Sunday, October 31, 2010

Keeping Jason Kubel

Last Friday, the Twins decided that they would exercise the 28-year-old Jason Kubel’s $5.25 million dollar option on 2011. This was one of the more significant decisions that loomed on the offseason landscape for the team. When we were creating our individual blueprints for the TwinsCentric Offseason GM Handbook, it was noteworthy that the four of us split on the decision to keep Jason Kubel. Nick Nelson and I found it in the Twins best interest to hold on to the lefty while both Seth Stohs and John Bonnes recommended that the two part ways (John suggested a straight dump of his salary while Seth submitted that the team pick up the option only to trade him later). Certainly, this discussion must have occurred among the Twins’ top brass as well.

With reason, trepidation and speculation existed that the organization may have opted to decline Kubel’s option year. His final numbers were not wholly indicative of a player worthy of a $5.25 million payday, particularly on a team whose budget will be less flexible in 2011 and may also have the opportunity to bring back Jim Thome. After all, it was Thome rather than Kubel whose DH production was instrumental in propelling the Twins to their second straight AL Central Division title. For his part, Kubel, after raking a succulent .300/.369/.539 a year ago, only managed to generate a .249/.323/.427 line in 2010, results that were substandard comparative to the average American League DH (they hit .252/.332/.425 as a group).

But why not focus on Thome over Kubel? After all, it was Thome who rocked righties (.302/.455/.698 with 19 HR in 246 PA) and also figures to sign for a lower amount than Kubel’s $5.25 million. Why not lock up Thome and invest the difference in relief arms?
In spite of his statements indicating that he would like to remain a Twin, we still do not know what Thome’s true intentions are. While his 2011 salary estimates to be lower than that of Kubel’s option, it is contingent on whether or not some teams overpay for his services. His hometown White Sox might reconsider their decision to allow the big man to walk and offer him more money to return. Other AL organizations that have interest in spending money this offseason might contact Thome’s agent to inquire on the aging slugger and drive up the bidding. Because of this, the Twins had to move forward with an alternative plan and exercising Kubel’s option allows them to still kick the tires on Thome but have a safety net in the event that Thome’s asking price soars.  

Hidden within the mediocre slashes for Kubel were the incremental improvements he made when it came to breaking balls. Up to this point in his career, Kubel excelled at handling fastballs but had been tied in knots when pitchers tossed a wrinkle at him. Because of his tendency to decimate fastballs, opponents stopped throwing him fastballs as often as Kubel saw the 10th-fewest fastballs in baseball this past season. Instead, he was treated to a high amount of changeups (14.9%) and curves (10.3%). While changeups frequently fooled Kubel (a .217 average and a 29% swing-and-miss rate on changes), he slugged .660 on curves resulting in 6.5 runs above average (7th best in baseball) on a pitch that he had been otherwise completely unproductive on previously in his career.

Truth be told, Kubel’s past two seasons demonstrate the extremes of what batted balls can do. In 2009, his totals greatly outpaced what should have been expected from him. While the rest of the league finished with a BABIP around .300, Kubel’s ‘09 BABIP culminated at .327 – exaggerated by a boost in his line drives finding vacant real estate. Conversely, his 2010 totals were the polar opposite of his previous season, witnessing far more line drives gloved down.

League Average
Kubel 2009
Kubel 2010
Groundball BABIP
Flyball BABIP
Line Drive BABIP
Overall BABIP

As you can see, there was a sizeable shift in his overall BABIP numbers, mostly derivative of a 142-point drop in his line drive BABIP. This is one indicator of what statistically-oriented analysts refer to as “bad luck”.  “Bad luck” is the catch-all descriptive used far too often to label a BABIP anomaly like Kubel’s when it comes in below the league’s average. While we would like to assign the blame to the baseball gods, something less celestial probably influenced this, like better scouting reports.     What we do know is that Kubel unleashed liners at roughly the same rate has he did in 2009 (19.6% versus 19.2%) but somehow had a whopping 84% land safely for hits while only 69% fell in for hits this past season. If he continues to replicate this amount of liners in 2011, odds are that his batting average and on-base percentage will creep northward as his BABIP likely normalizes.

Of course, there is another factor that makes spending $5.25 million on Kubel questionable and that is his inability to hit same-sided pitching. The perception is that left-handers have their way with him like he was Ned Beatty wandering the Georgian woods and, for the most part, this is true. In the past two seasons, Kubel’s hit just .233 off of southpaws while striking out in 21.9% of those plate appearances. Likewise, just four of his 49 home runs have come against left-handers. Although many figured the retention of Kubel should not come without a platoon partner (which the Twins should do either this offseason or at the deadline in order to appropriately match-up against the left-handed heavy pitching of the AL East in the postseason), let’s keep in mind that right-handed pitchers, as a demographic, far exceed that of their wrong-handed counterparts.

Consider this: Last season in the American League, where right-handed pitchers were on the mound for 62,275 out of the total 86,725 match-ups. That is, 71% of the overall encounters saw a righty on the mound. Therefore, stacking the lineup with potent left-handed bats presents a sizeable platoon advantage to the offense. With the likes of Justin Verlander, Matt Scherzer, Zack Greinke, Jake Peavy, Edwin Jackson, Justin Masterson and other hard-throwing right-handers in the division, it makes complete sense for the Twins to have a stable of left-handed hitting offensive answers.  

Kubel’s 2011 season will likely fall somewhere between his 2009 and 2010 output. If the Twins can limit his reps against tough left-handed pitching that would greatly improve his chances of bettering his numbers. But the decision to pick up his option goes beyond simply expecting an improved season out of the lefty. With the unknowns of Jim Thome’s future, keeping Kubel is essentially a bird-in-hand situation allowing the team to move forward if Thome opts to sign elsewhere. Independent of Thome, at 29 years old in 2011, Kubel is potentially at the peak of his career and, for a marginal investment, the Twins could reap offensive dividends on that before he becomes expendable in his 30s. 

Friday, October 22, 2010

Nathan returning to form in '11? Don't count on it.

One of the cogs to the 2011 bullpen, Joe Nathan, recently told John Shipley of the Pioneer Press that he plans to come to camp in the spring healthy and ready to compete for his old job.  

Said Nathan:
"I plan on being healthy enough to not miss a beat in spring training. I'm sure the coaches will be cautious at first, but I hope to prove early in spring that I don't need to be babied or coddled in any way, and that I can go out and play baseball as normal."
The Twins closer-in-exile is scheduled to make a non-refundable $12 million next season - a substantial amount of dough - so the organization is understandably anxious that Nathan fulfills his promise of returning at full strength. At the same time, there has to be cautious concern and on-going contingency planning to be prepared if the closer’s arm is not ready.

There is a lesson to be learned from the two most recent Tommy John post-ops, Francisco Liriano and Pat Neshek, and their first seasons back on the mound. Upon their return, neither Liriano nor Neshek (in his limited sample size) were very effective. In fact, most of their vital signs suggested that they were nowhere close to the pitchers they were prior to the procedure:

Francisco Liriano
Pat Neshek
Velocity Before TJ (mph)
Contact Rate Before TJ
Velocity After TJ (mph)
Contact Rate After TJ


In addition to both losing roughly four miles per hour on their fastballs, Liriano and Neshek struggled with their control as well in their initial seasons back. Because Liriano was able to mix in a still viable slider, he managed to escape his that year with a 6-4 record along with a 3.91 ERA. However, his control was less than sharp as he had troubles getting ahead of hitters (48.9% first-pitch strike versus 60.5% first-pitch strike prior to Tommy John) as well as getting opponents to miss (10.8% swinging strike versus 16.4% prior to Tommy John). With another hiccup in 2009, it took until this past season before Liriano regain the form he had before the surgery.

Neshek, too, returned with a decreased velocity as well. Like Liriano, in his limited exposure at the major league level in 2010, Neshek also had troubles getting ahead of hitters (44.2% first-pitch strike compared to 66.1% in 2008). Because of his radar readings, the Twins sent him back to Rochester in hopes that he would be able to strengthen his arm more. He has yet to prove that he can come full-circle after the surgery.

According to Will Carroll’s Saving The Pitching: A Revolutionary Analysis Of Pitching Injuries And How To Prevent Them, the standard amount of time for recovery of Tommy John surgery is 22-to-24 months. Following that timeline, Liriano would not have been fully healed until November 2008. Instead, he was throwing again in the Twins uniform on April 13th, 2008, a mere 17 months after his date with the knife. Likewise, Neshek was submarining again for the team 17 months after his surgery as well.

Of course, given the right individual and training program, one can hasten the recovery process. For the Braves’ closer Billy Wagner and starter Tim Hudson, 17 months was more than enough time to get game ready. The two Atlanta pitchers should be role models for Nathan as they were able to return to work 11 months (Hudson in 13 months) after having their elbow rebuilt. As such, Nathan was quoted as talking to both Wagner and Hudson regarding their trials and tribulations through the Tommy John recovery process.

Unlike Liriano and Neshek, neither pitcher lost much in terms of their stuff:

Billy Wagner
Tim Hudson
Velocity Before TJ (mph)
Contact Rate Before TJ
Velocity After TJ (mph)
Contact Rate After TJ


Wagner only got in 15.2 innings in his first season back but was far better than before the operation, inciting less contact afterwards. Hudson also had an enviable season as well, actually getting ahead of his opponents much better (66.1% versus 60.4%) after the surgery in his reps.

Nathan’s motivation to converse with the two TJ survivors goes beyond seeking inspirational slogans as April 2011 will also be Nathan’s 11-month anniversary of his surgery date. Given the previous track record of his teammates, is this really a feasible goal for the Twins’ all-time saves leader?

“[M]ultiple major-league sources suggest that medical risks persist for a pitcher until he is at least 14 months removed from such a procedure. There are still risks of setbacks, and it would be vastly premature to suggest that the pitcher is out of the woods.”
It would be a fairly accurate assumption that Nathan is working through the same programs with the team’s trainers as Liriano and Neshek did before him. While plenty of the turnaround has to be assigned to the drive and motivation of the individual, there is a share of responsibility that goes to the training staff as well. As Carroll’s book says, the real work begins during the rehab protocol and the Twins have little evidence of returning a Tommy John survivor back into the wild. Judging from the outcome of Liriano and Neshek, the probability of Nathan returning to his 2009 self in 2011 appear very premature.  

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Goose Gossage Award ballot (Best AL Reliever)

Tasked with the responsibility of determining one of the two votes from the Minnesota delegation for the Baseball Bloggers Alliance for the Goose Gossage Award (best reliever), I must admit I figured my vote would probably come out of the Tampa Bay bullpen, I just didn’t expect that it would have been the one I selected.

As a unit, the Rays relief staff was the best in the American League. They finished the season with had most saves (51), the fewest runs (180), the fewest hits (383), the fewest walks (tied with the Twins with 150 but probably would have finished better had their manager not decided to intentionally walk five more hitters) and, ultimately, cost their team as a whole only 16 games in the loss column.
 On the surface, closer Rafael Soriano could have easily have been the right choice. After all, his 45 saves in 48 chances led the league. For those that value that kind of termination, that’s outstanding. Flavoring that, Soriano’s WPA was the second-highest among relievers in baseball at 4.98, meaning he was directly influential at ensuring his team won games. Additionally, in his 62.1 innings of work, Soriano allowed just 14 runs, struck out 57 and a .190 opponent batting average.

Of course, what most people do not notice is those that help create the environment in order for the closer to succeed. Often times, closers are like Senior Vice Presidents that have been promoted over a middle manager or worker that might assume more of the dirty work with far less of the recognition. Given the right opportunity, the underling might actually be a superior contributor than his direct report. And that appears to be the situation in Tampa when it comes to my vote for the Goose Gossage Award, Joaquin Benoit.

Whereas Soriano received the accolades and saves, Benoit labored to ensure that Soriano would be in-line for his save when the ninth inning came. Coming off a missed season recovering from torn labrum surgery, Benoit was simply phenomenal at a low cost to the Rays. While taking on a similar workload as Soriano (60.1 innings) but was slightly more dominant than his bullpen-mate with more strikeouts (75), fewer runs (10) and a lower opponent batting average (.150). Furthermore, Benoit held baseball’s lowest WHIP (0.68) as well as the lowest on-base percentage (.189).

To be sure, Benoit’s season seems to transcend the factor of luck influenced by the small sample size of relieving. In analyzing his stuff, we find that he was downright lights out. The righty was reaching 94 miles an hour on average on his fastball, producing a heater that was 12.2 runs above average (5th best), and used it to get ahead of opponents then deploying what manager Joe Maddon described as an “elite changeup”. The so-called elite changeup garnered Benoit a dirty-filthy-sick-nasty 8.2 runs above average, best in the game, and was swung-and-missed at on 46% of hitter’s swings (3rd best changeup in that category). His stuff was simply disgusting in 2010.

Here’s my final ballot:

Third: Neftali Feliz

Already our selection for Willie Mays Award (best rookie), Feliz had a tremendous season as a closer in Texas, helping elevate the Rangers deep into the postseason. In addition to his 40 saves in 43 opportunities, Feliz held a 9.2 K/9 as well as a tidy 0.88 WHIP and a .180 opponent average.

Second: Rafael Soriano

Pretty much for all of the reasons listed above. Also, pitching in the AL East can never be emphasized enough.

First: Joaquin Benoit

Given his performance this past season for a team that won an extremely tough division (Yankees and Red Sox hitters were a combined 6-for-44, .136, against the right), Benoit has earned the right to be considered the BBA’s Goose Gossage Award winner.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Did Cuddyer's knee diminish his power?

The Twins announced this week that a handful of players, including Michael Cuddyer, will have some offseason surgery to combat the lingering injuries. Reports Star Tribune’s La Velle E. Neal:
Twins first baseman Michael Cuddyer said he will need surgery to clean out his right knee, which has been bothering him since the beginning of the season. 
"I need my right knee scoped," Cuddyer said Monday. "I wasn't that affected by it as far as playing."
I am not so certain that last part is true.

Like most hard-nose players who ooze machismo all over the clubhouse, Cuddyer’s quote is an attempt at downplaying the injury and the potential it could have had on his overall game. If the knee was enough of an irritant to incite him to say it was bothering him all season, it probably had some influence over his playing. The announcement that the Twins mainstay would require surgery on his right knee might also help explain some of the diminished power and a damaging trend of hitting more grounders as the season progressed.

When Cuddyer amassed 32 bombs in ‘09, he did so in dramatic tape measure fashion. According to, the right fielder averaged 412 feet per shot in true distance while the rest of the American League was averaging 396 feet on their home runs. While some of this distance might be attributed to hitting in the favorable atmospheric bubble of the Metrodome, Cuddyer also jacked 14 of his 32 home runs away from the climate-controlled park, an indication that he had effective power everywhere.

Given not just the total but the magnitude of the distance on his shots, expectations that Cuddyer could match his 2009 contributions seemed like a fair bet.

This year, however, not only did he hit 18 fewer home runs in 25 additional plate appearances between the two seasons, Cuddyer’s distance shrank considerable in those homers as well. His average true distance decreased to 396.4, just slightly better than the rest of the league (395.7). While Target Field’s conditions certainly may have been a factor in his decline in home runs at home as well as his diminished frequent flier mileage, his decrease in home runs on the road -- both in totals and distance -- suggest a more likely correlation with an injury. 

Then there is the case of his groundball totals increasing throughout the season. My initial diagnosis last month was that Cuddyer was rushing through his swing, often fooled by sliders and offspeed pitches and turning over on those by being out in front. While he was still rushing through is swing - more so than last year - with this revelation, it appears that there is a chance the injured knee may have been culprit rather than Cuddyer’s eagerness. With an injured right knee, the one that a right-handed hitter uses to drive off of, there may have been discomfort in his mechanics, which would cause the hitter to prematurely shift his balance off of his back leg sooner to alleviate the discomfort. 

Regardless of his statistical contributions are perceived, knowing that Cuddyer persevered and played through ailments such as his knee, just when the Twins needed him the most, seems to validate some aspect of his team MVP argument. No, he didn’t get many key hits, as his WPA was beyond the pale (-1.52), and he was utterly overmatched defensively at first base, acting as a sieve whenever a short hop was thrown in his direction. Still, Cuddyer was able to maintain some semblance of order by remaining in the lineup instead of having Jose Morales, Brendan Harris or the likes fill in at first. To some manager’s, that might be enough to consider your player a downright superstar.

Because the Twins are already on the hook for his rather overpriced $10.5 million in 2011, the organization needs to hope that the minor procedure of “cleaning up” his knee will help resurrect his power potential.


As a reminder, when you are finished here, head over to and purchase your pre-sale copy of the TwinsCentric Offseason Handbook 2010-2011. Heading into my Billy Mays mode, if you act now, you can buy the Handbook for $4.95 now instead of the $9.95 full-price that all of the Johnny-Come-Latelys will pay.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

TwinsCentric Offseason GM Handbook 2010-2011

Because the baseball embers continue to burn throughout the dark and cold winter, that’s why we at TwinsCentric have compiled the well-received Offseason GM Handbook. As one front office official told me, the hot stove is when all the action happens. From every possible angle, John Bonnes, Nick Nelson, Seth Stohs and myself have created a comprehensive guide for baseball’s second season. 

Here are some of the topics we will tackle that is facing the organization right now:

(1) What will the Twins do with all of those impending free agents?

Carl Pavano, Jim Thome, Orlando Hudson, Jesse Crain, Matt Guerrier, Brian Fuentes, Randy Flores. Which ones SHOULD the Twins attempt to retain and why.  (A1: Not Randy Flores. A2: Because.)

(2) What about those arbitration eligibles, how much will they ask for and what is a fair offer from the front office?

There is a plethora of players in line for raises, including Francisco Liriano and Delmon Young. Certainly, after their 2010 seasons both players are looking for a raise. What should the Twins offer them?

(3) What is the future of the payroll?

No one concerns themselves more over the finances of the club than John Bonnes and he once again provides us with an accurate budget to operate with. Understanding these confines and parameters provides perspective. For example, knowing the current contractual obligations allows us to recognize that signing Cliff Lee is a pipedream.

(4) What do the Twins need?

A right-handed bat might be on the top of the list, where might they find that? There will be a surplus of those types of bats entering free agency, will there a bargain like Jim Thome available who swings from the opposite side of the plate? How about a backup catcher that isn’t an obscene downgrade offensively in the event Joe Mauer misses several games on end? A power pitcher? A two-hitter? A second baseman?

(5) How is the organization looking below the surface?

Seth Stohs knows more about the farm system and he outlines the depth by position in the organization and will predict who will be the next Danny Valencia for the team.

(6) What does the free agent landscape look like?

Last year, there was an abundance of left-handed designated hitters and second basemen. Because of that, the Twins wound up getting Thome and Hudson at a TJ Maxx price. What does the market have an abundance of and can the Twins improve from that?

(7) Do the Twins have tradeable commodities that they should use to acquire other talent?

In 2009, the Twins shipped Carlos Gomez, a talented yet maligned outfielder, to Milwaukee for J.J. Hardy in hopes of solidifying the shortstop spot. This trade was able to happen because the team had numerous outfielders. With Delmon Young, Denard Span, Michael Cuddyer and Jason Kubel, it appears that the Twins might have the opportunity to move one for help in another area.

We address all of these topics and more, offering thousands words on the issues and keys to team building that you crave. The TwinsCentric Offseason GM Handbook 2010-2011 is now available for pre-sale orders. Those that get in early, will have the opportunity to purchase the eBook at the low $4.95 rate -- half the regular price. Grab one now and get ready to join one of the greatest conversations.

Friday, October 08, 2010

Tough call, even tougher road ahead

If you are a subscriber to the theory of momentum, the Carl Pavano-Lance Berkman encounter in the seventh inning was the most pivotal (and controversial) at bat of the game, shifting control back into the Yankees’ favor.
The Twins had just tied the score at two in the bottom of the previous inning on Orlando Hudson’s solo home run and, following Delmon Young’s triple, Minnesota appeared to have Andy Pettitte reeling. Unable to score Young from third, the Twins set out to keep the Yankees scoreless in the top of the seventh. With no outs and Jorge Posada on first with a lead-off walk, Pavano gave up a double to Berkman, which scored the catcher from first. According’s Play Log, Berkman’s RBI double supplied the defending champions with their largest amount of WPA (wins probability added)of the night, helping put the Yankees in front for good.
Of course, that double may never have happened had a certain pitch been called a you-know-what.
In the match-up, Pavano positioned himself well, getting two-strikes on Berkman, who had already homered earlier in the evening. While working him away on the first three pitches, Pavano buzzed a fastball inside for what appeared to everybody and their mother to be strike three.
Everybody, that is, except home plate umpire Hunter Wendelstedt.
From his position at second base, Hudson, who had tied the game in the bottom of the last inning, jumped up and down, demonstrating his dissatisfaction with the call. Joe Mauer held the pitch a split-second longer than usual. Pavano stared towards home, presumably asking what Wendelstedt had seen.’s Pitch F/X system, which tracks pitches with a series of cameras, confirms that the pitch had indeed crossed through the strike zone:

While the majority of viewers probably figured that Wendelstedt took that Pavano pitch to be the opportune time to blast out a tweet (“Awesome seats for #Yankees-#Twins game. Sneaky Petes afterwards! #MLBPlayoffsRox”), Wendelsted’s call was consistent with his other calls.
In the chart below, provided by, it shows Wendelstedt’s strike zone to left-handed batters through’s pitch f/x system. The red marks are his called strikes while the green ones represent balls. Naturally, the strike zone’s height will change depending on the hitter however, the width obviously remains static. In this case, to left-handed hitters, Wendelstedt would expand the zone on the outer region while reducing the zone on the inner portion. While a half dozen calls inside were missed, both team’s pitchers benefitted from this auxiliary strike zone away:

In the end,’s Jeff Passen counted 31 missed calls by the home plate umpire, but also noting that Pavano was often the recipient of strike calls that were actually out of the zone (like his first strike to Berkman in the offending at bat). Simply put, while the call was blown, you can’t complain about a botched call on one hand while being the beneficiary of some questionable strikes on the other.
Regardless of the umpire’s indiscretions, the Twins will head into Yankee Stadium hoping to survive the weekend and somehow bounce back from two games in the hole. That feat has been accomplished exactly four times since the eight-team playoff format was introduced in 1995. Seattle managed to win three straight against the Yankees in 1995 while the Red Sox knocked Cleveland out in 1999. The A's lost two series after being up by two games, losing to the Yankees in 2001 and the Red Sox in 2003. Unfortunately, unlike the Twins, who have to venture into the city that never sleeps on their road to recovery, three of the four teams made their comebacks when returning home for two games.  

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

OtB Twins Notes: More on Kubel, Yankees scouting report and more

The same day that I presented the TwinsCentric piece on Jason Kubel’s numbers decline and noted that a big factor was the influence of Target Field, Pat Borzi, writer for the New York Times and, submitted a very interesting article regarding the overall power outage of the new ballpark.

“The Twins hoped the ball would carry better in the warmer months. But according to Paul Huttner, the chief meteorologist for Minnesota Public Radio, who writes the Updraft weather blog, the prevailing wind in June, July and August in Minnesota blows into the ballpark from right field toward third base. When the wind does blow out, Huttner said, it is a colder, heavier wind, and the sun-shading canopy atop the ballpark interferes with it.
Huttner said the Twins’ grounds crew also described to him an unusual wind pattern. The effect, he said, knocks down balls hit to center even if the wind appears to be blowing out.”
This explains why there is a large absence of home run balls from center to left-center field – wind patterns. The effect and dead zone, if you will, has even caused some players to modify their approach. Kubel was once such player: 
“Some Twins hitters acknowledged adjusting their approach to the ballpark… Right fielder Jason Kubel, primarily an alley-to-alley hitter, said he crept a few inches closer to the plate during one homestand to pull the ball more.
‘I hit three homers, but I didn’t get any other hits,” he said. “So I went back to normal.’”
Judging from the home run distribution, Kubel’s attempts at pulling the ball more would certainly result in a higher likelihood of hitting a home run but would have also, as a gap-to-gap type hitter, greatly diminish the size of his field in which to hit safely and probably have an adverse effect on his batting average. While remaining in his comfort zone may result in a reduction of home runs, Kubel’s other numbers (batting average, on-base percentage, etc) might improve.
Scouting report:
Derek Jeter is armed with a keen eye at the plate and a unique ability to adjust quickly. For the past two years, Jeter has taken numerous pitches the other way to right-field, hitting 22% of his batted balls that direction. Anything middle-up in the zone presents Jeter a very good opportunity  of going the other way, including inside-outing numerous pitches in on his hands. The key to retiring the Yankees shortstop is to keep the ball down in the zone - particularly down-and-away (.242 since 2009) or down-and-in (.222). Those areas get him to beat the ball into the ground, which he has done so a career-high 65.7% of the time this year. If he does pull the ball, it will be on the ground (88% grounders to left). If you get up on him by two-strikes, Jeter has the tendency to chase after pitches above the strike zone (43% chase rate up in zone). He has hit nearly .400 (.395) since '09 on left-handed fastballs so a mix of sliders and changeups will be necessary. 
Nick Swisher, the Yankees' number two hitter, will be facing the lefty Francisco Liriano from the right side of the plate tonight. While he brings more discipline to the plate from the right, Swisher's power is clearly fallible from this batter's box. While able to use the entire field from the left-side, he's almost a dead-pull when hitting right-handed so Delmon Young, Danny Valenica and J.J. Hardy will be busy tonight. For his part, Liriano needs to keep the ball down and away (.210 BA the past two years with a 22% chase tendency) while feeding him a steady diet of non-fastballs (sub-.200 hitter on curves, sliders and changeups). 
Pitching to Alex Rodriguez is not a fun job -- probably feels like working the ball-pickup at the driving range because no matter what you do, the ball is coming back at you hard. His batting average was down this year, mostly due to a large drop in his line drive rate (from 20% to 13% in '10), and his on-base percentage suffered as his patience wilted (15% BB% to 9% BB%). Nevertheless, A-Rod still can put a charge into the ball. Without much of a weakness, keeping pitches middle-in on his hands keeps the large third baseman from extending his arms (where he's hitting just .268) and then go over the strike zone where he has a 40% chase rate. 
Robinson Cano, whose made a strong case for AL MVP, hitting the piss out of the balls (.389 wOBA, 29 HR) from the left-side of the plate, actually handling his left-handed adversaries quiet will (.368 wOBA, 14 HR). The key to retiring Cano is realizing that he is a chase hound who loves to swing. Stay out of the zone. He has offered at 52% of all pitches (45% league average) while chasing after another 36.5% of out of zone pitches. Specifically, Cano will expand the zone on the inner half of the plate, chasing after 46% of pitches that are middle-in and 46% of pitches up-and-in out of the zone. He's a tough strikeout (struck out in just 30% of all plate appearances that reach 2-strikes) so getting him to hit pitches off the plate is the next best course of action.
Other notes:

Nick Nelson has a pretty comprehensive preview of Game One at the TwinsCentric blog. Likewise, I helped Yankees blog, Bronx Baseball Daily, answer some questions regarding the 2010 Minnesota Twins.

ESPN1500’s Darren Wolfson tweeted that he believes Danny Valencia will play a significant role in the first two games of this playoffs. Without question, since the Yankees are trotting out lefties CC Sabathia and Andy Pettite, the offense will require the assistance of Valencia, whose .374 average (5th) and .441 on-base percentage (12th) are among the game's best in those splits. 

Time magazine’s Sean Gregory provides an excellent article detailing how the late-90s Twins, the doormats of the AL Central, became the dynasty they are today.

Not surprising, named Target Field their Ballpark of the Year.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Kubel should be a difference maker in postseason

With the Twins making battle plans for the playoffs starting this week against the Yankees, numerous players will be under the microscope. One such player facing scrutiny is Jason Kubel.

Last Friday, Howard Sinker raised the question of why Kubel, whose numbers have sunk into a .249/.323/.427 ravine after peaking at .300/.369/.539 just a year ago, is getting a free pass from criticism – the same type of condemnation that has been bestowed upon the likes of Delmon Young as recently as this season. Similarly, like the local Sinker,’s Dave Cameron, a statistically-oriented pundit, took the opportunity highlight Kubel’s disappointing season as validation of his analysis that the Twins’ designated hitter-cum-right fielder has been overvalued, at least based upon the decline from the previous year.

At the beginning of the season, it became apparent that the opposition had grown acutely aware of Kubel’s tendency to decimate fastballs and therefore responded by cutting off his access to such pitches. With the fastball embargo imposed upon him, the left-handed slugger yielded a disappointing .233/.352/.397 batting line through the first two months of the season. As he began to adjust to the new approach and made better contact with breaking pitches, his power numbers began to creep northward, slugging .464 with 18 home runs by the end of August. Even with the progress, Kubel once again regressed in the home stretch. Since the leaves began to change colors and kids started to head back to school, he has been a noticeably missing component of the lineup, unable to get on base routinely (4/19 walk-to-strikeout ratio) and even less prone to driving others in.
In the end, his overall numbers have been considerably reduced; a depressed batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage have added up to, as Sinker suggests, a player ripe for criticism or perhaps even more appropriate for Cameron’s “fluke” label. So what happened to Jason Kubel’s numbers?

Kubel’s 2010 indicators – his walk rate, strikeout rate, and batted ball type – essentially mirrors that of his 2009 season, the one in which he produced the impressive totals. As most analysts saw, that season was blessed with a substantially heighted on-base percentage inflated by an even gaudier batting average on balls in play (BABIP) of .327 which was well above the league’s .300 average. Basically, Kubel’s batting average and on-base percentage were buoyed by extra batted balls that fell for hits (particularly line drives and fly balls). As his BABIP began to decrease back towards average (and even drop below it at .287), so too did his overall batting average. Without these hits coupled with his rather average walk rate, Kubel’s on-base percentage normalized this year.   
Along the same lines, as the season wore on, Kubel also became increasingly impatient at the plate, foregoing walks in exchange for the swing of the bat and attempting to hit his way aboard. Unfortunately, this pressing translated into fewer walks, more strikeouts and higher contact with out of zone pitches. While this explains Kubel’s drop in average and on-base percentage, that doesn’t adequately explain the sudden decrease in his power numbers.

While this may be a tired song to some, the restrictions of the home field probably shares responsibility for the silencing of the Kubel boomstick.

Target Field isn’t conducive to left-handed power hitters that have enjoyed hitting to center field and right-center for their careers. Perhaps not surprisingly, Kubel enjoyed a very productive and powerful season when driving the ball to center last year. In fact, 11 of his 28 home runs exited the building in that direction while slugging .763. Since transitioning into the roomier outdoor home, Kubel has managed to hit just one of his 21 home runs and slugged .431 going up the middle.

Kubel isn’t the only one terrorized by Target Field’s daunting configuration that area. As you can see from the chart provided below, the entire league found that reaching the seats in that direction was highly improbable as only five of the 116 home runs hit at the Bullseye escaped in center to right-center:

Even though the dimensions are similar, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the parks will respond the same. Be it because of the controlled environment, the offensively-friendlier configurations or because of well-positioned air conditioning vents, the Metrodome’s center field and right-center power alley boasted a significantly better proposition for straightaway and a slight pull left-handed hitter. Reviewing the chart from from 2009, we see that the Homer Dome had a whole hot mess of long balls depart the playing surface there:

As you can see, in contrast to the Metrodome, Target Field provides little favors for the lefty.  Attempting to drive the ball to center is likely to result in a long fly out. In terms of the impending playoffs, Kubel’s success with the home field advantage may come by (1) increasing his patience at the plate or (2) by pulling the ball more, giving him a higher likelihood of hitting that home run.

However, unlike Bear Stearns, Kubel’s stock in New York City may skyrocket in the next week. Contrary to the layout of Target Field, New Yankee Stadium’s center field and right-center field is very inviting for left-handed hitters. While deeper than Target in right-center, the ball carries much better in that stadium, giving lefties a significant advantage:

In summation, while Kubel’s contributions to the offense have been disappointing or fluky, the postseason represents an opportunity to start anew. Certainly, limiting the options to Target Field and New Yankee Stadium gives the lefty the potential to emerge from his season-long lull and provide the lineup with much needed thunder.