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.