Wednesday, January 16, 2008


Baseball Prospectus's Joe Sheehan included Kubel in his list of 2008 Breakout Seasons candidates:

Jason Kubel: While playing in the Arizona Fall League in 2004, Kubel, then 22 and considered one of the best hitting prospects in the game, suffered a devastating knee injury that cost him the entire 2005 season. Although he came back and played in ’06, he wasn’t remotely the same hitter. Most notably, Kubel’s post-injury strikeout rate has been much higher—147 in 835 PA, versus 193 in 1770 PA prior to the injury. That’s not just a result of playing at higher levels: that’s evidence of damage to the engine.

What we saw in ’07 was Kubel finally get back to the hitter he was before the injury. In the season’s first two months, Kubel struck out 33 times and walked 11 in 165 PA. In the next two months, those numbers were 21/10 in 148 PA: a big drop in strikeout rate and K/BB. Over the last two months: 25/18 in 153 PA. Kubel, a disciplined hitter coming through the minors, regained that discipline in ’07. His batting average and power followed. He’s 26 this season, and may actually be the Twins’ best hitter during it; better than Morneau, better than Mauer.

I have long been an ardent supporter of Jason Kubel so I tend to whole-heartedly agree with this statement. He has been a batter that has showed a balanced approach at the plate in the minors. In 2003 at Ft. Myers, Kubel walked in 10.2% of his plate appearances and struck out in 11.5%. The following year, Kubel split 541 plate appearances between double-A New Britain and triple-A Rochester and finished with walks in 9.7% of his plate appearances and strike outs in 10.9% of them. If anything, this shows that Kubel had no history of free-swinging nor being overpowered by pitching when advancing levels. Even his brief 2004 call up to Minnesota, where he had 67 plate appearances with similar results (8.9 bb% | 13.4% k%) fuels the notion that Kubel is a very disciplined hitter.

Fast forward to the Arizona Fall League in 2004, following a massive leg injury in which his entire 2005 season would be lost. After what amounted to an entire year dedicate to rehabilitation, Twins farm director Jim Rantz told Baseball America in September 2005 that: "[Kubel's] on his own timetable. Missing a year like he has is one of the most difficult things for a player to go through, but to his credit he's worked extremely hard to battle through it. You never know how a player is going to rebound mentally from injuries, but with Jason there's never been any doubt of where his desire is. It's to be back on the field."

Analysts began saying that Jason Kubel would be having a breakout year in 2006, and hoping that advances in modern medicine would off-set the severity of injury, I did too. Unfortunately his 2006 numbers told a completely different story: He struck out in 19.1% of his plate appearances and his walk rate was a measly 5.2%. On top of that, his pop was gone too. In 2003 and 2004, Kubel had an extra base hit rate of 23% and 39% while slugging .400 and .590, respectively. When he did get hits in 2006 he managed just 18% of them to go for extra bases - an indication that his knee lacked the leverage to both drive the ball from and round the bases hard.

"There was a point where my left knee was getting tired and sore and I couldn't stay back on it, and in my right knee I couldn't run. That affected everything," Kubel told the Sporting News in February 2007, "I wasn't able to swing. I wasn't able to get out of the box quick enough. I wasn't able to get down to the base. So it was kind of tough, just trying to do everything all upper body."

2007 started essentially where 2006 left off:

-In April, Kubel struck out in 16.4% in his 73 plate appearances and coaxed walks in only 4.1%. While he was hitting line-drive at a 30% clip, none of them were finding turf.

-In May, his power improved as his isolated slugging average grew from .087 to .146 in a month where he hit 2 home runs. Still his strike out rate in his 92 plate appearances was near 23%.

-June became a time where he began to turn a corner. In his 69 plate appearances, Kubel struck out in only 11.6% of them and drew walks in 7.2%. His isop was up to .203 after hitting 3 home runs. He finished the month with a .266/.309/.469 line, by far his best of the year.

-His June performance earned him more plate appearances in July where he added 4 more home runs and completed the month with a .225/.288/.437 line.

-By August it was clear that the pre-injury Kubel had returned as seen in his 35% line drive rate, his 12.5% walk rate and his best line yet .364/.438/.509.
-In September he reaffirmed any non-believers by smacking 3 home runs, peppering the field with line drives in 24% of his balls in play and drawing a season high walks in 13.3% of appearances. His .325/.404/.584 batting line in September would be one of which would leave impressions on the front office for the entire offseason.

His final line of .273/.335/.450 would have look much wimpier had he not turned the corner mid-summer. Even with his tumultuous start, he still managed to finish with what amounts to a major league average of 9% walk-rate and a 17% strike out rate.

I believe that Kubel will have what amounts to a "breakout season" if the organization gives him every opportunity to play everyday - but there is the rub. With Craig Monroe and Delmon Young (not to mention defenseless Mike Lamb at third base) it is quite easy to visualize Ron Gardenhire playing music chairs with his line up, especially in the designated hitter position. This will certainly imped on Kubel's ability to redevelop his keen eye at the plate.