CLEVELAND -- Jason Kipnis stepped into the batting cage in Arizona last spring with a very specific goal. The Indians' second baseman felt he had more home runs in him than he hit in the previous season, and he wanted to team with Cleveland's hitting coaches to unlock that power.
It is one thing to have a goal. It is another to actually achieve it on the Major League stage. Last year, Kipnis belted a career-high 23 home runs and posted the best slugging percentage (.469) of his career. That was the product of tireless work in Spring Training, an improved mental approach and adjustments made throughout the season. Kipnis has always displayed opposite-field power, but last year he consistently pulled the ball with authority.
"It was a conscious effort," Indians assistant hitting coach Matt Quatraro said. "His commitment right from the start of Spring Training to the mental part of it, and the physical daily approach to drill work, the consistency, he took it to a new level last year."
There are multiple layers to how Kipnis realized his goal, but the foundation was simple: Improve the hitting mechanics on inside pitches and have a more efficient eye across the zone. For the first part, Indians hitting coach Ty Van Burkleo worked with Kipnis on getting the barrel of the bat out in front quickly. For the next step, Kipnis studied opposing pitchers and catchers, making daily adjustments based on past approaches against him.
Kipnis had gained a reputation around the game as one of the best at back-spinning pitches down the left-field line or into the left-center gap for extra-base hits. If a hitter gets caught up in that style, though, he can begin manipulating the bat to send the ball the opposite way. That can reduce effectiveness on inside pitches, and it had been a problem at times for Cleveland's second baseman.
"He knew that was his strength," Van Burkleo said of Kipnis' opposite-field power. "But from Spring Training on, we'd always do some work inside to where he'd feel how to get to that pitch the right way. I think that helped him. As a pitcher, you're going to try to at least show him stuff inside, because he's so efficient on the pitch out over the plate. So, there's going to be opportunities in there.
"If he's ready for it, or anticipating that they may be trying to pound him in, then he can set his sights on that pitch and work on cutting it off. When he does it correctly, it is going to be for power."
Kipnis' SLG on pitches on inner third of K-zone jumped to .743 in '16 from .593 in '15. Here's a look at how his XBH spray chart changed. pic.twitter.com/p3DXfepe7H
According to Statcast™, Kipnis posted a .525 slugging percentage on all pitches and a .704 slugging on fastballs (four-seamers, two-seamers and cutters) over the outer-third of the strike zone in 2015. Last year, those numbers dropped to .439 and .591, respectively. Kipnis maintained a level of effectiveness over that portion of the strike zone, while dramatically improving his production on inside pitches.
During the 2016 season, Kipnis turned in a .743 slugging percentage on all pitches over the inner-third of the strike zone -- up from .593 in '15 and .439 in '14. On the 2016 season as a whole, the second baseman had 10 of his 23 homers come off inside fastballs, and 13 of his homers against inside pitches of any type. His work against inside heaters, specifically, improved greatly. Kipnis had a .687 slugging percentage on fastballs over the inner-third -- up from .527 in '15.
Here is Kipnis' in-play percentage on fastballs over the inner-third of the plate over the past three years:
Here is Kipnis' slugging percentage against those fastballs put in play:
2014: .469 2015: .604 2016: .793
Comparing 2014 to '16, Kipnis had nearly the same percentage of hits (35.4 percent in '14 and 35.6 percent in '16) on the inside fastballs he put in play. The difference in slugging percentage (an increase of .324) is striking, though. Over that three-season period, the second baseman became far more efficient on which inside heaters he attacked, and that is partially due to how he approached the rest of the strike zone.
"He probably took more pitches out over the plate that were called strikes that in the past he probably would've hit," Quatraro said. "That way, he could in turn concentrate on a smaller area that more times than not was middle-in. The league knew in previous years he looked to the outer part of the plate and drove the ball to left-center. So, maybe it was a conscious effort to pitch him in more, and he made an adjustment to the league."
The statistics support that assertion by Quatraro. According to Statcast™, Kipnis took called strikes over the middle-third of the zone on 4.9 percent of all pitches he saw in 2016. That was up from 4.2 percent in the previous season. Looking specifically at fastballs, Kipnis took called strikes over the middle-third on 3 percent of all the pitches he faced. That was up from 2.1 percent in '15.
"David Ortiz talked about it all the time," Quatraro said. "He said he would take three or four pitches that seemed hittable, because he knew at some point in that at-bat, the pitcher was going to throw him whatever he was looking for. The ability to have that approach and stay with it, and not vary it so you're just kind of chasing your tail from pitch to pitch, that would be a level of maturity that you continue to grow with."
Kipnis did experience some trade-offs for improving his power.
Overall, Kipnis' home run total jumped by 14 and his at-bats per homer dropped to 26.5 in 2016 compared to 62.8 in '15. While the second baseman's walk rate stayed virtually the same (8.7 percent in '16 and 8.9 percent in '15), his strikeout rate went up (21.2 percent in '16 from 16.7 in '15). Both his batting average and on-base percentage took a hit, too. In the process, Kipnis' OPS dipped to .811 in '16 from .823 in '15.
In terms of achieving his preseason goal, though, Kipnis succeeded. He wanted to hit for more power, and he did precisely that last season.
Quatraro is expecting more of the same in the season ahead.
"If he could do what he did last year, I think he would take that in a heartbeat," Quatraro said. "Not speaking for him, but if you could start the year and pencil in his production from last year, I wouldn't change it. Especially if you add [Michael] Brantley back to the lineup and you get Edwin [Encarnacion] and a healthy [Yan Gomes], that production in that kind of lineup, I think everybody would take it."
Jordan Bastian has covered the Indians for MLB.com since 2011, and previously covered the Blue Jays from 2006-10. Read his blog, Major League Bastian, follow him on Twitter @MLBastian and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.