Ian Kinsler, The Dave Dombrowski Gift That Keeps On Giving

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

Two offseasons ago, the Tigers put together a pair of blockbluster deals. One of them sent Doug Fister to Washington for a package of unhappy baseball fans, but the other was considered one of the Dave Dombrowski’s finest, swapping Prince Fielder for Ian Kinsler.

The particulars were this: four years of Ian Kinsler at $62M for seven years of Prince Fielder priced at $168M. To balance out the costs, the Tigers also chipped in $30M. So the Tigers got four years of Kinsler and $76M for seven years of Prince Fielder. At the time, my only concern was making sure the Tigers invested that savings in other players rather than the Ilitch family trust, but from a tactical standpoint it was a really nice deal.

Here’s the thing, going into 2014, Kinsler was coming off one of his worst seasons in which he hit 104 wRC+ and put together 2.6 fWAR. Prince had a similarly rough 2013, registering a 126 wRC+ and 2.3 fWAR. It was a challenge trade. Kinsler is two years older and under contract for a shorter period of time, and his value was tied up in defense and base running. Everyone knew Prince was a bat-only player, but he had already bottomed out in terms of non-hitting value, meaning that if he could continue to hit, his value wouldn’t decline. Kinsler, on the other hand, didn’t have the bat anymore, we thought, to protect against any athletic declines.

Surprise! Kinsler went back to being great and Fielder dealt with injuries and mediocre performance. Put another way, over the first two years of the post-deal era, the Tigers have gotten 9.2 fWAR from Kinsler and Fielder has accumulated 1.4. That’s a difference of 7.8 WAR.

In order for this deal, roughly speaking, to wind up as a negative for the Tigers (using the price points from November 2013), Fielder would have to out-WAR Kinsler over the remainder of each contract by, and I’m not kidding, about 19 wins. So if Kinsler doesn’t play a game for the Tigers for the next two years, Fielder would still have to average 3.7 WAR per season for the rest of his deal. Fielder only averaged 3.4 WAR between his peak 2007 to 2013 seasons.

In other words, there is almost no way in which the Tigers lose this trade. This isn’t news, but it’s fun to put some numbers on it. Fielder would have to play like a borderline All-Star through age 38 without Kinsler ever playing again in order for this deal to break even. That’s pretty great.

Obviously, we probably couldn’t have predicted Fielder’s neck injury, but in non-Dombrowski fashion, the erstwhile GM bet on a good all-around player over a slugger and it’s been fantastic. But it’s worth wondering at this juncture: how did Kinsler maintain his value into his thirties? We all kind of figured he’d be good enough for the deal to make sense, but I don’t think any of us really banked on a couple of 5 win seasons.

Last year, his bat fell in line with his 2012-13 numbers, but excellent defense and base running lifted him into the 5 win neighborhood. This year, his glove has been good, but maybe not quite as good, and he’s been a better hitter thanks more walks and a higher BABIP. His power remains average or a touch under, but his walk rate bounced back (2014 was probably unusually low). Interestingly, this is Kinsler’s best BABIP since 2008, and he’s typically been a low BABIP guy.

This year, he’s getting a lot of extra value from that .326 BABIP. Often, we chalk BABIP spikes up to randomness. That’s usually the safe assumptions, but it’s always fun to poke around and look for signals that there is an underlying change.  For example, he’s hitting more line drives, which isn’t a super sticky stat, but you know what?

Screenshot 2015-09-18 at 2.00.17 PM

Kinsler is having a nice offensive season in conjunction with hitting more balls up the middle and to right field. Can we say this is definitely connected? Maybe not, but this could be a good way to neutralize the shift.

An average hitting second baseman who plays good defense is a good player, and if Kinsler can be anything more at the plate he’s going to keep paying dividends for the club. It will be curious to see how Kinsler’s bat carries into next season, but it’s not unprecedented for an older player to start going the other way a little more to the benefit of their BABIP. In fact, that’s exactly what helped Torii Hunter extend his career over the last several seasons.

Will he be great for years to come? Perhaps not, but at least the Tigers won the trade.

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