With the 2017 season now officially in the rearview mirror, and with the Houston Astros first-time champions, we turn our attention to the 2018 fantasy baseball season. Each week, I will be evaluating one player’s stock for next year. This week, a veteran second baseman whose surface numbers and draft stock would indicate a career decline, but whose peripherals tell a somewhat different story.
Ian Kinsler, Los Angeles Angels
2017 statistics: .236/.313/.412, 22 HR, 14 SB, 90 R, 52 RBI
For a 10-year stretch, Ian Kinsler has been one of the better players in baseball, combining above-average offensive output with elite defense up the middle. While his defense has never meant much for his fantasy value, he has offered elite durability and reliability, solid batting averages thanks to a low strikeout rate, and consistently solid-average totals in home runs and stolen bases. In 2017, though, his numbers appeared to take a massive step backward as he sputtered to a mediocre .236/.313/.412 line, and fantasy owners seem to have moved on, selecting him, according to Fantrax’s ADP tracker, No. 16 at the keystone in the early going. That said, there is little reason to believe that Kinsler’s down season is the beginning of a sharp decline, even given his age, as his indicators generally continued to remain in line at their established levels. Toss in a favorable trade, and Kinsler should probably be going higher than 198th overall.
The most glaring mark of a supposed decline for Kinsler is his drop-off in batting average from .292 in 2015-2016 to only .236 last year. Usually, such a significant drop in average corresponds with a heavy increase in strikeouts, but that was not the case here. Kinsler’s 14% strikeout rate last season is right in line with his career average, and it is actually somewhat lower than the 16.9% clip that he punched out at the season prior. Similarly, his contact rate and plate discipline remained intact, indicating that it was not simply good fortune that kept his strikeout totals depressed. Instead, his batting average fell last season entirely because of his results on balls in play. After running BABIPs north of .310 in each of the previous two years, Kinsler mustered an abysmal .244 mark last season. Such an outlier mark seems bound for positive regression this season.
To some extent, Kinsler’s drop-off in batted ball results was deserved; his infield fly ball rate rose, and his line drive rate fell substantially, both of which would obviously hurt his results. Even if those numbers do not return to something near their previous levels, poor luck is still somewhat to blame for Kinsler’s struggles — luck that should even out next season. According to Statcast, Kinsler’s expected batting average (based on his strikeouts and batted ball data) was .248. While that figure is unimpressive (albeit better than the .236 clip at which he actually hit), Kinsler had made a prior habit of outperforming the batted ball metrics, which estimate that he “should have” hit .269 over the two-year stretch in which he actually hit .292. While there is no question that Kinsler’s batted ball authority was worse in 2017 than it was in prior seasons, the .021 point gap in expected batting average paints a less ominous picture than the .066 point drop-off in actual batting average would indicate.
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Much of Kinsler’s value, however, comes in his array of solid-average skills. While he does not have elite raw power (his 86.1 MPH average exit velocity is below-average), he manages to consistently produce 15-plus home run totals thanks to a heavy fly ball approach. His fly-ball rate has been north of 40% in all but one of his big-league seasons, and the ability to hit ample fly balls while simultaneously avoiding strikeouts has allowed him to hit for both average and power. His fly-ball rate remained at normal levels last season as well, enabling him to eclipse 20 homers for the second consecutive season.
Further, Kinsler was traded this offseason from the Tigers to the Angels, shedding a home park that is eight percentage points tougher than average for right-handed hitters for one that is two percentage points easier than average. The difference in parks may seem only modest at face value, but for a player whose offensive game centers on pulled fly balls (all 22 of his homers last season were hit to left field), even a modestly easier home park could do wonders for Kinsler’s power output. He also seems poised for a bounce-back in his RBI total after driving in a modest 52 runs last season. He curiously hit for very little power with men on base last season, slashing .227/.304/.441 with the bases empty but only .254/.333/.350 with men aboard. Fortunately, Kinsler had never before demonstrated a significant split depending on baserunners, so his meager .096 isolated power with men on base seems to be only a sample size fluke, not an indicator of an increasingly contact-oriented approach or inability to produce in clutch situations. His lack of impact in the clutch last season certainly hurt his fantasy value in retrospect, but there is little statistical reason to believe that it will continue moving forward.
Finally, Kinsler also offers a consistent speed element to his game, having tallied double-digit stolen base totals in every season of his career. He is no longer a 25-30 stolen base threat as he was in Texas, but he has long combined solid speed with baserunning instincts to make him one of the league’s more successful baserunners. While age may eventually eliminate this element of his game, that seems not to be the case for next season, as his 27 feet per second (according to Statcast) last season remains right at the league average foot speed and within half a second of his top speeds from 2015-2016. He does not offer a ton of stolen base ceiling at this point, but he offers something of a rare stolen base floor, one which, when combined with upticks in production in the other areas of his game, adds to his well-rounded fantasy appeal.
Kinsler may not offer the high-end ceiling that owners seem to be targeting at second base, but he may offer a nice value play in the middle rounds. He fails to match the excitement and upside of some of the players being selected in front of him (Rougned Odor, Yoan Moncada, Ian Happ), but it would not be all that surprising if, at the end of the year, his contribution in all five categories makes him as valuable, if not more so, than the players with less polish but more obvious physical tools. At the very least, he seems to be closer to that tier of player than the tier in which he currently resides, alongside players like Scooter Gennett, Jonathan Villar and Jose Peraza.
2018 Player Profiles