Over the offseason the Texas Rangers and Detroit Tigers completed a blockbuster deal, sending super-sized first baseman Prince Fielder and his mammoth-sized contract over to Texas for some salary relief and Ian Kinsler. Kinsler had been projected to be on his decline, an issue seeing as he was just one year into a five year, $85MM deal he inked with GM Jon Daniels. Fielder also was causing issues, with a lack of production and apathy towards playoff losses. GM Dave Dombrowski decided enough was enough, and the teams completed their salary dump/change of scenery trade, to the joy of all fans who had begun to grow tired of reading the “Top Ten [insert category here]” lists that plague the winter months.
The trade so far couldn’t be any more one sided. Fielder, once a durable player with a long iron man streak, began to have injury issues before being shut down for the entire season with neck surgery. It’s not like it was a huge blow for the offense anyway, as he managed just a 85 wRC+ through 178 plate appearances.
On the flip side, Ian Kinsler seemed to be listening to too much Blink 182 and forgot he was supposed to be getting older. Instead, the 32 year old is having his best offensive season since he was 26, crushing AL Central pitching to a 127 wRC+. He’s already accumulated more fWAR (3.6) in 2014 than in each of his last two seasons. He only needs three more bombs to match his total from the season prior, sitting at 10 on the season already. Even projection systems, which generally don’t buy into hot starts easily, have been sold on Kinsler’s rebirth in Comerica Park. ZiPS and Steamer both are pegging him for his best campaign since his age 29 season in 2011, where he hit 32 bombs and was worth 7.3 fWAR.
Source: FanGraphs — Ian Kinsler
As you can see on the graph, Kinsler is experiencing an upward trend this season. Since he’s only played in 80 games with 362 plate appearances so far, for him to keep this pace up he would double his current value (although he’s projected for between 5.6 and 5.9 fWAR, still would be his second best season).
What has made the difference for him so far? Did he completely overhaul his swing like teammate JD Martinez? Is the Fountain of Youth really located in Detroit? Are AL Central pitchers just stunned by his shockingly effortless good looks?
The answer is actually much simpler; he’s just getting a ton of fastballs.
With the rise of the sinker, hitters have been seeing less four seam fastballs over the last few years. The four seam generally gets less movement than any other pitch, albeit it is thrown fastest. It still is the best pitch for hitters to attack, getting the second least amount of swinging strikes and lowest ground ball rates. Pitchers are moving away for this very reason, and that’s why the sinker has become so popular. Ian Kinsler experienced the same phenomenon as other hitters, getting an increasing amount of sinkers every year since his debut in 2007. Yet for some reason, once he shipped up to Detroit, pitchers decided Kinsler didn’t want to see any more sinkers. Instead, they opted for more four seamers.
It’s no secret hitters love four seamers, and Kinsler is no exception. For his career he’s been worth 72.5 runs above average on the pitch. This season he’s already added 10.2 runs above average, ninth in the majors and in the same company as serious mashers Giancarlo Stanton, Jose Abreu and Paul Goldschmidt.
It’s not enough for pitchers to be throwing him better pitches to hit, but they’ve also been throwing him in better spots as well. They’ve just been pounding the middle of the zone with four seamers this year. It’s a bold strategy, but it hasn’t been paying off.
Unsurprisingly, Ian Kinsler is raking on these pitches. Eight of his ten homers have come on elevated fastballs on the middle or outer third. Who would’ve guessed a former 30 homer hitter would punish what basically amounts to batting practice fastballs?
Despite Kinsler’s black magic curse on the Rangers, it seems that his move to the Tigers might have been for the better. He’s crushing baseballs at a rate that no one saw coming, even if it is due to some poor game planning. Even his defense has picked back up, as his UZR/150 has improved from -1.2 last year to 10.1 this season. Kinsler’s all-around improvement has lead him to be the seventh most valuable player in baseball by fWAR, the second most valuable infielder and the most valuable second baseman. Even though the Rangers have had the nerve to not lose every game (they’ve won 37!!!), at least Kinsler has been able to exact some revenge against them:
And while the Rangers fumble around with injuries and roster moves (Carlos Peña is their starting first baseman), the Tigers sit in first place in their division with a 93.6% chance to make playoffs.