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.