By: Will Burchfield
You'd think it'd be hard to name an MVP on a team that includes Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez, J.D. Martinez, Nick Castellanos, Ian Kinsler, Justin Verlander, Jordan Zimmermann and so on and so forth. It's not.
Kinsler, who turned 34 on Wednesday, is the do-everything man for the Tigers. Scratch that. He's the do-everything-well man for the Tigers, and that's quite the distinction. There are a number of Major-Leaguers who can claim to be versatile players, who can make themselves useful based on a wide range of abilities. We call these guys utility-men.
Kinsler is no utility-man. He's a five-tool star.
This isn't news, of course. Since breaking into the league in 2006, Kinsler has been one of the best all-around players in baseball. Look no further than his four All-Star Game nods for evidence of that.
But Kinsler has been a different player at different points in his career. He's been the high-average hitter, like when he batted .319 in 2008, but only at the expense of his power – just 18 home runs that season. He's been the slugger, like when he blasted 30+ bombs in 2009 and 2011, but not without letting his average slip in the process – .253 in '09, .255 in '11.
This season, Kinsler has been the full offensive package. He is batting .301 with 14 home runs and 46 RBI through 68 games and has scored 58 runs. Assuming he plays 155 games (to account for a few more games off), Kinsler is on pace for 31 home runs, 104 RBI and 132 runs, the latter two of which would be career highs. And defensively, he's been a near-infallible vacuum at second base, posting a .991 fielding percentage that ranks second among A.L. second baseman.
"I try to do everything really well," Kinsler said prior to Wednesday night's game against Seattle. "I try to run the bases well and play defense well, see pitches when I have to, drive in runs when I have to, score runs – really whatever it takes. I don't like to say one aspect of my game stands out, I like to try to be well-rounded."
That's always been Kinsler's calling card, but he's never fulfilled it to this degree. All along, we've seen small shortcomings within otherwise sterling statistics, subtle defects that have dulled his shine. But there are no faults to point to this year. He might not receive the national recognition of a Mike Trout or a Manny Machado, but Kinsler belongs in their class. He's become a baseball prototype.
Asked to explain the reason for his success this season – success he really hasn't known in his 11-year career – Kinsler voiced both sides of his personality. There was the veteran who's been here before and the rookie who can't get enough.
"Just constantly learning the game and trying to get better, trying to figure out a way to make yourself more productive. A lot of it's just experience. You just learn as you go and try to apply what you learn as fast as possible," he said.
Out of all his impressive numbers this season, the most startling is this: despite hitting leadoff in every game he's played, Kinsler leads the Tigers in RBI. It's a difficult stat to make sense of – so much so, that Brad Ausmus chose not to.
"I don't have to [explain it] because it's only June, so let's talk in September. If he's leading then I'll see if I can come up with an answer," he smiled.
In all likelihood, the sluggers behind him will catch up as the season wears on. Still, the fact that Kinsler has driven in more runs than any other Tiger and we're closing in on the All-Star break is representative of his transcendent value to this team.
"It's probably pretty unanimous that he's been our most valuable player thus far," said Castellanos. "Just getting on base, scoring runs, playing every day, racking up RBIs, hitting homers."
Jarrod Saltalamacchia agreed.
"I mean, he's in there every single day and he's been consistent with his bat, consistent with his defense. He's a leader in the clubhouse, a leader on the field. He can bring so many things to the table, so in my opinion, yeah, he's been our MVP," said Saltalamacchia.
Ausmus, as managers are wont to do, wouldn't declare Kinsler the team's single most important player. Not in clear terms, at least. But as he began discussing what the second baseman means to the Tigers, Ausmus came pretty close.
"He's kind of the catalyst of our team, really. He's at the top of the lineup, he brings an edge to him, he has a fire to win. He's been around long enough and established himself that he doesn't even worry about his own numbers. He just wants to win. And he doesn't take a pitch off, so it's a good example to set."
In a vacuum, Kinsler's season shouldn't come as a surprise. We've always known of his ability to hit for power and average, always been aware of his speed on the base paths and his slickness at second base. That it's all coalesced at once isn't a shock.
But then you remember that Kinsler is 34 years old and in the midst of his 11th season as an everyday MLB player. You consider the mileage on his body, the kind of toll his unbridled effort must exact day after day, week after week. You think, man, how is he this good at this age.
"No," said Castellanos. "If you look at his resume, you wouldn't expect anything less."
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