Jason Kipnis had a bad April. A tremendously bad April, really. This link will take you, reader, to a list of the very worst qualified hitters in baseball this season. The April version of Jason Kipnis, with a wRC+ of 56, would have been among those folks.
The good news for Kip, and us, since we get to watch him, is that he had an excellent May. Excellent might not really even do justice to what he did. As Matt Jackson noted earlier this week, Kipnis had one of the best months of May ever, leading all second basemen with a 241 wRC+ and leading everyone on the planet with 51 hits, 30 runs scored, 84 total bases, and 15 doubles, among a couple other stats. He recorded a .429/.511/.726 triple-slash line, which is pretty good, if your goal as a hitter is to hit extremely well. Those numbers raised his season wRC+ to 160, putting him in the top 15 for all qualified hitters.
So it seems reasonable to think that something might have happened with Kipnis around the end of April or early May. For something like Kipnis has done in these first two months, splitting his in-season numbers between April and May seems like the best way to do this, and it will certainly be the only way I know how to do this, because I don’t know how to work my computer like I probably should know how to work it.
I should mention first that the obvious change was Kipnis’ BABIP. It sat at .240 at the end of April, and it was .475 in the month of May. Of course that helped his production, probably immensely, but I think there’s something more at play here. With that, let’s continue.
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You may know that Kipnis lost a bit of last season with a strained right oblique. And because those often linger for a while, I’m perfectly content in finding that the May version of Kipnis was just a healthy version of Kipnis. Really, that seems like a pretty reasonable conclusion, given his batted ball distances. In 2013, his average distance was nearly 193 feet, good for 72nd in the league. There was a pretty sizable drop in 2014, however, when Kipnis saw his average batted ball distance sink to 177 feet following his oblique injury in May of that year. That average put him deep in the lower third of the league, ranking 230th out of 300 listed players on Baseball Heat Maps. Now that Kipnis is (presumably) healthy again, that number has hopped back up to 191 feet.
I am not, nor should I be, a physician. But a healthy oblique seems pretty important in terms of generating any kind of pull power for a professional baseball hitter, right? Being able to turn on a pitch must rely on the player’s core to some degree. So once his oblique is a bit more healthy, I’d like to think Kipnis would be able to not only be able to pull the ball with some authority but also hit it the other way with a little extra pop and spread the ball to all fields. And as Craig Edwards showed on Fangraphs last month, such was the case with Kipnis. And, if I may revisit his BABIP for a bit, Kipnis’ sat at .330 on May 13, when that article was written. That was a little higher than his career average, though nothing terribly extreme. As of June 5, it sits at .364, which is quite a bit higher than his career mark of .315. Kipnis didn’t just improve at the start of May — he continued to get hotter as the month went on, which is a pretty effective way to have one of the best months of May in baseball history, as it turns out.
I don’t mean to stress Kipnis’ oblique injury too much, because there’s not really a way to tell how long or how much it bothered him. But we can read what Kipnis said himself, and we can see what he did differently with pitches between April and May.
So first, here’s what Kipnis told Chris Cwik of CBSSports.com this past February:
I had a mental block on [the oblique injury]. Even in my dreams of being at the plate, I was still rolling over my pitches. My oblique was still cutting off my swing.
So that can help explain last year’s struggles a bit. And now, friends, we bring it home with a table. Data here comes from last season, since that's when his injury first popped up, and the first two months of the 2015 season.
So, when healthy, or something like healthy, Kipnis has hit a lot more line drives, several more dingers per fly ball, spread the ball around the field, and hit the ball with a little extra zip on it. That, in a nutshell, seems to be a guide to being a good hitter. We might be able to see how that oblique was bothering Kipnis — at least a little.
In 2014, he was hitting a few more fly balls, and he wasn't quite getting the same amount of pop on the ball as he is now, judging by his hard-hit percentage. And do keep in mind that it was Kipnis's right oblique that was the issue. His front side couldn't have been too strong following the injury, and, while I don't mean to try and dive into a professional athlete's head, perhaps he was trying to pull the ball more often in an effort to overcompensate for a lack of power.
I think this can be as simple as Kipnis finally getting healthy again and really rediscovering a swing he liked at the end of April. 2014 wasn’t a great year for him, statistically. 2015 has been pretty kind so far. Let’s hope it stays that way.
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Murphy Powell is a contributor at Beyond the Box Score and — this may come as a surprise — he really enjoys watching baseball. You can follow him on Twitter at @murphypowell.