Second to None: The First Half of Ian Kinsler

Thanks in large part to an offense that is both tops in the American League in runs scored (538) and OPS (.816), the Texas Rangers are making the AL West race a little interesting currently sporting a 50-46 record, sitting 7.5 games back of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.

Of the top four AL hitters in Value Over Replacement Player, three of them play for the Rangers, the league’s leader currently being second baseman Ian Kinsler at 52.4 runs.

Always blessed with immense talent, Kinsler is putting together an MVP-caliber season. He is currently hitting .337/.397/.548 with 14 home runs in 398 at-bats. Each of those slash stats are career highs and he’s one pace to set a career high in home runs, health permitting of course.

Baseball fans, particularly those of the Texas Rangers variety, have always known Kinsler has an All-Star caliber bat, but I think it’s safe to say none of us expected a first half like this. Even though he’s been overshadowed a bit by the great story of Josh Hamilton and his run at the AL’s Triple Crown, Kinsler may very well be the Rangers MVP this season. Let’s look at what Kinsler has done differently this year and if he can continue raking at such a pace.

Here’s a look at Kinser’s batting statistics and batted ball data over the last year and a half:

Kinsler_stats_and_batted_ball_medium

Kinsler’s biggest improvement this season has been a near 75 point increase in his batting average thanks to a line drive percentage and BABIP that rate among the best in the AL. Conversely, we see very little change anywhere else. He’s hitting groundballs and flyballs at a very similar rate and though he’s striking out a bit less, he’s not taking nearly as many walks as he did last season, though drawing walks isn’t necessarily a concern when you’re hitting .337.

Lastly, assuming Kinsler stays healthy the rest of the year, he should set a career high in home runs. However he’s hitting flyballs out of the ballpark with less frequency compared to last season. To dig into this a little deeper, let’s look at Kinsler from the perspective of Hit Tracker. Here are Kinsler’s home run charts from the last year and a half.

First from 2007:

Kinsler_ian_2007_scatter_medium

via www.hittrackeronline.com


And now from the first half of 2008: Kinsler_ian_2008_scatter_medium

via www.hittrackeronline.com

And lastly, the detail of those home runs hit:

Kinsler_home_run_detail_medium

As far as hitting home runs are concerned, Kinsler is a dead pull hitter and this isn’t necessarily a product of the hitter friendly Ballpark in Arlington either: Nineteen of the 34 home runs Kinsler has hit over the past year and a half have been hit on the road.

Also notice that nothing has significantly changed on the detail of the home runs he has hit. The average true distance and standard distance of his home runs vary by only a couple of feet, while the average calculated speed off bat is identical.

To his credit, Kinsler has done much more to improve his overall power production. He already has 34 doubles (compared to 22 all of last year) and four triples (compared to two) on the year. His speed has always been a valuable asset and he’s utilized that speed on many occasions to take the extra base. Looking at the detail of his home runs however, very little has changed from 2007.

What has changed for Kinsler is his overall ability to hit whatever pitch is thrown his way. Let’s take a look at Kinsler’s performance against different pitches between these two years, courtesy of the Pitch F/X system.

First, during the 2007 season:

Kinser_pitch_dif_2007_medium

And now during the 2008 season:

Kinser_pitch_dif_2008_medium

The only pitch Kinsler has seen a decrease in production against has been the changeup, and he’s still hitting .316 and slugging .553 against that pitch.

Everywhere else, Kinsler has seen great strides of improvement, particularly against breaking balls. He’s always been a pretty good fastball hitter, but his improvement this season against sinkers, curveballs and sliders (pitches he sees nearly 38% of the time while he’s in the box) has been monumental.

This all needs to be taken with a grain of salt: The Pitch F/X classification system isn’t perfect, but there is clear evidence Kinsler’s ability to hit breaking balls has improved.

As the rest of the season progresses, I wonder whether or not pitchers will start to pitch Kinsler a bit more to the outside of the plate. As a pull happy home run hitter, can he utilize any of that power to the opposite field if pitchers start forcing him to hit the other way? That will be told in time.

As for the rest of his performance however, Kinsler has clearly made plenty of improvements when it comes to hitting the breaking ball. Assuming he doesn’t change his approach at the plate, Kinsler should continue hitting at an All-Star caliber level into September and even October if the Rangers force the issue.

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