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2017 Tigers player preview: Was Ian Kinsler’s home run spike a fluke?

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Kinsler is coming off of an incredible offensive performance in 2016, but replicating these numbers is not so simple.

MLB: Chicago White Sox at Detroit Tigers Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Thirty-four-year-old players are not supposed to experience significant revivals, but apparently Ian Kinsler missed that message. In three seasons with the Detroit Tigers, the second baseman has accumulated 15.2 fWAR — second in the majors at his position — but was most impressive during his most recent campaign. After a monster year in 2011 with 30 home runs and 30 steals, it looked like Kinsler had maxed out his potential. Yet, five years later, he is looking as productive as ever.

The Tigers expected plenty of things from Kinsler when they acquired him from Texas, and he has successfully performed as a classic top-of-the-order player with excellent defensive skills. In three seasons in Detroit, he has averaged over 100 runs a year, posted a decent .332 on-base percentage, and been arguably the best defensive second baseman in baseball, with 51 Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) and 27.8 Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR).

Bringing back the homers

One thing that no one was expecting from Kinsler was a sudden power surge. He could have been considered a power hitter at one point in his career, surpassing 30 dingers twice in a three-year span and hitting near 20 on three other occasions with Texas. His 28 total homers in his first two seasons with the Tigers were not overwhelming, but were more than passable given his other positive qualities. However, in his third season he matched this total in over 700 fewer plate appearances.

Orange: home runs; Blue: batting average

A quick look at Kinsler’s career production shows a fairly normal chart during his time with the Rangers. Lower power outputs in seasons like 2006, 2008, and 2010 resulted in a higher batting average, while big homer years like 2009 and 2011 saw his average fall. His first two seasons with the Tigers continued this trend, with power giving way to a better average. This normalcy makes 2016 stick out sharply, where Kinsler posted great power numbers along with a high batting average. Given his recent trajectory, these results came completely out of nowhere.

The right combination

The question becomes, what does this mean for 2017? Was last year a fluke — one last offensive outburst — or is this a sign of rediscovered power? Twice last season I dove into Kinsler’s numbers and found that a lot of his results come down to launch angle; his early-season power success was fueled by excellent exit velocity-launch angle combinations, while his mid-season pop-up struggle stemmed from the opposite.

Kinsler excelled in four areas last year which allowed him to hit a high volume of home runs: his fly ball rate and home-run-to-fly-ball ratio were both his best figures in five years, his pop-up rate was his second-lowest ever, and he posted a career-best hard contact rate. Expecting all of these to continue is a bit of a stretch, and without this type of contact, repeating his power totals is a tall task.

Despite having such a productive season at the plate, Kinsler actually took a step back in the contact department. Though he swung less frequently than during recent years, he saw a drop in contact rate on pitches both inside and outside the zone, resulting in a career-high strikeout rate. Maybe this indicates a shift to a swing-for-the-fences approach, but it does represent another area that is hard to repeat.

Playing his strengths

Even if the home run totals fall for Kinsler in 2017, he could still end up with a healthy total of extra-base hits. A player with his age is expected to see a drop-off in speed, but the second baseman has yet to show any sign of slowing down. FanGraphs measures such as base running runs (BsR), Ultimate Base Running (UBR), and Speed Score show that Kinsler is not too far off from his time with Texas, and bounced back last season from a down year in 2015.

Season SB BsR UBR Spd
Season SB BsR UBR Spd
TEX 21.5 4.8 3.3 5.9
2014 15 5.9 6.9 5.6
2015 10 0.6 1.7 5.4
2016 14 3.6 2.4 5.8

Because of his athletic ability, Kinsler will continue to be an asset at the plate even if his home runs drop off. While last year was definitely not a lucky fluke, the odds of a repeat performance in the power department are not high. He still has the ability to drive the ball over the fences, but expecting him to do so at such a high rate is unwise.

Kinsler is not yet in his decline, and age should not be a barrier for him this season. He still has decent speed and is able to put the ball in play enough to be very productive at the top of the lineup. If the homers do not connect for him early on, perhaps an approach focusing on line drives could be the best way to go. Still, expect Kinsler to continue his 2016 strategy into the start of this season. After putting up a 123 wRC+ last season, it would be hard to blame him.