Friday, September 21, 2007

The Kubel Factor

The 2007 season has been a frustrating and disappointing one for the Twins. The team will miss a postseason berth for just the second time since 2002, and there have been disheartening individual offensive performances across the board. Nick Punto has been utterly awful. Joe Mauer has regressed significantly from his excellent 2006 campaign. Justin Morneau has been horrible in the second half. Michael Cuddyer has had a drop-off in power production. Alexi Casilla has taken a major step back in his progression.

For much of the season, it appeared that Jason Kubel would be another sad name on this list of underachievers. Yet, a stellar second half has turned him into one of the few positives for the Twins' offense this season.

When you take a look at his overall numbers, Kubel appears to be the very definition of an average major-league hitter. For the season, he has hit .269/.329/.442 -- a batting line that is very similar to the major-league average of .268/.335/.422. However, glancing at Kubel's overall numbers for the season does not come close to telling the whole story on a 2007 campaign that has very much been a tale of two halves.

Up until the All-Star break, Kubel was hitting just .250/.303/.404 with seven home runs and 37 RBI in 263 plate appearances. He was showing some power, but his lack of on-base skills was perturbing. Normally known for having solid plate discipline, Kubel struck out 46 times while drawing just 18 walks during that span.

Yet, here in the latter half of the season, Kubel has shown significant signs of improvement. Since the All-Star break, he has batted .298/.372/.503 with five homers and 24 RBI in 172 plate appearances. These numbers are extremely encouraging. Kubel has maintained his impressive power while making massive strides in his ability to hit for average and draw walks. In those 172 second-half plate appearances, Kubel has already drawn 19 walks to eclipse his first-half total, and in the meantime he's cut down on his strikeout rate, fanning only 25 times. That makes for a nearly even strikeout-to-walk ratio, which is very much in line with what he did in the minor leagues.

Basically, Kubel is developing into the hitter many expected him to be right before our eyes, and he just keeps getting better. In the month of September, he has batted .320/.397/.600. Many will credit Kubel's hot hitting to a new spot in the batting order; he has raked to the tune of .344/.417/.656 since moving to the No. 2 hole. While hitting between Jason Bartlett and Joe Mauer might be part of the reason for this success, I suspect the biggest factor is that Kubel is playing regularly and getting more and more comfortable. After falling victim to Ron Gardenhire's misguided habit of pulling young players in and out of the lineup with reckless abandon through much of the season, Kubel is finally finding his name in the lineup almost every day, and the results have payed dividends.

It was a tough first half for Kubel, and when combined with the struggles he experienced last year, it made for a stretch of performance that pushed some fans to the brink of giving up on the once-bright hitting prospect. But should Kubel's early-season struggles really be viewed as surprising? In the offseason following the 2004 season, Kubel suffered a devastating knee injury that caused him to miss the entire 2005 campaign. Last year, he returned to the Twins, but his knees were clearly still bothering him and stunting his development. This year he finally found himself back in good playing shape, but when you've spent so much time away from being a regular hitter, it takes time to adjust and see pitches the way you need to. That's precisely what happened to Kubel, who frequently looked lost at the plate over the first half of the season but now appears to be confident and in control.

Kubel is not only one of the best pure hitters on the Twins, I'd go so far as to say that he is one of the best pure hitters in the league. He doesn't have enough at-bats to qualify for the leaderboard, but if he did, Kubel's line drive percentage of 22.5 would rank fifth in the American League behind only Michael Young, Placido Polanco, Reggie Willits and Brandon Inge. Coaches and players often marvel about how hard Kubel hits the ball in batting practice, and his ability to consistently make square contact with the ball is evident when you watch him in games. Every time he makes contact, Kubel always seems to get his money's worth, even when he gets out.

The bad news is that Kubel may have lost as much as two and a half years of his development because of the knee injury he suffered in the fall league following that 2004 season. The good news is that he's still only 25 years old, and he still has worlds of talent that are starting to show out on the field. His torrid performance here over the last couple months of the season has almost certainly assured Kubel of a starting spot on next year's team, be it in left field or at designated hitter. A full year of Kubel playing at his best could make a big difference on this offense, and it could be a key factor in the Twins' ability to improve and score more runs next season.

16 comments:

brianS said...

I credit New Guy for spurring Kubel on in the second half. Without New Guy's constant disparagement in the SBG game threads, Kubel would have folded like a cheap suit.

Or something.

Nick N. said...

Ah yes. I can't believe I overlooked that crucial factor.

Matthew said...

I couldn't agree more. Kubel seems to be a very similar case to Michael Cuddyer. Cuddyer used to be in and out of the lineup all the time and wasn't able to find his groove at the plate. That was until Gardy finally gave him an everyday job and Cuddyer flourished.

I think Kubel may be in the same boat.

Nick M. said...

It would seem that in many ways Cuddyer has now been taken over in ability by Kubel. I would say that according to minor-league numbers, Kubel has always been more offensive talented. Of course, if the point is that their situations are similar, then there is no disagreement. You would think by that basis, Gardy would learn some important lessons about young players.

John said...

After falling victim to Ron Gardenhire's misguided habit of pulling young players in and out of the lineup with reckless abandon through much of the season, Kubel is finally finding his name in the lineup almost every day, and the results have payed dividends.

I believe that Gardy is hesitant to trust youngsters, but in the case of both Cuddyer and Kubel, I think think this is a massive misperecption. The cause and effect are being mixed up.

Cuddyer, in particular, had plenty of times where a job was handed to him, but just didn't produce. And he didn't finally grab the job until he WASN'T handed the job, and pieced together solid production coming off the bench.

Same with Kubel. He was awful the first half of the year, and it's beyond unreasonable to expect Gardy to throw him out in left field every day given his early season production. If you absolutely need to have something to blame for how long it took for these guys to develop, blame the fact that the Twins are a competitive team, and are limited in how many putrid at-bats they can donate to someone struggling ala the Royals.

Unless, of course, you're five foot nine and scrappy. Then you can have as many at-bats as you want.

But it's nice to see people recognizing Kubel's development. It was too little too late for this year, but it might make a big difference next year. People wonder how Torii's offensive production can be replaced if he leaves. Kubel is one of the answers.

Anonymous said...

It is apparent that Gardenhire cannot foresee what might happen for a player in the big leagues, he can only see what has happened to a player in the big leagues. Past tense.

Suppose for a second that Gardy had been handed these two pitchers:

A: 155IP 181H 74BB 101K 17HR 5.61ERA 77ERA+
B: 210IP 242H 92BB 127K 34HR 5.49ERA 78ERA+

I'm sure what we have heard that these guys need more seasoning and that they aren't ready to pitch in the majors. The current regime wouldn't pitch these guys the next year, these guys would probably be kicking around between the majors and minors, and the fan base would be saying that these guys are disappointments. Not like players C and D, below:

C: 249IP 230H 81BB 140K 13HR 3.18ERA 114ERA+
D: 257IP 225H 73BB 149K 28HR 3.21ERA 131ERA+

Now, there's some quality major league performances. Not like those bums A and B.

A: Greg Maddux, 1987
B: Frank Viola, 1983
C: Greg Maddux, 1988
D: Frank Viola, 1984

Young guys take a little time. Be patient with them. If they've shown promise at lower levels (like Gleeman says) they are more likely to succeed in the majors.

-SBG

Anonymous said...

Oh yeah. Handing Kubel's at bats to Rondelle White, Jason Tyner, and Lew Ford is exactly how a contending team should act.

Cuddyer, in particular, had plenty of times where a job was handed to him, but just didn't produce. And he didn't finally grab the job until he WASN'T handed the job, and pieced together solid production coming off the bench.

Provide some support for this. Because I documented that Cuddyer was the best hitter on the Twins in 2005 after May 1 and despite a poor April still had a .263/.330/.422 98 OPS+ line (on a team with an 89 OPS+ he wasn't playing every day! How absurd!). And in 2004, Cuddyer hit .263/.339/.440 for a 100 OPS+. And still, in April 2006, I heard Gardenhire say on his radio show that Cuddyer couldn't play every day at the major league level. There are the facts.

-SBG

Nick N. said...

Same with Kubel. He was awful the first half of the year, and it's beyond unreasonable to expect Gardy to throw him out in left field every day given his early season production. If you absolutely need to have something to blame for how long it took for these guys to develop, blame the fact that the Twins are a competitive team, and are limited in how many putrid at-bats they can donate to someone struggling ala the Royals.

SBG took the words right out of my mouth when replying to this. The issue isn't that Kubel was playing playing so well that it was ridiculous to bench him. The reason it was ridiculous to bench him is that the guys that were playing OVER him -- the likes of Jason Tyner, Rondell White and Lew Ford -- were not putting up significantly better numbers and could not reasonably be expected to do so. Even when at his worst, Kubel was still hitting for some power and spraying line drives all over the field when he made contact.

valdespino said...

Kubel will be an impact hitter like Morneau, as opposed to great stat guys like Mauer and Hunter who have less to do with the actual production of the team (at critical times).

Nick N. said...

Kubel will be an impact hitter like Morneau, as opposed to great stat guys like Mauer and Hunter who have less to do with the actual production of the team (at critical times).

I agree that Kubel will be an impact hitter, but to claim that Mauer and Hunter are not impact hitters is awfully disputable.

For the record...

Mauer, RISP 07: .318/.445/.558
Mauer, Close & Late 07: .268/.386/.411

Hunter, RISP 07: .335/.384/.618
Hunter, Close & Late 07: .293/.344/.476

John said...

It probably deserves some real statistical analysis, and I don't have the energy to do that right now, but I'll throw out my perceptions and let you guys agree or hack at them.

With Cuddyer, I hear you Ken about 2005. I spent the offseason trying to point out that Cuddyer was a great hitter for the latter 2/3 of 2005 and deserved a starting spot in 2006. And that's the one point where I truly fault the Twins - for not playing him in April of 2006.

But the criticism towards the Twins treatment of him usually goes back much further than that. Even in 2005 he started slow and most of his time wasn't truly "earned". In 2003, when handed RF, he was brutal for a month and a half before being demoted. I think 2004 was when I was stumping endlessly for him to play 2B, but it's worth noting that it was the only position where his inconsistent hitting wouldn't have been a liability.

So I don't accept the media truth that he somehow started hitting when he no longer had to play IF, but I also don't accept the sabremetric truth that he started to hit when he go regular time. Cuddy started to hit when he learned what to do with a pitch on the outer half of the plate, and even then the answer was "dump it to right field like Redmond".

As for Kubel, Nick, I don't know how to statistically refute "hitting for some power and spraying line drives all over the field when he made contact" but he drove me crazy for the first four months of this season. I hear you about how hard it is to start those names over him except that:
1. Rondell certainly had the upside this season coming into the season that Kubel did. In fact, to quote an argument used earlier, he was the Twins best-right handed hitter over the second half of last year. He certainly deserved starts.
2. Ford (who I suspect started over Kubel no more than a dozen times) is right-handed, and that might make sense versus a left-handed pitcher.
3. Finally, Tyner (and it drives me crazy that this is only mentioned in passing most times people talk about him) is decent versus righties. He's not a liability when used that way. Plus, he plays defense in spacious Metrodome LF roughly 250% better than Kubel. For the four months where Kubel was almost completely worthless nine out of ten games, playing Tyner a chunk of that time was justified.

Listen, I love Kubel. There's a reason I paid way more than he was worth in my roto league this year. But he was terrible for the first two months, below average for the middle two months, and promising the last two months.

And yes, he's playing more now, but I think the cause and effect is mixed up. Kubel isn't great because he's playing. He's playing because he doesn't suck. And that's as it should be.

brianS said...

Man, I hope these kinds of posts and comment threads keep happening for the next (ugh) 6 months. Good stuff, boys.

JJ said...

I certainly find it interesting that Cuddyer and Kubel have such similar offensive numbers, making both about average major leaguers.

Cuddyer, just now reaching 2000 mlb ABs, is a known adequate commodity.

Kubel, with only about 600 mlb ABs, has another two seasons before a final judgment can be made. Obviously there's some real upside.

I'm amazed that both of these guys are ripped so regularly while Punto has so many defenders.

Nick N. said...

As for Kubel, Nick, I don't know how to statistically refute "hitting for some power and spraying line drives all over the field when he made contact" but he drove me crazy for the first four months of this season.

You could look at his LD%, which has been in the mid-20s basically all season long.

Plus, he plays defense in spacious Metrodome LF roughly 250% better than Kubel.

I don't think Tyner is a better defender than Kubel overall in left. Tyner is faster, but he takes loopy routes and has a much weaker arm. Kubel's defense wasn't good early in the season, but that was another effect of him not having played regularly in so long.

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