For two seasons now, Ian Kinsler has been every bit as valuable to the Detroit Tigers as Miguel Cabrera. I don't think anyone saw that coming. In the process, Kinsler has become a huge fan favorite for the intensity and intelligence he brings to the field. He feels like a Tiger. For many fans, he is their Tiger. It seems crazy to ask for more, but Kinsler is bringing it anyway.
We’re over 60 games into the 2016 season and Kinsler hasn’t just been the Tigers MVP; he could be thought of as a candidate for the American League MVP Award. Kinsler currently sports a .385 wOBA and is 8th in fWAR among AL players. He isn’t some rookie off to a hot start either. Instead, we’re talking about arguably the second-best second baseman of the past decade.
Yet, he currently looks like a longshot to even make the All-Star team. Kinsler ranks fifth in the second base vote behind the laughable combination of Omar Infante and Dustin Pedroia. While Pedroia is having a decent year, Infante was just designated for assignment. Yes, the All-Star Game is stupid, the voting is stupid, and the best place for Tigers players to be during the break is relaxing with family and friends. It's still infuriating.
BYB's Kurt Mensching looked at the All-Star voting in his piece for the Detroit News on Monday. He concluded that Kinsler is both the Tigers’ best All-Star candidate, and yet the least likely to get the nod among the Tigers stars.
Frankly, it’s a bit strange, because he’s the most deserving position player on the team. And he’s having not only his best season in a Tigers uniform, but his best season as a major leaguer, as well.
So when you add it all up, it should come as no surprise Kinsler’s leading Tigers position players in WAR (wins above replacement) by rather a sizeable margin a little more than two months into the season.
Kinsler’s also one of the few Tigers to have a positive baserunning figure, per Fangraphs, as well as a positive number of Defensive Runs Saved.
He has just one problem. For as good as he’s been, Altuve (.408 wOBA, 3.5 WAR) and Cano (.390, 2.8) have actually been better, more complete players.
I have to quibble with one point here. Robinson Cano is not quite the defender, nor baserunner that Kinsler is. He hasn't been for years. While the Mariners' star has certainly re-captured the stroke that helped power the Yankees for so many seasons, he's only ahead of Kinsler by the slimmest of margins in that department. The two are deadlocked at 2.8 fWAR, but the All-Star voting is a popularity contest. As a result, Kinsler is still on the outside looking in.
If we look for an even bigger prize -- the AL MVP Award -- Kinsler still has an outside shot to claim a piece of hardware that could someday propel him to Cooperstown. Were Kinsler to maintain his current production, he'll end the season worth approximately 7.0 fWAR. In recent years that number has been the bar separating the truly dominant seasons from merely excellent ones. Only two AL players cleared that mark in 2015: Mike Trout and Josh Donaldson. In 2014, only Trout managed it.
Don't count Kinsler out, though. His early season power eruption may be driven by some good fortune, but there are reasons to believe he can sustain his elite level of production all year. He is currently enjoying the lowest infield fly ball rate, and the highest HR/FB rate of his career. He has substantially increased the amount of fly balls he's hitting overall. Together that's the engine that has Kinsler leading the Tigers in home runs, with 14. He's currently on pace to hit 36 bombs, which would be the most of his career, at age 34. One assumes that he's going to tail off in the department, but certainly a total between 25-30 home runs seems very reachable.
Kinsler's average exit velocity on balls hit is very average, but that doesn't mean he's just getting lucky. The key is his ability to pull the ball in the air. His soft fly balls to right field are being countered by serious power to the pull field.
The other factor pretty apparent here is Kinsler's ability to spray line drives all around the ballpark without losing the ability to turn on pitches in the upper part of the zone. That's sustaining a good batting average without sacrificing power to do it. Kinsler appears to have found himself a very happy medium between the Tigers' line-drive hitting, opposite field approach, and the pull hitter capable of cranking 30 bombs per year he was in his best years with the Texas Rangers.
The other area where Ian Kinsler is capable of really picking up the pace is in his defense. Kinsler was worth 39 defensive runs saved in 2014 and 2015 combined. This year, he has only been worth three runs saved. His UZR is actually a slight negative at the moment. Assuming this is just some small sample noise, it seems likely that things return to normal by season's end, and Kinsler proves much more valuable as a defender than the metrics currently show him to be.
Currently, players as talented as Xander Bogearts, Josh Donaldson, Mike Trout and Manny Machado are all ahead of Ian Kinsler in total production. Every one of those players is highly valuable in all facets of the game. To win an MVP award would take a sustained home run barrage and elite defense the entire rest of the season. Kinsler is clearly an underdog candidate, but as a player who does it all -- and does it well -- his value to the Tigers cannot be overstated. Any chance of an MVP award is going to depend in part on how the Tigers' season turns out. So far, Ian Kinsler is doing everything possible to make it a special one.