"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair."
-Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
Going with a Dickensian quote might be a little dramatic, but Ian Kinsler provided observers of the Detroit Tigers with a distinct tale of two seasons offensively that played a major role in how the Tigers lineup shaped up throughout the 2014 campaign.
Kinsler came aboard from the Texas Rangers in the stunning Prince Fielder trade late in 2013. It was Dave Dombrowski's opening gambit in re-shaping the club that lost in frustrating fashion in the 2013 ALCS to the eventual world champions, the Boston Red Sox.
Kinsler was brought in as part of a makeover Dombrowski launched to add speed and defense to a club that lacked both qualities. That is exactly what Kinsler went on to provide throughout the 2014 campaign to varying degrees. Kinsler appeared in 161 games as well, continuing a common trait among Dombrowski acquisitions: durability.
The First Half Surge
Simply put, Kinsler rampaged through the first half of the season offensively. He ended the first half with a tasty slashline of .303/.337/.470 and 39 extra-base hits for an OPS+ of 127 . He was quickly becoming a fan favorite in Detroit and a rock solid presence at the top of the Tigers lineup. Kinsler also flashed tremendous glovework in consistent fashion, one trait that would find actually carry through into the second half.
Kinsler's ability to hit for extra-base power was great boost to a Tigers lineup that was struggling to settle on a player to partner with Kinsler at the top of the order. Austin Jackson, Rajai Davis, and Torii Hunter were all shuttled into and out of the two spots with Kinsler directly in front of Miguel Cabrera as the Tigers searched for a comfortable fit. Kinsler may not have been drawing many walks, but he was hitting for a high enough batting average with power to make up for the lack of free passes. Then the All-Star Break happened.
The Second Half Morass at the Plate
I don't know what Ian Kinsler did during the days he had off after appearing in the All Star Game at Target Field, but he should consider a new plan in 2015. He was "unjuvenated" offensively when he returned.
Kinsler, unfortunately, went into a very long bout of offensive doldrums in the second half. I'll readily admit to calling him "Captain Pop Up" fairly frequently (I'm not overly proud of this). His walk rate plummeted to a woeful 3.4 percent in the second half and a power swoon followed suit. Kinsler posted a very unsightly line of .239/.270/.357 (OPS+ 81) for the second half of the season.
The long stretches of no production from Kinsler took its toll on the Tigers lineup. Kinsler assumed the leadoff role almost full-time once Jackson was dealt in late July to the Seattle Mariners. Detroit's offensive run production fell by about a third of a run per game in the second half and plenty of that can be attributed to Kinsler in addition to the injury induced slumbers of Cabrera at points throughout the summer.
Fans kept waiting for Kinsler to have that moment where he would snap out of the funk, but more pop ups kept coming. Plenty of impatient at-bats featuring poor pitch selection fast became a trademark. The month of July really foreshadowed many of the offensive ills that would plague Kinsler low-lighted by a 1.7 percent walk-rate versus a 13 percent strikeout rate. It seemed Kinsler became pull-happy much of the time. Only a small power surge in September showed some signs of life as the season wore down.
The second half did, however, continue to show Kinsler to be a top notch second baseman. He patrolled his side of the infield in exemplary fashion making plays in both directions time and again to save hits against Tigers pitching. No one can say he took his offensive woes into the field with him. His production on the defensive side was consistent and occasionally scintillating.
Kinsler was a much better defensive player than I had envisioned and his daily presence in the middle infield had a major impact for the Tigers on the season. His defense was a big part of posting a very impressive 5.5 WAR year in his Detroit debut season.
While he was picked off first base in rather lazy fashion a time or two, Kinsler also added a dimension on the basepaths that was sorely lacking in prior seasons at Comerica Park. This was almost certainly part of Dombrowski's master plan for 2014. While the "Go Go Tigers" never really materialized as a whole on the basepaths for the club, Kinsler's ability to take the extra-base had its impact offensively.
The debate about being "clutch" will go on in baseball-perpetuity. Whether you think clutch is a skill or simply a matter of elements of play aligning in a given year there is no questioning that the production of "timely" hits happen. When a player gets enough of them, it covers up some ills. Kinsler's second half woes were shielded partially by his driving in 41 runs after the All-Star Break despite his BA/OBP/SLG all dropping precipitously. That gave Kinsler 92 ribbies on the season in addition to scoring 100 runs. For the campaign, Kinsler hit well with runners in scoring position: .322/.342/.433. When you get 700+ plate appearances, odds are some good things are going to happen even during the times you're going bad.
Kinsler helped carry the club offensively throughout the first half of the season and his defense was an invaluable presence through game 162. The Tigers have to be happy on the whole with their acquisition over and beyond unloading the Fielder contract.
Moving forward it's questionable if the Tigers should bring back Kinsler as their leadoff hitter in 2015. He has a skill set probably better suited to bat lower in the order unless his walk rate can rebound to his career norms of 8.9 percent over the 4.0 percent he managed in 2014. No matter where he bats however he should continue to be a key contributor as the Tigers make their bid for a 5th consecutive AL Central crown.