Who was only Major League player to join the 30/30 club in 2009?
Hint: It was a second baseman.
Another couple of hints: It wasn't Dustin Pedroia and it wasn't Chase Utley.
Ian Kinsler, who's been one of the Rangers' top run producers since joining the club in 2007, claimed the honor. He swiped 31 bags and hit 31 home runs, and he also collected 32 doubles.
But Kinsler's casual, seemingly out-of-nowhere success is the product of years of hard work and a strong drive to be the best ballplayer he can be. In fact, such an underdog is Kinsler that his name went uncalled in the 2003 Draft until the 17th round, when he was taken by Texas.
The Rangers assigned their new prospect to the Spokane Indians of the Class A Short-Season Northwest League, a move which Kinsler was grateful for in the long run.
"The wood bat was a tough adjustment," he said,"But the short season is a good place to start. I think you get the right number of at-bats to get it figured out and build a little confidence."
Darryl Kennedy, who was Kinsler's first professional manager, also remembered Kinsler needed time to acclimate himself.
"He was getting used to the wood bat and just being in pro baseball," said Kennedy. "He wasn't really playing that much at the beginning. He wasn't even our starting shortstop at first. Some guys come in and everything works for them right away. Other guys need a little time to make an adjustment. With him, it was just a matter of getting his feet wet."
Before long, Kinsler showed he was comfortable. Kennedy began putting him in the lineup with more regularity, and each time it seemed to pay off.
"He worked harder and harder, and I'd put him in a game, and he'd have a couple hits. I'd put him in another game a couple days later, he'd have a couple more hits. Little by little, he was playing every day," Kennedy said.
"I was able to make some adjustments. The wood bat takes some confidence away, and baseball is all about confidence," Kinsler explained. "You've got to get some good at-bats in, and then you can start to get comfortable and your confidence can come back."
When his confidence did return, Kinsler made it difficult for anybody else to doubt him. He ended the season with a .277 average -- very respectable for a 17th-rounder playing in his first pro year -- and he helped the Indians to the Northwest League championship.
After the youngster proved worthy of playing every day, Kennedy immediately noticed he had more than a regular Minor Leaguer on his hands.
"His hitting really stood out, once he got adjusted. I'd watch him hit, and I'd know he was going to be a big leaguer," said Kennedy, who's now the manager of the Idaho Falls Chukars and is spending the offseason coaching in the Venezuelan Winter League.
While Kinsler recognizes the confidence he gained in the Northwest League as an important part of his journey to the Majors, he cherishes one experience from 2003 above all others.
"When you come out of college, all you want to do is win. Regardless of where you're playing or what the organization wants from the team or what anybody expects you to do, you want to win," he said. "Really, any time you step onto a baseball field, you want to win. To be able to win a championship in my first pro season was pretty special."
While Kinsler surprised some with his solid year in 2003, nobody could have been ready for his breakout performance in 2004.
That is, nobody except Kinsler.
"I put in a lot of hard work in the instructional league before that year," he said. "That was the biggest leap [in skill level] I've ever taken in my career. I got to know my body. You become more self aware."
Sent to the Class A Midwest League's Clinton LumberKings at the start of the campaign, Kinsler busted out. After 59 games, he had a .402 average with 30 doubles, 11 homers and 52 RBIs. Kennedy remembers checking in on Kinsler's progress.
"Every time you looked up, he had another double," he said. "You tend to follow those guys."
The extra work Kinsler had put in brought about a transformation in his overall game, he said.
"I was definitely becoming a new type of player. All of my life I was comfortable on the field, but I was becoming a new type of player. That took a lot of hard work."
Although he was only in his first full season as a pro, the Rangers seemingly had no choice but to promote Kinsler to the Frisco RoughRiders in the Texas League.
"When I heard he got the call up to Double-A," Kennedy recalled, "I was really proud of him and happy for him."
As the move to Double-A from Class A is often called the most challenging jump in pro baseball, Kinsler could have been forgiven for struggling after his promotion. Another period of adjustment could have been expected. Kinsler hit .300 though, collecting 21 doubles and 46 RBIs.
Suddenly, a 17th-rounder from the previous year's Draft was one of the hottest prospects in baseball. The Rockies tried to trade for the youngster, offering up Larry Walker, who had over the past three seasons driven in 306 runs for Colorado. The deal was called off when Walker enacted his no-trade clause, but the spotlight on Kinsler remained.
"Honestly, baseball is what you can control," Kinsler said. "Every year is like that, with the media, with what's going on with your team ... who's going to get called up? Who's going to get signed? Who's getting traded? Basically, you can worry about that stuff or you can just worry about baseball."
His progress earned him an elongated trip to Spring Training in 2005. What he remembers most is being thrilled about playing with the guys he knew were his future teammates, but he admits to having been a little nervous too.
"There were some nerves, but there was a lot of excitement," he said. "That was my first full Spring Training. I just tried to learn as much as possible and open as many eyes as possible."
The Rangers decided that season to move Kinsler from shortstop to second base, and his conversion would require at least another season in the Minors.
Kennedy said although the move hadn't been foreseen at the time Kinsler was drafted, he wasn't surprised to learn about it.
"At that time, it wasn't something anybody was thinking about. We just let him play, and then you make changes later on as the organization needs it."
The way Kinsler saw it, he was willing to do whatever was necessary to play in the Majors on an everyday basis.
"You want to get to the big leagues -- I mean, that's the highest level there is. You want to get there as fast as you can."
To this day, Kinsler continues to outperform expectations. He was selected to the American League All-Star team in 2008 and narrowly missed a second time in 2009.
Dustin Pedroia and Chase Utley -- players who each have a similar makeup to Kinsler's -- tend to receive more national media attention than he does, but Kennedy says it'd be a mistake to think Kinsler doesn't belong in the same category as the 2008 AL MVP and the 2009 World Series MVP candidate.
"Pedroia's in a big market. Texas is a smaller market [than Boston] and so he hasn't gotten the same kind of attention as Pedroia, maybe," said Kennedy. "But I think that's a great comparison."
Kinsler knows being a ballplayer often means being compared to other players, and he understands why he's compared so frequently with Pedroia -- they both started as shortstops and played together briefly at Arizona State University. Kinsler also feeds off changes taking place in his position.
"That's the game really, being compared to people you're similar to. ... Mostly, I'm just happy to be a part of what's happening at second base right now."
As Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter and Nomar Garciaparra redefined the archetypical shortstop in the last decade, Pedroia, Utley, Kinsler and others are evidence of an evolution at second base. More and more sure-handed fielders are flashing power to go with the kind of speed long expected out of second basemen.
"It does kind of remind me of the '90s [with the shortstop position]," Kinsler said. "I was in high school then, and it was really fun watching those great guys at short. It's a really exciting time now at second base.
"Aaron Hill is a guy a lot of people overlook, even after the season he just had. I played with him in the [Arizona] Fall League, and I know what he can do. He's going to be around for awhile, and so are Dustin and Utley."
But if Utley and Pedroia continue to be the first names that pop into the average fan's head when second base is mentioned, it won't take anything away from Kinsler. In fact, considering his drive to win, he may be better for it.
"You always want to be the best, and having guys like that in your position really helps push you," he said.
Minor League career breakdown
2003: After sweating his way into the starting lineup, Kinsler found his stroke with a wood bat, hitting .277 with 10 doubles and six triples while helping the Spokane Indians to a Northwest League championship.
2004: After just 59 games with the Clinton LumberKings, Kinsler proved too much for Midwest League pitchers. He batted .402 with 30 RBIs, 11 homers and 52 RBIs.|
2004: Kinsler, still in his first full professional season, showed he was up to the challenge of Double-A. With the Frisco RoughRiders, he hit .300 and slapped 31 extra-base hits. |
2005: Working on a conversion to second base from shortstop, Kinsler was sent to the Oklahoma City RedHawks. He continued to develop offensively, bashing 23 homers to go with his 19 stolen bases and 28 doubles. |