Introducing August Fagerstrom, and addressing Kipnis’ swing

AugustOnce upon a time, I was an intern for MLB.com, cutting my teeth as a beat reporter’s sidekick. That was a decade ago now. You never know where such opportunities will take you. It took me to my current role as the beat writer for Indians.com. And I’ve got a new sidekick of my own coming soon.

Each year, MLB.com searches the country for a crop of associate reporters and sends one to each Major League city. This season, helping me on the beat in Cleveland will be the talented August Fagerstrom. He’s already gained a wealth of experience via the Akron Beacon Journal, and has contributed to Fangraphs, The Hardball Times, Fox Sports 1 and JABO. Give him a follow on Twitter: @AugustF_MLB.

August has already established himself as great source for sabermetric analysis, so I’m planning on giving him the keys to this space throughout this season to go in-depth on certain topics. With my appreciation for historical perspective, and August’s knowledge of advanced stats, I think we’ll create a pretty good team and provide some unique coverage for you this year on MLB.com, Indians.com and on the blog.

For his first piece, August wanted to look at Jason Kipnis’ swing, and the way the April oblique injury last season took a toll on his ability to drive the ball to the opposite field with authority. We’ve heard plenty of anecdotal evidence along those lines, but August wanted to see if the video footage and numbers backed up the idea that Kipnis’ slugging decline was the direct result of the health woes.

I will say, from watching Kipnis during Spring Training, we saw results that looked more in line with the Kipnis we came to expect in 2013. This past spring — before and after the back issue that cost him a week of games — Kipnis was slashing balls the opposite way with authority, and consistently. That’s a great sign.

Here is a taste of some of what you should expect from August this season. Enjoy.

–Jordan Bastian

——————————–

Addressing the Hole in Jason Kipnis’ Swing

A quote, offered by Indians second baseman Jason Kipnis in July of the 2013 season:

“I was joking around in the cage,” Kipnis said, “that I almost don’t even know what its like to pull the ball any more. I almost forgot what it feels like.”

The left-handed second baseman, in the midst of an All-Star year, was driving the ball to the opposite field so often, he joked he’d forgotten how to pull the ball.

A relevant image, comparing the location of home runs hit by Kipnis, with that 2013 All-Star season appearing on the left and his tough 2014 on the right:

MLB1_KipCompare

One of those things is not like the other. The good Kipnis, on the left, joked about forgetting how to pull the ball. The struggling Kipnis, on the right, looks like he forgot how to do anything but pull the ball.

This is the part where I remind you about Kipnis’ oblique injury. Kipnis tore his right oblique on April 29, 2014, and, after a lengthy stint on the disabled list, admitted to playing through pain for the rest of the year. While he’ll tell you the injury isn’t to be used as an excuse for his drop in production, playing through pain is the kind of thing that can alter a swing. Altering a swing is the kind of thing that can hurt a player’s production, and so you can connect the dots there. Kipnis has a unique swing, and it’s easy to tell when that swing isn’t there, which we’ll get to in a second.

But first, let’s consult a table with some numbers in it. The numbers measure Kipnis’ offensive production, based on batted ball location. If you aren’t already familiar with weighted runs created plus (wRC+), you can acquaint yourself. It’s really not that complicated — the idea is similar to OPS+, in that it’s an all-encompassing offensive statistic where every tick above or below 100 represents a percentage point above or below the league average.

The table:

Jason Kipnis, wRC+ by batted ball location
Oppo Center Pull
2011-13 196 148 103
2014 102 124 80

The top line is healthy Kipnis. Even healthy Kipnis isn’t a great pull-field hitter, but healthy Kipnis had a unique strength, in that his production, relative to the league average, got better and better the more he hit towards left field. On the far left of that table, you see that healthy Kipnis’ opposite field production, over a three-year stretch, was 96% better then league average, and that was a top-10 mark in baseball. At his best, in 2013, he had an opposite-field wRC+ of 268, which was topped only by Chris Davis and Joe Mauer. Kipnis, at his best, drives the ball to the opposite field as well as any player in baseball. That’s what makes his swing unique, as mentioned earlier, and that’s why it’s easy to see when that swing isn’t there.

The bottom line of the table is last year’s Kipnis. Last year’s Kipnis struggled all around. His production to the pull field dropped by about 20%. His production to the middle of the field dropped by about 20%. But his production to the opposite field — his biggest strength — cratered 90 percentage points all the way down to league average, rendering it no longer a strength at all. Jason Kipnis was missing the biggest part of his game, and any hitter who’s missing the biggest part of their game will struggle.

So, about that hole in Kipnis’ swing. Clearly, there was a hole. Kipnis had a strength, and then it was gone. What you’re about to see are a couple heatmaps, comparing Kipnis’ slugging percentages, by pitch location, in 2013 and 2014. I’ve highlighted the problem area:

MLB2_KipHeat

It’s no surprise where we find the hole. It’s no surprise that a player who stopped driving the ball to the opposite field had trouble extending their swing. Kipnis was unable to cover the outer- and upper-third of the plate in 2014, and he’s never been much of a pull hitter, so it’s necessary he covers that outer-third to take advantage of his greatest strength in going the opposite way.

Time to see this in action. We’re going to see two pitches. They’re both going to be 94mph fastballs, thrown by a left-handed pitcher, at Progressive Field. They’re both going to be 5 inches out, and 2 inches down, from the center of the strike zone. They are, for all intents and purposes, the exact same pitch. Only difference is, one was thrown in 2013, and the other was thrown in 2014.

The pitch from 2013:

MLB3_Kip2B

The pitch from 2014:

MLB4_KipGO

If you watched a lot of Indians baseball from 2011-2013, that top swing should look familiar. If you continued watching a lot of Indians baseball in 2014, however, the bottom swing should also be all too familiar. What you’re looking at here is, essentially, the difference between the good version of a player, and the bad version of that same player, in two moving images.

Looking at the swings, it’s hard to see much of a difference. Baseball is a subtle game. It’s a game where the batter is working with just tenths of a second to both make a decision and execute a complex swing, and so even subtle changes can cause big differences. If we squint, is there anything to see in Kipnis’ swing?

At the pitcher’s release point:

MLB5_KipSwing1

Not much to see here! Looks like the same guy, with the same stance.

At the moment the front foot comes down:

MLB6_KipSwing2

Now we have something. Where you want to be looking is the right hip, and how it’s flying open just a bit in the bottom image. That hip leaking out prevents Kipnis from staying back on the ball — necessary in order to drive it to the opposite field.

From Indians hitting coach Ty Van Burkleo:

“He was guarding that [oblique] area,” Van Burkleo said, “and it was causing him to just kind of sweep through balls and kind of cast them out and pull them.

At the moment of contact:

MLB7_KipSwing3

In the top frame, Kipnis kept his hips square, which allowed him to keep his hands back, and he drove the ball off the wall in left field. In the bottom frame, the hips flew open just a bit, the hands got started a bit early, and he rolled the exact same pitch over to second base, something that became a recurring theme for Kipnis in 2014. This is the kind of thing you expect to see with a hitter compensating for an injury in his swing. Certainly, there could be more moving parts in Kipnis’ struggle, but this jibes with what Van Burkleo sees, and it jibes with what the numbers see.

So, what did we learn from this exercise?

We learned that the success of Jason Kipnis, as a hitter, stems from the ability to drive the ball to the opposite field.  We learned that, in order for Kipnis to drive the ball the opposite field, he needs to cover the outer-third of the plate. He wasn’t able to do that in 2014, and perhaps it was due to his right hip area flying open, just a bit, and the hands not staying back. We already knew that Kipnis was dealing with a right oblique injury, and that could help explain the right hip being the root of the mechanical issue.

And so what does this all mean moving forward? It’s hard to say.

Who knows whether the oblique is back to 100% health, and, even if it is, who’s to say Kipnis is able to re-gain his pre-2014 swing? That’s the thing about coming back from an injury — not only do you have to overcome the injury itself, but you have to overcome the bad habits necessitated by the injury. In all reality, we don’t know, and we likely won’t know until the season is already well underway.

But, we do know what to look for to tell whether Kipnis is back, and it’s something that shouldn’t take long to see. Early in the year, look for what Kipnis does with pitches on the outer-third of the plate, and if you want to get more subtle, you might be able to just look at the front hip. You’d hope that, as long as he stays healthy, the hip stays closed. If the hip stays closed, odds are he can cover the outer-third of the plate.

If he can cover the outer-third of the plate, odds are he’ll start driving the ball off the left field wall again. And if that happens, odds are that Jason Kipnis has his swing back.

–August Fagerstrom

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