Moving Ian Kinsler Off Second Base Would Be A Mistake
By Eric Reining
Each spring when Texas commences with its home slate, the game is played in the early afternoon. The sun imposingly illuminates on the infield dirt and outfield grass, and makes necessary expensive sunglasses and all the eye black a clubhouse can hold. It’s a tradition in Arlington.
In 2006 the Rangers ushered in the new season by hosting the Boston Red Sox; Curt Schilling was on the mound opposite former de facto ace Kevin Millwood. After Schilling retired the first eight hitters of the game, up stepped the future 2nd baseman of the Rangers franchise, Ian Kinsler, eyes shielded by two gobs of black. It had only been three years since he began his rapid ascension from little-known 17th round shortstop out of Missouri into one of the top infield prospects in all of baseball.
Against the future hall-of-famer, Kinsler laced a single to right-center, the first hit of the game and season for the Rangers, and the first hit of what was to be many hits in Ian Kinsler’s quietly remarkable career.
Many Texas fans have lamented Kinsler in the last six years for a multitude of reasons: The perception that he doesn’t try or care, that he pops out too much, that he’s lazy in the field, that he has an attitude problem, and that he’s never been one to hit for a particularly high batting average. The metrics tell an entirely different narrative, a narrative that paints him as one of the premier 2nd basemen in the game.
Yesterday the Fort-Worth Star Telegram’s Jeff Wilson wrote a brief article quoting Kinsler being willing to switch positions. After all, many believed when he signed his 5-year/$70M extension during last season that it may inevitably come to that.
“I’m paid to be a Texas Ranger,” Kinsler said Thursday afternoon before hosting Thanksgiving dinner at the Family Gateway in Dallas. “Where I play on the field is not my decision. I’m going to do whatever I can to help the team win regardless of where I am on the field or where I’m hitting in the batting order.”
Ian Kinsler is a team player. He cares about winning, which would probably help explain why so many fans see him as having an attitude problem. It’s not that he feels entitled now that he’s been paid handsomely; it’s that he cares so much, that he holds himself to such a high standard, that the frustration pours out of him like a Little Leaguer who feels like he should make every play, who feels like he should be on base each time he puts on his helmet and steps to the box.
Perhaps I’m projecting a bit, but competition does that to people who care.
It’s interesting, and also expected, that Kinsler is so willing to do whatever it takes to help his team succeed. After all, the comparisons between he and the purported Face Of The Franchise, Michael Young, have spawned since the day they first shared the diamond together — even though they are nothing alike as players on the field or individuals away from it. Contrary to Kinsler, it was Michael Young who complained when Elvis Andrus came up to take his shortstop position. It was Michael Young who again complained, and demanded a trade, when Adrian Beltre was signed to take over at 3rd base, relegating him to DH duty. You don’t hear that from Kinsler. And if his six years here have taught us anything, you won’t hear that from Kinsler.
Despite his willingness to change positions, it would be a mistake to actually go forth with a plan of that sort — at least in 2013. There’s a lot of talk about how sexy it would be to sport an infield of Elvis Andrus and Jurickson Profar up the middle, and understandably; even I have pondered how ostensibly sweet the lineup would look with Profar, Kinsler and Andrus inhibiting the 9, 1 and 2 holes, respectively.
However, what’s the cost of that, in terms of value?
Since his inception into the league back in 2006, Kinsler has generated 27.5 fWAR, 5th in baseball among 2nd basemen, and the most of any Ranger in that time span. The concept of Wins Above Replacement takes into account the complete body of work — that being base running, fielding and hitting — and Kinsler has clearly proven himself to be above average in each category, particularly when he’s being compared to other second basemen.
You may choose to focus on the way he makes routine errors every so often, and each time he does it seems to make a more recognizable impact; the play is “routine” after all. And after all, it is Ian Kinsler. However, focusing merely on how many errors a player commits is a poor way to go about judging defense. Most of the time the individuals who produce higher error totals are the same ones that get the most opportunities. Ian Kinsler has well above-average range at 2nd, meaning it makes sense that he would have more errors; he gets to more balls. The same can be said about Elvis Andrus at shortstop.
Ian Kinsler is thought less of because he pops out seemingly every time he is retired. Then, in a lugubrious trot to first base, fans perceive it as if he doesn’t care — like he’s not showing effort. The truth is, Kinsler has possessed the same swing, the same bat path through the zone, since he came up in 2006. No one complains when he’s hitting home runs, but in 2012 — a noticeably down year — fans started piling on the “trade Ian Kinsler” bandwagon. However, since he arrived in the league, he’s produced a wRC+ of 112, well above average for a 2nd basemen. And base running? He’s produced about 40 runs better than the average player, the best of anyone at his position. Ian Kinsler is a nearly-elite. Arguably, he is elite.
So what happens if he was moved to the outfield?
Well, as you probably already know, corner outfielders generate runs at a much higher rate than 2nd basemen do, and by a pretty substantial margin. Since 2006, 55 outfielders have generated a wRC+ of 112 or better. In that same time frame, only seven 2nd basemen have done the same. Essentially, his bat is elite at his natural position, and average in the outfield.
The next item to consider is defense. If Kinsler was hypothetically moved to the outfield, the Rangers would be taking two players out of their homeostasis, both Kinsler and his 2nd base replacement, Jurickson Profar. Basic deductive reasoning would say that Ian is a good enough athlete to be able to handle the transition amicably; he has a good arm and good speed. As for Profar, shortstops generally possess more range than anyone in the infield, so common logic would probably also tell you that he would be a plus defender at 2nd.
The problem is, we’re dealing with hypotheticals. It’s not reality. Although we can speculate, we don’t actually know. Even though it’s fun to think about a lineup with three athletes of the Kinsler, Andrus and Profar variety, I’m not very comfortable with the idea of potentially losing defense at two positions, and turning Kinsler’s plus offense at 2nd base into an overall average outfielder.
The Rangers 2012-’13 offseason is one of change, and there are clear needs at several positions on the diamond. We’re without a viable catching option, a slugging outfield replacement for Josh Hamilton, a starting pitcher, and a couple arms in the bullpen. I’d hate to waste one of the few constants on the roster by moving him away from his natural position simply to appease a middle infield dynamic of Andrus and Profar. Kinsler belongs at 2nd. Profar belongs at shortstop. Elvis Andrus belongs on another roster so we can capitalize on his current value.
The future needs to begin now, not two years from now when Elvis walks in free agency.