Kipnis proving to be engine that drives Tribe
All-Star second baseman at heart of Cleveland's push toward playoffs
CLEVELAND -- Indians fans do not need an introduction. They know all about their All-Star second baseman and what he has meant to their team.
When Jason Kipnis spread out his arms, turned toward the crowd and screamed as he sprinted up the first-base line on May 17, they knew. They knew they were not only witnessing a 10th-inning walk-off home run over the Mariners, but a special player with the ability to hoist Cleveland on his shoulders.
Soon, if the Tribe completes this miracle push to the postseason, the rest of the baseball world will have its chance to get to know Kipnis, too.
"We've got to get on that big stage," first baseman Nick Swisher said. "This last month, we've had some guys step up in big spots. But leading up to the All-Star break, man, he pretty much put us on his back and carried us along."
The Indians headed into Monday's off-day with a 1 1/2-game lead on the Rangers for the American League's second Wild Card spot. Cleveland has featured a strong pitching staff and an assortment of heroes this year, but the club has also weathered extreme offensive lulls at various points.
Players such as Swisher and Michael Bourn -- brought in over the winter with four-year contracts worth a combined $104 million in guaranteed salary -- have not met their statistical standards. Two-time All-Star shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera has also fallen short of expectations. It has been Kipnis, in just his second full season, who has stepped up as the Tribe's offensive leader.
"There's a lot to like about Kip," manager Terry Francona said. "But he has not hit one ball where he hasn't sprinted to first base like his pants are on fire. I respect that as much in him as anything. I think that carries over into the rest of his game."
Kipnis' full-throttle style has helped him emerge as one of baseball's most versatile talents.
The second baseman entered Monday as one of three players in the Majors to boast at least 15 home runs, 25 stolen bases and 80 RBIs. The others are a pair of Most Valuable Player Award candidates: Angels outfielder Mike Trout and Pirates outfielder Andrew McCutchen. Kipnis' 5.3 offensive WAR (wins above replacement) is the second-highest mark among big league second basemen, trailing only Robinson Cano of the Yankees.
Through 143 games, the 26-year-old Kipnis has posted a slash line of .277/.359/.445 (all career bests) with 17 homers, 34 doubles, three triples, 28 stolen bases, 73 walks, 80 runs and 80 RBIs. The Indians have been around since 1901, and Kipnis is only the 10th player to have a season with at least 28 stolen bases, 50 extra-base hits and an .800 OPS.
Kipnis is also only the fourth player in team history with at least 15 homers, 28 stolen bases, 70 walks and 80 RBIs, joining Grady Sizemore (2008), Roberto Alomar (1999, 2001) and Bobby Bonds (1979). And the second baseman still has six games to go.
"He's a game changer," said Indians veteran Jason Giambi. "He can do so many things in this game. He can hit. He can hit for power, doubles, steal bags, he plays defense, he can bunt. He's such a weapon for us. You don't find too many guys that -- whether you play against them or have them on your team -- can do everything he can do. I think he's only going to get better and better."
First, Kipnis admits that he needs to improve his reaction to the slumps that naturally arise throughout the course of a season. Kipnis has a tendency to beat himself up over rough periods in the batter's box, but Francona said that is evidence of how much the second baseman cares.
"I think he's hard on himself," Francona said, "but I think it's because he strives for perfection so much."
Kipnis believes that is something he will learn to control with more experience.
"I think that's kind of what has also gotten me here," Kipnis said, "not being satisfied and always looking for areas of improvement. At the same time, I need to start being a little bit more mature about it, kind of growing up to the point where we start being smart and being productive with how I handle things.
"I need make sure I'm not using too much energy focusing on the wrong stuff to make sure we're just keeping it simple and focusing on the right stuff. I've been that way in most sports -- I've never been satisfied. I've always wanted to keep getting better.
"There's a little chip on the shoulder. I've always wanted to go out there and beat the guy across from me and show people."
People are starting to notice. In June, Kipnis was twice named AL Player of the Week, and he then picked up AL Player of the Month honors after hitting .419 for the Tribe. In July, the second baseman earned a spot on the All-Star team for the first time, and then collected a run-scoring double and caught the final out in the Midsummer Classic in New York.
Those types of hot streaks give Francona confidence that Kipnis' dropoff in the second half is just a cold spell and not an indication that the second baseman has hit a wall.
"I think that wall's going to fall here pretty soon," Francona said with a smirk.
"Pretty soon" might be the postseason.
"Everyone was thinking playoffs in Spring Training," Kipnis said. "You looked around and everyone was like, 'Yeah. Why not?' But now that we're knocking on the door and a week away from doing it, you kind of laugh, like, 'Wow.'"
October could provide the kind of stage necessary to introduce more fans to Kipnis.
"He's making a name for himself," Swisher said. "He's really popped up on the scene this year."