AL All-Star Report: 2B Jason Kipnis Carries Cleveland Offense

The Cleveland Indians are hanging in the AL Central race, only 1.5 games back of Chicago coming into Monday’s games. And while a big part of that is the division they play in—at 33-32, the Tribe are only a half-game better than the Boston Red Sox or Miami Marlins, both of whom are fighting for their lives against tougher competition—another big part of it is the play of second baseman Jason Kipnis. The 25-year-old in his first major league season is having a year that would measure up against any caliber of competition and he leads up our discussion of American League second baseman on The Road To Kansas City and the July 10 All-Star game.

Kipnis started to make a splash last year when he came up and had an on-base percentage/slugging percentage line of .333/.507, including seven home runs, in just 136 at-bats. This year the graduate of Arizona State’s storied baseball program had the job from the outset and there’s been no letup. The stat line is at .339/.455 and he’s popped 11 home runs. What I like most about Kipnis is the run production. He’s got 41 RBIs and 46 runs scored, the highest combined total among AL second baseman. And this is not a case of someone just stumbling into a ton of opportunities. The Cleveland offense ranks ninth in the American League, so Kipnis is clearly making the most of the chances he gets to help the team put runs on the board. He’s also an asset on the defensive side of the line of scrimmage, so to speak, and deserves a trip to KC in July.

But while Kipnis deserves a trip, someone else deserves to start, and that someone will have no problem generating the votes. New York’s Robinson Cano may have gotten off to a slow start, but he’s blazing right now, as his team’s fortunes are tracking his own. Cano’s .367 on-base percentage and .534 slugging percentage both lead his second base contemporaries in the AL. He’s a solid defender. There is really no credible reason to pick against him other than an anti-Yankee bias. And believe me, this site holds that bias dear to its heart, so even though Cano’s on my Fantasy team I’d go against him if there was a logical reason to do so. But there isn’t. He’s playing the best baseball of any American League second baseman just based on this year and if you factor in his track record compared to Kipnis’ I think a fair-minded fan has to choose the Yankee second baseman (But I’m still choosing someone else when I go vote on later this month).

Cano and Kipnis are the bright spots in a position that has almost as many disappointments as the first base spot does in the American League. After a fast start, Texas’ Ian Kinsler has cooled off and while his .338/.448 slugging line isn’t bad, it’s also not particularly noteworthy and when you consider the quality of the lineup he hits in and the friendliness of the ballpark for a hitter, it looks even worse. And we haven’t even talked about Kinsler’s terrible defensive range at a position where such can’t be overlooked. But say this for the Ranger second baseman—he’s swinging a better bat than Dustin Pedroia in Boston. If you watched last night’s Red Sox-Cubs game on ESPN (which would have required audibiling down from the U.S. Open or the NBA Finals to watch two last-place baseball teams), you heard  Terry Francona say that Pedroia could put a team on those skinny little shoulders of his. The fact I heard Francona say this gives me away as one of the people who really did audible down, and having watched enough Red Sox games I know Francona is right. But this year hasn’t had many of those times. Not with a .326/.400 stat line. At least Pedroia is an excellent defender.

Two other disappointments are Kelly Johnson in Toronto and Howie Kendrick in Los Angeles. Johnson, like Kinsler, got off to a hot start, but has tailed off to a .344/.400 line and like Kinsler, he’s a defensive liability. Kendrick has never gotten started and his up-and-down career is in a down cycle right now.

Still four more second baseman have to qualify as at least mild disappointments. After a terrific rookie year, Oakland’s Jemile Weeks is hitting .222 with no power. Seattle’s Dustin Ackley gives some good glovework, but is hitting .247 with no power. Chicago’s Gordon Beckham is batting .236 with no power. And Minnesota’s Alexi Casilla? You guessed it. Batting .247 and nary a home run to be found. Furthermore, Ackley is the only one who helps his team defensively.

Then there’s four more teams who have had enough instability at the spot that we can’t even put a name in the All-Star discussion. Well, I suppose we could put Baltimore’s Robert Andino in the group. But after a poor performance at the plate, he’s now lost the job to veteran Brian Roberts who just got back from the disabled list. The return of Roberts, who was once every bit the equal of Cano—if not superior—is one of the intriguing stories going forward in Baltimore. Tampa Bay’s Ben Zobrist is another such story. He’s had to play a majority of his games in the outfield thus far due to injuries, but now he’s back at second and starting to hit for the first time this year. The Orioles and Rays could be getting as good a second base work as anyone in the game—and if Pedroia and Johnson pick it up, the entire AL East could be strong at this position. The same can’t be said for the AL Central, where Kansas City and Detroit have instability due to incompetence and no reason to think anything will improve, at least internally.