What Happened to Ian Kinsler?
The trade was widely viewed as a success for the Tigers, as they dumped Fielder's huge salary and watched him struggle early before hitting the DL. The Ian Kinsler aspect of the trade was also a huge success, as the Tigers effectively replaced Omar Infante with a guy who is more versatile and productive. In his second game as a Tiger, Kinsler walked off to a sweep of the Royals. Going into the All-Star break, Kinsler was hitting .305 with an OPS of .807. The Tigers also held a 6.5 game lead over the Royals atop the AL Central. Since then, Kinsler has hit .222 with an OPS of .543 and only 9 extra-base hits in 183 plate appearances. The Tigers also find themselves 1.5 games back of the surging Royals. Kinsler's struggles go hand in hand with the Tigers lack of offense, just like Billy Butler and Alex Gordon's surges have had the reverse effect on the Royals.
So what happened to Ian Kinsler?
Hit the Straight Ones
I'm a huge believer in plate discipline. When a hitter is struggling, especially a hitter the caliber of Kinsler, the first place I look is what pitches they're swinging out. Not surprisingly, Kinsler has been swinging at 5% more balls out of the zone post-break than he was pre-break. However, his contact rate on balls in the zone is up, so those numbers even out. The number that should scare the mess out of Tigers fans isn't the bad pitches Kinsler is swinging at, but his inability to hit the good ones. According to FanGraphs, Kinsler registered a wFB, which measures fastball runs above average, of 5.7 entering the All-Star break. Since the All-star break, he has registered a -5.7 wFB. In 212 fewer at-bats. All of that being said, most of Kinsler's second half issues stem from his complete inability to hit the fastball. For more perspective, Kinsler is ranked 158 of 170 among qualified batters in wFB, post All-Star break.
The inability to hit fastballs may be the most frustrating struggle not only for hitters, but for coaches and fans. What does he fix? Some hitters hit off-speed pitches better than others, but rarely do they hit them better than fastballs. This is one of the more simpler concepts in this game. Pitchers throw pitches that break and change speeds. They throw from different arm angles and at different paces. The easiest way to hit a pitcher, is to hit the pitches that he throws hard and straight. Kinsler isn't doing that, and his failure in that category is alarming for Tigers fans, to say the least.
Swing at the Straight Ones
One important thing to realize about this Kinsler dry spell is the sample size. Yes, he has been pretty awful against the fastball after the All-Star break, but like I said before, this is only in 183 plate appearances. Kinsler has averaged 7 wFB over his nine seasons in the big leagues, so he has proven to be an above-average hitter against the fastball in over 5,000 plate appearances. So, like all slumps, he will remember how to hit a fastball and should start hitting them at some point.
The big question mark for Tiger fans is not if, but when. To do this, however, he has to swing at more balls in the zone. Earlier, I said that although Kinsler was chasing more pitches in the second half than he did in the first, but that it was only marginal. That may be true, but as for 2014 as a whole, Kinsler is swinging at way a lot of pitches out of the zone. As of now, his O-Swing% of 31% is a career high, and it's not really close.
To go along with that, Kinsler, according to BrooksBaseball.com, sees a higher percentage of strikes from the fastball (25.8%) than all other pitches but sliders, but swings at less fastballs than all other pitch except for sliders. To simplify, the two pitches Kinsler sees in the strike zone most often, he swings at the least often. This is something that has to be adjusted.
If I were to give Kinsler a game plan for the rest of the season, it would be pretty simple. First, I would tell him to swing at less breaking balls. Of pitches he has seen over 1,000 times in 2014, he swings at curveballs, cutters, sinkers and changeups the most. In correlation to the first step, I would then have him swinging at more fastballs. And lastly, he's gotta start swinging at pitches in the zone. No matter what pitch it is, hitting balls out of the hitting zone just makes it more difficult to get solid contact on the ball.
Something's Gotta Give
For a guy who has struggled as mightily as Kinsler, his solution seems pretty simple. With Butler and Gordon heating up in Kansas City to go along with their ridiculous defense and bullpen, the Tigers can't afford to regress any more than they already have. This team has more than likely lost Anibal Sanchez for the year, has seen Justin Verlander regress at a rapid pace that nobody saw coming, and has a two-time defending MVP who is struggling with injuries and with his power. Hopefully for Tiger fans, Kinsler will figure it out sooner rather than later. If he doesn't, it's hard to see this Tigers team having another division title in them, let alone a deep playoff run.