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.