Will Ian Kinsler's Anger over Rangers Trade Fuel Him into Big 2014 with Tigers?

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Will Ian Kinsler's Anger over Rangers Trade Fuel Him into Big 2014 with Tigers?
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I've been referring to the blockbuster that the Detroit Tigers and Texas Rangers pulled off in November as "the Prince Fielder trade." Beyond having a nice ring to it, it's struck me as appropriate to name the deal after its principal component.

But right now, it's hard to ignore that Ian Kinsler was also a pretty important part of the deal. And come the end of 2014, it's possible he'll have done enough to make me start calling it "the Ian Kinsler trade."

If you haven't caught wind of the day's drama, Robert Sanchez of ESPN the Magazine has a piece out on Kinsler's thoughts on the deal, and the big takeaway is that the veteran second baseman is not too happy and, well, kind of a jerk about it.

The highlights include:

  • Kinsler calling Rangers general manager Jon Daniels a "sleazeball."
  • Kinsler complaining that he felt "bogged down" by a new leadership role in 2013.
  • Kinsler wishing an 0-162 record on the Rangers in 2014. 

[For those interested, Kinsler also spoke of Nolan Ryan as one might speak of Tywin Lannister. Let's just say they apparently produce gold the same way.]

If the drama aspect of the story interests you, B/R's Mike Chiari has you covered. Here and now, however, we're going to skip ahead to some of Kinsler's less sensational comments that concern how motivated he is to prove himself.

You can find those in the latter half of Sanchez's article, including the following summarizing remark:

I haven't been this excited about baseball in years. I've got a stomach-butterfly feeling...I want to prove to myself that these last two years are not the direction I'm going. Plus, I want to prove to everybody who thinks it is that I'm still an elite ballplayer.

For the record, FanGraphs says Kinsler was worth 3.0 WAR in 2012 and 2.5 WAR in 2013. This after being worth an average of 5.0 WAR between 2008 and 2011.

Now, sure, every player who's ever been traded has been motivated in much the same way. The "I'll show them!" instinct is strong in all athletes.

What makes Kinsler's case special, though, is that he actually has some specific ideas for how he's going to get back to being a superstar. These specific ideas also happen to be the right ideas.

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

Kinsler's aware that it won't be easy for him to rebound as an offensive force after being roughly average over the last two years (101 OPS+). He is moving from Globe Life Park in Arlington to Comerica Park, after all. That's a switch from an awesome offensive environment to a less-awesome offensive environment that, specifically, will make it hard for Kinsler to get back to being a top-notch power hitter.

But as Kinsler said...

I don't want to go 30/30. That's not ideal in that ballpark. I want to be more of a gap-to-gap hitter. I'd rather have 10 triples, 40 doubles and 30 bags and score over 100 runs. If I can get on base and steal and put myself in scoring position for great hitters behind me, that's the goal.

It's Kinsler's desire to become more of a "gap-to-gap hitter" that's important here. Given the circumstances, he's due for that sort of transformation.

FanGraphs has Kinsler's career fly-ball rate at 44.8 percent. He's traditionally been a fly-ball hitter. And while that was fine when he was still capable of putting a charge into the ball, this home run and fly-ball data from BaseballHeatMaps.com says Kinsler's ability to do that is dwindling:

Data courtesy of BaseballHeatMaps.com.

Trends don't get more alarming than that, and what this trend suggests is clear: the fewer fly balls, the better.

But here's the good news: That's a path Kinsler's already on.

The 39.4 FB% Kinsler posted in 2013 was the lowest of his career. Even better is that it came paired with a 23.7 line-drive percentage that nearly matched his career-best rate of 24.2 from 2008.

Even then, however, Kinsler wasn't distributing his line drives as evenly as he did in 2013:

Ian Kinsler's Line Drive Distribution
Year Overall LD% Pull LD% Center LD% Oppo LD% LD BABIP
2008 24.2 26.8 19.6 25.9 .685
2013 23.7 23.2 24.9 22.9 .690

FanGraphs

Kinsler was much better about spraying line drives all over the field last season. And while it's not a big gap, maybe that had a hand in him posting a better overall BABIP on line drives.

Further, his spray chart from Brooks Baseball shows a decent number of line drives into the gaps:

Image courtesy of Brooks Baseball (and a h/t to Baseball Prospectus).

We can look at this as a seed for the type of hitter Kinsler has his eye on becoming with the Tigers, which is encouraging. He doesn't have a complete reinvention process ahead of him.

One guy whom Kinsler can learn from is Torii Hunter, with whom Kinsler just so happens to be very excited to play.

"I can't wait to pick that dude's brain," said Kinsler. "His style is very similar to mine: very aggressive, takes a lot of chances -- educated, calculated chances." 

Who will be the better player in 2014?

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Hunter has undergone a transition very much like the one Kinsler's looking to make. After spending the bulk of his career as a power hitter, he's spent the last two years as more of a line-drive hitter with gap power. If anybody can give Kinsler pointers on the process, it's Hunter.

I'm not sure about Kinsler's idea that he can get back to being a 30-steal guy again. But if he makes good on his mission to alter his hitting style, he'll settle into a groove in which he's inflating his on-base percentage with BABIP and rescuing his dwindling power with a steady diet of doubles and triples. And considering the relative offensive weakness of his position, a groove like that would absolutely make him a dangerous offensive force once again.

However, Kinsler's not content to stop there. He wants to improve on defense as well, and he has Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski to thank for that as well.

"He's an all-around player. He's not known for his outstanding range, but we think he's a real steady second baseman," Dombrowski told reporters at one point, according to Sanchez.

If we look at UZR's measure of Kinsler's range over the last five seasons, we'll see that part is true:

Ian Kinsler's Defense
Year Range Runs > Average (UZR) Overall UZR
2009 9.7 10.1
2010 5.3 3.3
2011 11.0 16.0
2012 3.0 -0.3
2013 1.0 -1.0

FanGraphs

Kinsler was known for his range on defense. But Dombrowski's right. These days, Kinsler's not known for his range on defense.

Kinsler did, however, go about getting his range back the right way this offseason. He told Sanchez he's lost 15 pounds. Ideally, being lighter will mean being quicker.

"I want to prove Dombrowski wrong," said Kinsler. "I want to surprise you. I'm going to impress you with my range."

And you know what? Maybe he will. Subtract 15 pounds from his listed weight of 200 pounds, and you're pretty close to the 175 pounds Kinsler weighed when he was still a prospect. Provided he keeps the weight off, improved swiftness on his feet in the field is possible.

Between what Kinsler might do on offense and what he might do on defense, you are left with the sense that he can be better than expected in 2014. If you take Steamer's word for it, that means he can be better than a 3.7-WAR player. 

And that's an interesting thought, as that projected WAR is already better than the 3.4 WAR Steamer is projecting for Fielder. If all goes well, Kinsler's 2014 production is going to completely overshadow that of his blockbuster counterpart.

Look past all the jerky things Kinsler had to say and all you're looking at is a guy who's determined to make sure that the Tigers got the better end of "the Prince Fielder trade." And since he knows how to go about doing that and indeed can go about doing that, we might just be calling it "the Ian Kinsler trade" after 2014.

 

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter.

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