What is Ian Kinsler?
The simple answer is that he is a shaggy haired second baseman who likes to wear really high socks and skip after hitting significant home runs. He is also the best baseball player ever named Ian, so there is that.
We know these things, but we do not seem to know a whole lot about what kind of player we will see in a season. 2008 was Kinsler's break out season, where he played the part of a high-average hitter with some pop, hitting .320 with 41 doubles and 18 home runs, and some very efficient base running. His weighted On Base Average was .393, still a career high. To his career at that point, though, he had never shown himself to be a good fielder. He always had stellar range and ability to get to balls, but he made a shocking number of mistakes in the field that kept him from really taking advantage of the value his offense provided at second base. But he was still really good.
In 2009, Kinsler started out on fire, hitting better than .450 with five home runs in the first two weeks. He cooled off a bit before the end of April, but still looked like the front runner for MVP through the first month of the season. In only one more month did he manage to approach his April stats and finished with a disappointing .253/.327/.488 slash line. But he was still really good.
Kinsler's cooling off seemed to be due to a pronounced uppercut approach at the plate, trying to send balls in the air. He abandoned the approach that resulted in line drives nearly a fourth of the time in 2008 -- falling to 15.9% in 2009 -- and ended up hiking his fly ball rate from 43.3% to 54%, many of them maddening pop ups. But while the homer friendly approach did hurt his ability to avoid outs, dropping his on base percentage more than 40 points, it was not the entire story. His Batting Average on Balls In Play was a shockingly low .241, compared to a career rate closer to .300. A poor approach certainly helped keep it so low, but bad luck almost definitely played a part, as well.
2009 also had a lot of positives for Kinsler, particularly on the defensive front. His always fantastic range was now coupled with fewer mistakes, and he was finally a plus defender at second, which was backed up by a 15 runs saved increase from 2008 according to Ultimate Zone Rating, and nearly a 30 run increase according to Defensive Runs Saved. He also managed for the first time in his career to stay fairly healthy, playing more than 140 games. Kinsler got a lot of flack from fans for his frustrating approach, and for being a disappointment following such a great start, but with the improved health and defense, he still managed to have second straight All-Star-caliber season, and was perhaps even more valuable than he had been in 2008.
Injuries seem to be a fact of life with Ian Kinsler, but never more so than in 2010. He played in just over 100 games all year, a career low, and his persistent ankle injury seemed to sap both the line-drive power he had shown in 2008 and the home run power he had shown in 2009, slugging a career low .412. But he was still really good.
What Kinsler did show in 2010 was a very impressive plate approach, by far the best of his career. He swung at just over 62% of balls out of the strike zone, nearly 6% better than his career rate, and almost 10% better than his 2009 hackfest. His walk rate soared to a career high 12.2%, and his .382 On Base Percentage was the best of his career by a wide margin, even while the league-wide OBP dropped nearly nine points. He even maintained the plus defensive ability he had shown in 2009. And the power came back at the right time, with a marvelous ALDS, capped off with one of the most significant home runs in the history of the franchise.
So, Kinsler has put up three very good seasons in a row in three very different ways. He has shown an ability to hit for high average, with tons of doubles. He has shown an ability to smash a bunch of home runs and play a bunch of games at a high defensive level. He has shown an ability to maintain stellar discipline at the plate with an enormous OBP. He has just somehow never managed to put these things together at the same time.
Right now, Kinsler is destroying pitchers in spring training. As of Sunday, he led all players in exhibition play with 20 total bases and four home runs, while putting up a .500/.611/1.429 line. Of course, it is only a handful of games, and games that do not matter at that. But, small sign though it may be, it is still a good sign, and Spring is the time for hope and excitement. And, so far, Kinsler has given Rangers fans a lot to be excited about. While a 2.140 OPS is obviously nothing you will see in the regular season, we have seen all the parts of a great player from Kinsler already, the only question is if he can put them all together at one time.
In fact, let us take an educated guess at what kind of player Kinsler could be if everything came together. That 2010 walk rate over his average of just under 550 plate appearances a year is about 70 walks over the course of a season. His base stealing peak of 2007-08, when he wasn't pressing to get to 30, placed him at close to a 25/2 stolen-to-caught ratio; ridiculously efficient. His slugging peak of 2008 would put him at approximately 40 doubles, five triples, and 20 home runs, with about 155 total hits. That's a slash line of around .320/.420/.530, or a staggering wOBA of about .425 (.415 after ballpark).
For reference, the best second baseman in 2010 was Robison Cano, at a "mere" .390. That is most likely a bit high of an estimate for Kinsler, as putting together both extreme discipline and explosive power is a tall order, especially from someone who has never put the two things together at the same time. The ZiPS projection system, for example, has him at around .370 (with, gasp, exactly 550 PAs), which is still good, just a lot lower than .425. But we are "wishcasting" a bit here.
So how good is a second baseman putting up a .425 wOBA? With good defense (~10 runs saved per 150 games played), he is worth just shy of 6.5 wins above a replacement level second baseman. At FanGraphs in 2010, that would have put you in the top 10 among all position players. That's just shy of what fellow second baseman Dustin Pedroia put up in 2008 when he won the MVP (and before you mock the writers, only Grady Sizemore was ahead of him among position players, and not by much). That's an intensely valuable player, one of the best in baseball, and maybe a justifiable MVP candidate.
And if he could somehow put health with that and play a 150 game season? Well, for a lead-off hitter in an offense like the Rangers, you are now looking at topping eights "wins," legitimate MVP territory, the place Josh Hamilton found himself in during 2010. Again, expecting both the slugging and the on base percentage to reach career heights at once is perhaps a bit optimistic, but just reaching, say, 90% of each is likely putting up a career year, especially with improved health. Just staying healthy and maintaining most of his plate discipline from 2010 coupled with the power he's shown in previous seasons could put him in that six win range mentioned before.
Ian Kinsler is already one of the best second basemen in baseball, and has been for a while. He is already an All-Star caliber player, and is on his way to likely being one of the greatest players in franchise history. But there are very real signs that he can be more than that, and maybe 2011 is the year the health, the defense, the plate discipline, and the ability to drive the ball will all show up in the same season. There are a lot of places the Rangers could realistically improve over 2010 from within, but perhaps none are easier to daydream about than a full complement of Ian Kinslers.