In some respects, this has been the Year of the Veteran Middle Infielder Who Suddenly Starts Hitting Homers (YVMIWSHH for short). Daniel Murphy passed his season-high for homers before the All-Star Break. Neil Walker already has 16 homers and it’s only July 19. Walker’s best single-season total is 23. Eduardo Nunez has nearly doubled his career home run output in a single season. And although they are not veterans, Marcus Semien and Trevor Story have both been hitting homers at a prodigious rate compared to most young shortstops.
Part of this has been the massive league-wide increase in home runs, which no one can really explain. Unlike the last time baseball had middle infielders suddenly hitting for enormous power, I don’t think steroids are the main reason. Maybe the balls are juiced. Maybe people are just better at hitting baseballs. I have no idea.
However, you can add yet another name to the YVMIWSHH list and that’s Jason Kipnis, who has gone on a power surge and now his 15 homers. He has never topped 17 homers, and barring a Nick Markakis 2015-esque power drought, Kipnis should hit around 25-30 homers in 2016, obliterating his old home run total in the process.
Kipnis has been really, really good for the Indians this year. At age 29, it appears clear that if Kipnis is not injured, he will be a 4-6 win up-the-middle player at an extremely favorable cost. He may not be getting much press outside of Cleveland (he did not make the All-Star Game), but Kipnis has quietly been one of the keys to the Indians’ 6 game lead over the Tigers in the AL Central. He’s posting the highest ISO numbers of his career and looks like he’s starting to transition into becoming more of a power hitter.
Kipnis’ strength was always his ability to get on base. He would occasionally hit homers and go on hot streaks where his power stroke was potent, but up until this year Kipnis was far from a power hitter. Suddenly, that has all changed. His walk rate is at a career low and his strikeout rate is at a career high. His OBP is down but his slugging is up. His Hard % on Fangraphs is higher than it has ever been. Most incredibly, his usual GB/FB ratio of around 1.5 has fallen to just 1.06 this season. Kipnis’ ground-ball rate has dropped by 7 percent, which is dramatic for a player who hit just 9 homers last year (with 43 doubles).
Perhaps this is a case of the old “doubles turn into homers as you get older” cliche. I personally take this cliche with a Bartolo Colon-sized grain of salt (explain Jason Heyward, baseball lifers!), but perhaps Kipnis is settling into his best years of power production between 29-33. But, perhaps more interestingly, the dramatic increase in Kipnis’ power is representative of baseball’s equally dramatic uptick in home runs. Like Kipnis’ individual stats, the league is striking out at a historic rate and hitting home runs at a historic rate. Hitters appear to be “selling out” to hit home runs, knowing that the quality of starting pitching makes getting anything else done increasingly difficult.
With all that said, Jason Kipnis has turned into the Indians’ second-most valuable position player with Michael Brantley on the disabled list. With Kipnis’ power surge, the emergence of Tyler Naquin, Francisco Lindor being the best shortstop in the AL, Mike Napoli’s rebirth as David Ortiz and the glorious return of Carlos Santana’s offense (a player by the way, with the lowest walk rate of his career and on-pace to set a career-high in homers), the Indians have gone from what looked like a paper-thin lineup to a slightly above-average offense (102 wRC+) that has been particularly hot in June and July. Combine that with the best pitching staff in the American League and baby, you’ve got a stew going!