Ian Kinsler introduced himself to the Tigers' fanbase last year by hitting 17 home runs and playing Gold Glove caliber defense at second base. He was the sole defensive standout on the team, and many of the rotation's best games last year involved a steady stream of ground balls to the right side that could not find their way past the man we've affectionately dubbed "The Rat." Between mocking Chris Sale's binoculars, playfully waving at former teammates, and posting a highlight reel play every other night, Kinsler quickly became a fan favorite in Detroit.
This year, the Tigers have enjoyed the long-sought pairing of Kinsler and Jose Iglesias as their middle infielders. The defense has been a major improvement, and the Tigers owe a lot of their early success to better glove-work all around the diamond. Kinsler has continued the stellar defensive work we saw last year.
Offensively, we're seeing a very different hitter in the No. 2 spot in the lineup. The knock on Kinsler in 2014 was that he wasn't drawing walks and getting on-base at his usual clip. His career OBP of .345 was substantially reduced to a weak .307 in 2014. This is an issue for a hitter with great base-running skills who is tasked with setting the table for the hard-hitting heart of the Tigers' lineup. Sure Kinsler added some solid pop to the top of the order, but between he and Torii Hunter, the Tigers did a fairly lousy job of putting runners on base in front of the best 3-4-5 in the game.
The first thing that stands out about Kinsler's 2015 numbers is that he has yet to hit a home run, something he has never come close to taking this long to do. He has typically been a quick starter in that department, something that can be partly attributed to the launching pad in Texas where most of career was spent.
It's also true that Ian really isn't a big home run hitter. Outside of 2011, when he erupted for 32 bombs, he's typically been a guy you expect to hit roughly 15 homers per year. Still, zero is an eye-popping number, and something that might seem a big problem in the light of the general Tigers power outage thus far.
And yet, it isn't. There are distinct signs that Ian Kinsler has remade his approach, moving away from the uppercut-swinging, semi-power hitter he became during his prime years in Texas. Instead, he has shown signs of transforming into everything the Tigers need from him. Kinsler's average and on-base percentage are currently off the charts compared to his career numbers, even though his slugging percentage has a lot of catching up to do. His .760 OPS is relatively close to his career .793 OPS despite offering no home run power thus far in the season. His 116 wRC+, which adjusts for park factors and the league offensive environment, is actually well above his career mark of 110.
How has he managed this feat? To start with, his walk rate is sitting at a cool 10.9 percent, two full points above his career average of 8.9 percent. He is working counts, averaging nearly four pitches per plate appearance. Last season, he averaged just over 3.5 pitches per plate appearance, well below the league average. Kinsler has translated this into taking more walks, allowing his speed and baserunning acumen to play up in the process. This still doesn't explain a batting average more than 40 points above his career average, though.
It's still early, but Kinsler is hitting a lot more line drives, and a lot less fly balls and pop-ups. He is spraying the ball around the field with authority, evidence of going with the pitch more often. This is generally a sound plate approach, and it should make teams think twice about employing a defensive shift against him. He is probably getting a little bit lucky with a .335 BABIP, but the improved approach should keep his average and on-base percentage quite high, providing more opportunities for the guys behind him to drive him in.
All in all these are very encouraging signs from Ian Kinsler. The dreaded pop-up machine is not in evidence this year, and as long as he doesn't press too hard to start pumping balls over the fence, it will remain suppressed. For a hitter with good speed, and only a career HR/FB rate of 9.0 percent, it doesn't make sense to put the ball in the air a high percentage of the time.
We will see the home runs start to come, as Kinsler has enough power to pull the ball out of the park. When they do, we may see the fly ball and pop-up (IFFB) rates start to climb some as Ian tries to launch a few more out of the park. As long as he can suppress those tendencies better than he did last year, he's going to be a huge spark in this offense. With 14 multi-hit games already this season, he already has been. It will be up to the guys behind him to turn that steady spark into the kind of big innings that put games in the bag. Ian Kinsler is different this year, and there may be even more to like for Detroit Tigers fans.