July 13, 2016
The Curse That Keeps Giving
Among the many highlights from last night's All-Star game, none featured Ian Kinsler. Ian Kinsler was not an All-Star.
“What you see is Ian’s drive to be as good as the people that receive recognition that he’s never received,” the Tigers second basemen’s father Howard told the Detroit Free Press, in an article that this week framed Ian Kinsler's career as one of being perpetually overlooked. Among the modifiers the Freep attached to him in recounting his career: "too young," "too small," "too little chance," "undersized," not "flashy enough," "an afterthought," and, this month, when he finished fourth in the final ballot voting for the AL All-Star squad, "overlooked once again."
“I was never really recognized as one of the best players and I think that’s always just kind of been the chip on my shoulder,” Kinsler said in the piece. "I always wanted to be considered that superstar player."
At this stage in his career—he's just turned 34, though he's not obviously slowing down—it's worth discussing whether or not Kinsler will ultimately be a Hall of Fame candidate. Whether he will ever be considered that superstar player, and if he should be.
When most people think about future Hall of Fame players, they’re thinking of superstars like Mike Trout and Bryce Harper. For second basemen, you'll think of Robinson Cano, who is a year younger than Kinsler, and Chase Utley, who is three years older.
Consider these two career stat lines:
For that matter, you could include Cano—51 WARP through age 33. Both have their arguments as Hall of Famers, but Kinsler is in the mix, especially as he treks toward another 4- or 5-win season. (FanGraphs credits him with two extra wins; Baseball Reference gives him 10 more than WARP does.)
Perhaps it’s nonessential titles that help define what we regard as Hall of Fame worthy. Utley has won a World Series, he’s been a six-time All-Star, he’s a four-time Silver Slugger winner, and was an absolute superstar in his prime years in Philadelphia. Utley’s name is the quantifiable result of what we associate with baseball stardom. Cano, meanwhile, has got seven All-Star appearances and four top-five MVP finishes.
Kinsler is simply a 34-year old second basemen who has produced at least two wins--in other words, been at least an above-average major leaguer—in all 11 of his seasons. He has never finished in even the top 10 in MVP voting, he has never won a Silver Slugger or Gold Glove award (despite accumulating more career FRAA than Cano, Utley or Dustin Pedroia), and he was snubbed last week in his bid for just his fifth All-Star appearance. The flashiest line on his resume is a pair of 30/30 seasons; the lone bold ink on his stat page acknowledges the time he batted 726 times in a season.
Kinsler is a model of consistency, and that is by far his most valuable asset. Only once has he batted over .300 (Cano has done it nine times). He's never driven in 100 runs (Utley has four times). He's never totaled more than 6.1 WARP in a season, a mark Cano has bettered three times, while Utley topped seven wins in 2009. He does what he does extremely well, but he struggles to find the extra glitz that his competition seems to always come up with. He doesn't even excel in one particular category of offense, leaving him always behind less complete hitters in a multi-year query.
Compare him, for instance, to all second baseman who accumulated at least 3,000 plate appearances since 2006. Kinsler's rank is in the final column:
Again, Kinsler fails to distinguish himself. He's third behind Utley and Cano in slugging, but fails to make the top 10 in batting average and on-base percentage. (There are 24 total second basemen in the group). Kinsler also holds only the 15th best walk rate at 8.5 percent, and 12th lowest strikeout rate at 12.1 percent. Again, a model of consistency, but just short of being a superstar.
Let’s take a look at some of the second basemen who have been voted into the Hall of Fame and how Kinsler currently stacks up against them. Here are the five most recent second base retirees inducted into the Hall of Fame:
Kinsler is currently in his 11th season and totalling 39.6 WARP, while posting a slash line that wouldn’t look like a significant outlier if placed among those above. Kinsler’s fielding value is significantly higher than the totals of these players, sitting at 63.4 FRAA. Kinsler gives you a solid and consistent slash line and a good power presence in a lineup, one who nudges comfortably against the group of Hall of Famers mentioned above. He gives you speed on the basepaths, and is good at fielding his position. What Kinsler does with these last few years of his career will be what makes or breaks whether we are discussing this in the future or not. He's not there yet; he's also only five or six pretty good seasons from being really close.
Those five or six at the end are the hardest ones. Kinsler is signed with the Tigers through 2017 with a team option for 2018, which will be his age-36 season. Kinsler certainly looks to have enough gas left in the tank to stretch his career a couple years beyond that, making for a strong 15-year campaign that wouldn't quite merit Hall status. The further out we project, the less we can speculate, but it's most likely that a late-30s career would signify a backup role, or maybe a job as a bad team's platoon DH or utility man.
The bottom line seems to be this: After 11 years of excellence, Kinsler has produced a career that earns you a pension, a gold watch, a retirement party—but they won't name buildings after him. My personal perception is that the Hall of Fame is not simply for the best players, but for the best players who leave a story behind. The 3,000 hit players. The World Series heroes. The 10-time All-Stars. It’s a place where these stories and names go to be immortalized.
But maybe that's just the sort of attitude that gives Kinsler that chip on his shoulder.
Kinsler has expressed his desire to be remembered, whether it be for helping bring a championship to Detroit for the first time in 31 years, or for being a veteran presence who mentors his younger teammates. No one can guarantee that those discussions will live on long after Kinsler hangs it up, but the debate over whether or not he is, was, or should be in the Hall of Fame certainly will.
Maybe that's the hidden blessing of being doomed to the phantom "Hall of Very Good." It keeps his career open to interpretation. Devoted baseball fans will debate his merits long past his retirement. Mostly, they'll keep rediscovering just how good he was, how close he was. Maybe that, like Kinsler, is good enough.