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Streaks are a fascinating thing in baseball. There's an ongoing debate about whether having a hot hand is a fallacy or if there is actually some rhyme and reason to performing better for longer stretches of time.

Frankly, all that stuff is a bit beyond my interest. What I enjoy trying to figure out is why a great player is struggling, how he handles it, and how he attempts to bounce back. A month ago, I talked to Andrew McCutchen about a rough patch he was going through; his OPS was hovering around .600 at the time. He was confident he’d figure things out, and repeatedly talked about how the game is all about adjustments. Well, to no one’s surprise, Cutch has been on fire since, with a .368/.464/.691 line in his last 19 games. I’m not going to say I motivated him, but hey, you can thank me later, Pirates fans.

But no one really doubted McCutchen’s return to greatness, right? We’re talking about a player who is in his prime, relatively healthy—he continually denied suggestions that his knee had been nagging him early on in the season—and has finished in the top three in MVP voting the last three seasons. This was nothing but a rough patch. But what about a player who hasn’t had the history of success that McCutchen has experienced? This was the case for Jason Kipnis.

I have to admit, I'm a sucker for local baseball players. Texans are proud of their ballplayers, too, but they’re plentiful. Those from Chicago or surrounding suburbs are much rarer, and Kipnis appeared to be one of a special few. His .309 TAv in 2013 helped propel Cleveland into a surprise playoff berth and even earned him some down-ballot MVP votes. But then came 2014, when oblique and hamstring issues nagged him nearly the entire season, limiting him to 129 games and a measly .239 TAv.

“He had a tough year last year for a couple reasons,” Indians manager Terry Francona recently said. “Physically, he was a little beat up—a couple different times—and it cut into his production. I don’t think he was real happy about that.”

Certainly Kipnis wasn’t, especially considering his poor play likely helped keep his team on the sidelines in October, as they fell just one game short of the postseason. A potentially healthy and productive Kipnis in 2015 had many believing the Indians were World Series contenders (including myself), but both the team and Kipnis got off to horrendous starts. At the end of the day on April 26th, Kipnis was slashing .225/.250/.254 and there were probably quite a few who were wondering if 2013 wasn’t the norm, but rather the outlier for the Northbrook native.

But then things turned around—why? I’ll get to that—and Kipnis went on a torrid hitting streak that every offensive player hopes to encounter, one that hasn’t stopped. In the 29 games since Kipnis’ season hit a low point, he’s put up a line of .412/.500/.706, and watched his OPS jump over 400 points as his TAv sits at a robust .346. Those are numbers that anyone this side of Bryce Harper would be envious of.

Almost any ballplayer going through a slump will tell a member of the media that they’re confident they’ll find success once again. I’ve had McCutchen, Joey Votto, Chris Coghlan, Gordon Beckham, and countless others tell me some version of, “I didn’t just forget how to hit.” Sometimes they’re right, and sometimes, well, sometimes it just appears they were wrong. And while they all display that tough exterior of extreme confidence, one has to assume that in the back of their minds, there’s that little bit of doubt that wonders whether things will ever get back to what they once were at the plate. And when they do return to normal, it’s like the weight of the world has been lifted off their shoulders.

“Obviously, results help your confidence in this game,” Kipnis told me when I asked him if finally producing on the field removed any nagging doubts he may have had about his abilities. “You could have a great swing and still get out, but a guy gets a check-swing hit is probably feeling pretty good about himself. He didn’t even have a good swing and he has a hit. But at the same time, when you get in a hot streak and you’re seeing the ball big, you’re driving it where it’s pitched, it reminds you that it can be done. It reminds the body that you can feel good up at the plate and it brings your confidence up high.”

So what changed? What took Kipnis from budding star to disaster and back to his hot-hitting self? Well, quite a few things, actually.

Health

This is the simple and obvious answer. While Kipnis wasn’t willing to put all the blame for last year’s struggles on his injury, he admitted that it kept him from doing things he normally can do.

“It definitely wasn’t allowing me to be the player I’d like to be,” Kipnis said. “It was restricting me in certain areas that I like to do and couldn’t drive the ball the other way, couldn’t get extended on off-speed pitches, and couldn’t move around the way I wanted to. So it was hurting me.”

Kipnis is right: He struggled to go the other way, with off-speed stuff in particular, last season.

This year he’s had considerably more success taking pitches the other way.

We clearly see significantly more consistency with taking off-speed pitches to left and to center, and the results are clear.

And the numbers agree. Last season, Kipnis hit .085 against off-speed pitches, and this year we’ve seen that number jump to .257. He’s not crushing them, but they aren’t the bane of his existence any longer.

But if it’s just health, then why did Kipnis—who claimed he was 100 percent entering the season despite some back spasms in spring training—struggle so much to start the year?

Mechanical Adjustment

Unless there’s something here we can really pick apart via video, a drastic stance or swing change, this is kind of the boring answer. And it’s one of the things Kipnis told me was the reason for his recent success.

“Getting my hands in a better position, more balance, letting the ball travel,” Kipnis said when asked what he was working on early in the year that finally clicked. “I’ve got a good approach right now, it’s working for me. It was just about finding something that works for me and I found something for me and I’m using it. I’m obviously not going to be able to keep up this pace, but at least it’s a step in the right direction. We’ll ride this as long as we can.”

It may be boring, but it’s obvious these minor tweaks that are difficult to notice with an amateur eye have done wonders for Kipnis. At the very least, he’s seeing results and that’s building his confidence.

But there’s another seemingly obvious answer…

Hitting Leadoff

That April 26th date I mentioned earlier also happened to be the first day Francona decided to put Kipnis in the leadoff spot. He’d been primarily in the two and three hole prior to that, and the change in lineup spot correlated nicely with his hot streak, making for a simple, go-to explanation for why he’d suddenly turned things around.

I came into this thinking that this move had minimal impact on Kipnis’ improved stroke, and he didn’t disagree with me.

“Maybe a little effect, but I don’t think it had too much to do with it,” Kipnis said. “I think I was making strides and adjustments already right before. It just kind of coincided around the same time. I don’t see how changing someone just one spot ahead in the order can drastically make that much of a change. I think it’s coming with approach and coming with my swing has gotten better.”

And Francona certainly wasn’t going to take credit by suggesting a move to the top led to Kipnis figuring things out.

“I agree with him,” Francona said. “Moving him to leadoff I think helped us, it didn’t affect him. He’s gonna hit, he’s a good hitter. We’ve seen him go through this before, I think a couple years ago in June, he kind of hit his way onto the All-Star team. I kept saying all winter, I think he’s going to come back and play with a vengeance. That’s exactly what he’s doing.”

Ok, so if it’s not the leadoff spot, maybe it is nothing more than a slight mechanical adjustment. But, again, booooorrrring. So let’s keep digging.

Facing Fewer Lefties

Kipnis has a 1.082 OPS against righties this season and a .744 OPS against southpaws. That’s hardly struggling against lefties, but that’s a number that’s jumped quite a bit since April and is actually above his career OPS of .665 versus lefties.

And Kipnis faced an inordinate number of southpaws in April, completely out of line with any other month in his career.

This past April, it was nearly a 50-50 split, and he was facing some of the nastiest in the game, including Chris Sale, Dallas Keuchel, and David Price. Kipnis played it off and said that’s part of the game, especially when you play in a division with the White Sox, who currently boast four lefties in their rotation. Regardless, that month of April was an anomaly when it came to Kipnis and the Indians facing lefties, and if that extreme split negatively affected his offensive results in any way, it isn’t likely to do so the rest of the way.

More Fastballs

Kipnis is seeing 67 percent hard stuff this month, his highest percentage for a month since September 2013. And Kipnis likes the hard stuff. According to Brooks Baseball, for his career he’s hitting .312 with a .495 slugging against hard stuff (as opposed to a .212 and .196 batting average against breaking balls and off-speed pitches). This year he’s hitting a robust .422 (.678 SLG) against hard pitches, and he’s seen a one and half–point jump in heat this month compared to last.

And you don’t even need to look at the numbers to know Kipnis likes fastballs; just ask him.

“I do like fastballs, but I guess I haven’t noticed it as much as you have,” Kipnis told me. “I haven’t been like, 'Damn, I’m getting a lot of fastballs lately.' But the results are there, that’s all that matters.”

So Kipnis may not notice it, but it’s true: He’s seeing more fastballs lately, more than he has in a while. But the fascinating thing is that it’s possible he’s seeing more fastballs for the very reason Kipnis, Francona, and I all dismissed as having much impact on his resurgence: He’s hitting in the leadoff spot.

Since 2008, here’s how often each type of pitch—in the three categories of hard, off-speed, and breaking—is thrown to a batter in a particular spot in the batting order.

SPOT IN ORDER

HARD

BREAKING

OFF-SPEED

1

67.8%

22.4%

9.7%

2

66.4%

22.6%

10.9%

3

64.2%

24.0%

11.6%

4

62.6%

24.5%

12.8%

5

62.1%

24.6%

13.1%

6

62.4%

24.4%

13.1%

7

62.9%

24.3%

12.7%

8

64.4%

23.8%

11.7%

9

68.9%

21.8%

9.2%

Prior to moving to his apparently permanent spot at the top of the order this year, Kipnis had batted second nine times and third six times. No, the percentage jump in fastballs seen by his spot in the order isn’t as big as had he moved from the fifth or sixth spot to the top, but it could account for some difference in how pitchers are attacking him.

Of course, this data is skewed due to who is batting in those spots. We usually see fastball-mashing sluggers in the middle of a lineup, so pitchers adjust their mindset accordingly. So the jump in fastballs seen by Kipnis may have nothing to do with the change in where he’s batting. The pitchers don’t look at him and say, “This is a leadoff hitter, I attack him like this.” They are aware it’s Jason Kipnis and likely have a detailed report on how to pitch him and follow that. But perhaps while Kipnis (and I) didn’t realize it at the time, this is the "little effect" he was unknowingly referring to.

In all likelihood, what’s led to Kipnis’ bounce back is a combination of all of the above. Shoot, all of the above, that’s always the right answer. I probably should have just said that in the beginning. But saying "above" wouldn’t have made any sense if I wrote it first and I also wouldn’t have had this nice little conclusion with which to wrap up this piece.

But yes, Kipnis is probably seeing a few more fastballs because he’s in the leadoff spot, and it just so happens that he loves fastballs, so that works out for him. And he’s not facing as many lefties as he did in April, so that clearly is a boon. And of course, he’s healthy, shaken the rust off, able to drive pitches the other way, and feeling good with his mechanics, probably some of the biggest keys for any player to find success.

As Kipnis walked away to prepare for his upcoming game against the White Sox, I told him it certainly was fun to watch a player in a zone like he’d been in. “Let’s hope I can keep it going for as long as possible,” he said. That night he went 0-for-4, his second hitless night in three games. He then went on to deliver at least one hit in each of his next seven games while posting a 1.259 OPS. Maybe there is something to all this hot streak talk.

Thank you for reading

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boatman44
5/29
" Al Capone" leading off for the tribe , a great player and a doppelganger for Stephen Graham who plays Al Capone in Boardwalk Empire, and was brought up about a mile from myself in Kirkby, Liverpool. A certain symmetry, as I once lived in Cleveland, just thought I would share by the by:)
aaronbailey52
5/30
See Kipnis, Jason. Year 2013. Stellar May, beyond awesome. Horrible the rest of the year. There are players with incredible talent, but can't put it together consistently (I says). You heard it first from this layman, he will be his pedestrian self the rest of the year and finish with a good line, because it's what he does. I lump prime Shawn Green and Jay Bruce into this category of players who manage to have one ferocious hot streak every season that skews our perception of them as players.
aaronbailey52
5/30
Okay, so it was June 2013. Close enough. Point is, we've seen this before.
sahadev22
5/30
Horrible the rest of the year? His OPS+ by month that year: April: 56 May: 140 June: 239 July: 108 August: 92 September: 117. So we can look at June being the outlier, like you did, and assume he's not very good. We can assume April is the outlier, and assume he's even better than what the final stat line ended up being, basically the converse of what you're suggesting has happened. Or we can say that June balances out April and his final stat line is what he is, which is probably the most logical conclusion. So you can choose to believe he's not a stud,, but every month in 2013 but April suggests he's not horrible, like you claimed he is.
aaronbailey52
5/30
"Horrible" from a fantasy perspective. He spent the latter 1/3 of the year on the waiver wire after cratering from June. If you take April/May average OPS+ = 98. July/August = 100. Not very exciting. September was too late to matter and he finished hot, going 7 for 13. I want to believe in Kipnis, but he has a history of being all or nothing. IMO, there are rare players who make a career out the annual torrid streak. Kipnis, Jay Bruce, Shawn Green.
sahadev22
5/30
Well, this article has zero to do with fantasy value and nobody running a real franchise cares about fantasy value. His real value is quite significant. And I'm not ripping on fantasy, I play, I'm just saying it's irrelevant to this post and to Kipnis' value to Cleveland.
aaronbailey52
5/30
He's more than twice as likely to post a monthly OPS under .700 as he is to post one over .800. To me that's a frustrating guy to have on the field, more often a slap happy out maker in a critical lineup slot than anything else. Two full months over 1.2 OPS, two months in .800 range. That's it so far for his career. I think he has a nice swing and want him to be a star, but for me that means consistent OPS .775-.850 without quite so deep or frequent slump potential. I think my point is rooted in your opening statement about the hot hand fallacy. It's tempting to say look at how great he is now and project fantastic things. Right or wrong, we've seen this before, but we've seen a lot more of .600 OPS Kipnis than star Kipnis.
sahadev22
5/30
Ok, this is a much more sound argument. I don't totally agree, but I also think it's fair to think this. Before you were trying to dismiss a good September because of a 7-for-13 stretch. Which means I could have just as easily said a so-so month should have been better because a 0-for-13 stretch didn't matter or something like that. I don't think Kipnis is as good as this May or 2013 June. But I also don't think he's as bad as 2014; he's healthy and a pretty solid player as long as that's true, in my opinion.