Jason Kipnis has never minded getting down and dirty.
As aggressive a base runner as he is a hitter, Kipnis, the Indians’ 5-foot-11 second baseman, rarely finishes a ballgame without patches of reddish-brown infield clay smudged across his uniform.
Kipnis didn’t initially realize it at the time, but his conversion from outfield to infield four years ago not only afforded him more time in the dirt, but also set him on the path to break out as a major-league All-Star and become one of the faces of the franchise as the 2014 season gets under way Monday night in Oakland.
It’s fitting that former Tribe manager Manny Acta’s nickname for Kipnis — “Dirtbag” — endures, continuing to mirror his gritty style of play and consistent hustle.
“He’s a blue collar, dirtbag,” Acta said when Kipnis broke into the big leagues three years ago. “[He’s] a run-though-a-wall, relentless type of guy.”
Indeed, Kipnis does whatever it takes to win, regardless of how dirty the job gets.
“People still float that nickname around here and there, and I take it as a compliment,” Kipnis said. “That’s still the way I play. The reference is that [I’m] a good ballplayer and a guy who always gets his uniform dirty.”
Kipnis was a consistent contributor over his first two and a half years with the Indians, but he flew under the radar for the most part. After making his major-league debut in July 2011, he showed plenty of promise, batting .272 with nine doubles and 19 RBI in 36 games.
The following year, his first full season in the majors, Kipnis’ average fell to .257 as the league began to adjust to him. But he still contributed 22 doubles, 14 home runs, 76 RBI and 31 stolen bases.
A slow start morphed into a slump that extended into May before Kipnis regained his form last season.
“I can get hot, but I’m as prone to cold spells just as much as the next guy as you saw in April when I was the ball and chain on the team,” Kipnis said. “But there’s a lot of guys I think can step up for us and carry the team if need be. I consider myself one of them as well.”
Kipnis proved as much, and more, when he followed the biggest slump of his career with the hottest stretch across the majors. He hit .419 in June and earned his first All-Star selection.
Adjustments made and confidence restored, Kipnis went on to a team-leading 84 RBI and helped the Tribe reel off a 10-game winning streak to end the season and reach the postseason for the first time since 2007.
“[My] confidence has grown, but that just comes from the experience of playing over the last couple years,” he said. “I’m able to work smarter than harder in some places now, instead of trying to incorporate everything into one day. Now, I know to just work on something today and another thing the next day.
“It comes from knowing the schedule, knowing the process of spring training, knowing how long it takes you to get ready for a season. It’s a process where a couple years down the road, you have a better idea of what you want to do.”
What Kipnis wants to do this year has little to do with adding another All-Star bid to his resume.
“Nope, no personal goals, just a team one,” he said. “After last year, this team definitely wants to get back to the postseason.”
In a short stretch of time, Kipnis has gone from a too small, not-enough-pop overacheiver to an above-average major-leaguer. As the 2014 season begins, Kipnis appears to be on the brink of becoming one of the major league’s top players.
“When younger players are getting better — the more they learn in the league and about themselves, the better and more productive they can get,” Indians manager Terry Francona said. “I think Kip has room to get better — and that’s exciting.”
Kipnis, 27, was drafted as an outfielder in the second round of the 2009 draft but was asked to make the switch to second base early in his minor-league career.
The inspiration to convert Kipnis to an infielder was due in part to the organization’s lack of middle infield talent. Moving from outfield to infield is much tougher than going the opposite way. To be successful, it requires a player that not only possesses the athleticism to physically adjust, but the mental toughness and competitive fire to keep at it.
Kipnis, still described consistently by scouts as a guy who “plays with a chip on his shoulder,” had not played infield since he was a junior in high school.
Despite the position change that left him initially offended, Kipnis did what he’s always done when presented with tough challenges throughout his baseball career — he put his head down and got to work getting dirty.
Kipnis played in only 254 minor-league games, covering four levels in less than two and a half years.
“[At first] you’re like, am I really that bad in [the outfield]?” he told the Jacksonville Daily News in North Carolina a season after adjusting to the position change and advancing to high Class-A Kinston. “But once you sit down and look at it, you realize they have your best interests in their interests, too. And you realize that second base might not be that bad. It might even help you in the long run.”
That’s exactly what it did.
“All through my career people have looked at me and my size and said I can’t do a lot of things,” Kipnis said during his brief stint with the Aeros in 2010. “It’s just kind of been my life, proving them wrong.”
Kipnis made his big-league debut in late July of 2011. His first career hit came in his second game, a walk-off single in a 3-2 win over the Los Angeles Angels at Progressive Field.
“He’s not going to be intimidated,” Acta said afterward. “He is going to contribute.”
Now Kipnis is coming off his best major-league season. He set career highs in average (.284), hits (160), doubles (36), home runs (17), RBI (84) and walks (76).
This season, his contributions could be even more crucial as he emerges as a team leader with potential lasting star power.
“We have a lot of guys returning, so we know we can win with the guys we have in this locker room,” Kipnis said. “[Last season] we learned the hard way what we already knew, that anything can happen in a nine-inning game between the lines and that if you run into a hot pitcher, there isn’t much you can do. So, a series is what we’re shooting for this time. That’s the consensus goal in the locker room.”
To reach that goal, the Indians will need a handful of leaders. In the mix with fan favorite Nick Swisher and ace pitcher Justin Masterson is Kipnis, a pint-sized spark plug who is more than willing to do the dirty work.
Stephanie Storm can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Indians blog at http://www.ohio.com/indians. Follow her on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/SStormABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.