Kipnis not satisfied with his or club's success
Infielder aims to build on first All-Star season, help Tribe return to playoffs
GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- The spotlight keeps finding Jason Kipnis, but the Indians second baseman does not mind slipping into baseball's shadows from time to time. Such was the case last summer, when Kipnis made the trip to New York for his first All-Star Game.
Outside of Cleveland, the second baseman is not yet a household name and certainly not a widely recognized face. Always up for a prank, Kipnis decided to keep quiet when a few fans asked his brother for an autograph. If they are reading this now, they might want to look closely at the signature they received.
"Some people around there in New York City were walking around with a Todd Kipnis autograph," Kipnis said with a laugh. "We played along and we gave it to them."
If Kipnis can build on his showing last summer, fans will no longer make the same mistake.
During Cleveland's run to the American League Wild Card Game last season, Kipnis proved to be the motor within the Indians' versatile offense. Terry Francona trusted the second baseman with the third spot in the batting order and the Tribe's manager sees no reason not to open the coming campaign with the same plan.
This spring, there are no detailed instructions for Kipnis to follow as he prepares for the season ahead. All Francona has asked of the second baseman is to continue working hard without worrying about any Cactus League statistics. Kipnis is not fighting for a spot or looking to impress.
The Indians know what they have in Kipnis and believe there is even more in his tank.
That is why Cleveland has explored extension talks with the second baseman this spring, too.
"I think he can actually get better," Francona said. "As he knows the league, as he knows himself, and as long as he stays healthy, I think he's going to get better."
That is a scary thought, considering Kipnis already put himself among the game's top second basemen with last season's breakout performance. Kipnis finished the year ranked third among his positional peers in the American League in OPS (.818) and he becamse the first Indians second baseman to lead his team outright in RBIs (84) since Joe Gordon in 1948.
In 149 games, Kipnis turned in a .284/.366/.452 slash line to go along with 17 home runs, 36 doubles, four triples, 76 walks, 86 runs and 30 stolen bases. He joined Grady Sizemore (2007-08), Roberto Alomar (1999-2001), Kenny Lofton (2000), Joe Carter (1987) and Bobby Bonds (1979) as the only hitters in franchise history with at least 15 homers and 30 steals in a single season.
During his second full season, Kipnis put his full potential on display in June, when he hit at a .419 clip to capture the AL's Player of the Month honors. To think, Kipnis was batting .220 on May 14 and Francona faced questions about moving the second baseman lower in the lineup.
"That June was pretty special," Francona said. "Up to that point, everybody kept saying, 'When are you going to move him down in the order?' I just didn't think that was the right thing to do. If you look back on it, if we had moved him to eighth, with what he did in June, we wouldn't have got the production.
"When you know you have a good player, you just ride it out."
Mention June and Kipnis can't help but crack a smile.
"The confidence was at an all-time high," Kipnis said. "I was seeing pitches better. Your swing was doing what you want. ... Right there, I had everything clicking."
When things are going well for Kipnis, who turns 27 on April 3, he gets in a habit of slicing pitches with a surprising amount of power to the opposite field. There are plenty of hitters who are not keen on hitting at Progressive Field, which has a 19-foot wall looming behind left field, but Kipnis has put plenty of dents in the mini-Monster during hot streaks.
During the All-Star Game at Citi Field, Kipnis showed off that skill in the eighth inning, when he slashed a pitch from Atlanta's Craig Kimbrel for a run-scoring double.
"He has that ability to backspin that ball and hit that left-field wall," Francona said. "It's kind of always in his back pocket. When you get rewarded for hitting the ball the other way, that's a great way to play."
Kipnis said he is not worrying about his personal numbers right now.
The second baseman remembers how bad things got in September 2012, when Cleveland limped to a 94-loss finish and promptly underwent a roster overhaul over the offseason. Kipnis then watched Francona come aboard as manager and free agents such as Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn sign long-term deals. He then experienced playing in a postseason chase and one playoff game.
Kipnis does not want things to end there.
"It was a huge turnaround, and we don't want it to be a fluke," Kipnis said. "That's what we're working towards this year. We're not trying to be a one-trick pony where we put all of our eggs in the basket of 2013. We want to be at the top and we want to stay there.
"We don't want to take one step forward and two steps back. We want to keep moving forward."
Kipnis will play an integral role in trying to make that happen.
If his goals come to fruition, plenty of people will recognize him from here on out.