To make up a line worthy of Ron Washington, "That's part of what makes Kinsler Kinsler."



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