Friday, April 23, 2010

Time to shave the beard?

As the rest of the Twins lineup is busy producing runs like a taco stand serving tainted meat, Jason Kubel has been inauspiciously quiet. Since the home opener the left-handed slugger has had fewer hits than Chumbawamba, going just 3-for-29 (.103) with nine strikeouts.

On Wednesday, I showed that part of the reason for his slump is because pitchers have noted his insatiable appetite for meaty fastballs and have switched his diet to low-fat and tasteless sliders and curves. The results are fewer pitches in the strike zone and ultimately fewer pitches he can feast upon. Kubel has displayed restraint in most cases – drawing more walks and chases after out-of-zone pitches less – by largely ignoring the servings of non-fastballs and off-the-plate appetizers. 

Yet in order to stop his batting average from slinking towards a number typically reserved for describing a Brewers fan’s blood alcohol content, Kubel also needs to stop hitting them directly at people. There are signs that the defense's good fortunes might not last much longer. For one thing, is batting average on balls in play (or BABIP for shorthand) is absurdly low. As a rule of thumb, if this number is well-below or towers above the league average, there is a strong indication that a player is primed for improvement or regression. In Kubel’s case, the lefty is sporting a BABIP (.226) as ugly as his beard – and far below the league average (.291) in addition to his own career mark (.303). 

Meanwhile, considering the method in which he is putting the balls into play, we can easily deduce that he is hitting the ball square. In Kubel’s 56 plate appearances before Thursday’s game, he has hit 27% of his balls in play as line drives. This is an extremely positive total. In general, line drives fall in for hits far more often than grounders or fly balls. Last season, liners became hits 72% of the time while grounders did so 24% of the time and fly balls just 13.4% (with the exception of home runs which are not considered “in play”). The natural conclusion is that if his line drive totals are up, the batting average will eventually correct itself as line drives find vacant real estate. 

But not only is he hitting line drives regularly, he’s hitting everything solid. Behind Inside Edge’s pay wall is a fairly underutilized statistic that may assist in bridging the gap from the “assumed” (i.e. high line drive rate coupled with low BABIP equals bad luck) to the “actual” (i.e. genuinely screaming balls around the field off his bat). Like Baseball Info Solutions, who gathers all of the batted ball data that we find at, Inside Edge has added a little extra flavor by denoting if the ball – be it grounder, liner or fly ball - was well-hit. The Well-Hit Average (well-hit balls/at bats) provides us with another metric to gauge the type of contact, regardless if it was hit land, air or sea. While the rest of the league holds a .208 well-hit average, Kubel has exercised a very good .239 well-hit average. 

If he continues to spray shots around the ballyard at the same rate, there is no reason not to expect a full turnaround long before summer begins. 

However, if this decline continues on the road trip, the next step is to shave the beard.