Let’s just say Jason Kubel’s return to Minnesota was not exactly met with wild enthusiasm from the Twins fandom.
Based on the previous season’s production -- a stomach-turning batting line of .216/.293/.317 (avg/obp/slg) with just five home runs in 290 plate appearances -- you could not fault anyone on the outside looking in. Nevertheless Kubel and those close to him maintained that, at 31-years-old, the left-handed outfielder-slash-designated hitter was not over the hill. After all, I’m 33 and I can still dress myself, cook my own meals and wipe my own bottom, surely Jason Kubel, a finely tuned athlete, could still hit a sphere thrown at him.
When he departed the Twins, he may not have thrown kerosene on the club but in his exit interview he criticized the home ballpark, suggesting it was frustrating to hit in the left-handed power suppressing stadium. To make matters worse, Kubel groaned to the Phoenix media of his displeasure to be a designated hitter -- suggesting it was “boring”.
[Writer’s Note: Oh, really? You know what I find boring, Jason? Working at an office for nine hours a day.]
Upon his return to his original organization, he insisted that he was just stymied by a quad injury that lingered throughout the 2012 season, and not aging or anything affiliated with that. His quad was now healed. Oh, and that whole Target Field configuration thing? He was fine now too.
Except all spring training, it didn’t seem fine. He went nine-for-fifty-two. A .196 average with two extra base hits and 17 strikeouts. Certainly some of those plate appearances against real, honest-to-goodness, major league starters and others against OH-MY-GAWD-THAT’S-JASON-KUBEL-type pitchers with a tight end’s number on their jersey. The while the spring training numbers are meaningless, the performance just reduced the overall confidence in the decision.
Still, the Twins brass continued to insist they saw a noticeable improvement out of Kubel despite what the numbers said. He was squaring up balls better in the latter portion of the spring and taking better at-bats. That, and the lack of outfield-slash-bench options, made him a prime candidate to head north despite not being on the 40-man roster.
Perhaps he needed to be above the Mason-Dixon line in order to hit because, once there, he put on a show. As the current American League batting average leader, Kubel has begun the season 13-for-29 (.448) with five extra base hits including one long blast at Target Field, a stadium which now can’t hold him.
Kubel’s biggest improvement at the plate has been his connectivity. Last year his swing was holier than the Pope. In his contact rate heat map from ESPN/trumedia, you see that his swings were often empty -- he swung-and-missed on nearly 33% of his swings, well above the league average rate of 22%. This season, while still above average, he has reigned the errant swings in to a more manageable rate (25%).
What’s more is that when Kubel did make contact last year, it was not only weak it was often late. His pull rate dropped considerably.
Where this really stands out is against fastball, a pitch that Kubel used to flourish when facing. As I wrote at the time of the Kubel acquisition:
“One of Kubel's biggest issues in 2013 was his inability to handle fastballs. According to ESPN Stats & Info, in 2012 Kubel hit .298/.368/.616 with 20 home runs and a whopping .309 well-hit average. That dropped considerably in 2013 when he finished the year hitting .261/.315/.400 with just 3 home runs and a well-hit average of .171 off of fastballs.”
Yes, the production was bad against the cheese but it was not until an examination of his spray charts when facing fastballs that it is clear that Kubel may be fully healed as he and the coaching staff insisted. Last season, he was unable to get around on the heat often hitting lazy fly balls. This year he is once again yanking that pitch into and over the right field wall.
All standard small sample size warnings apply however Kubel’s early season production in addition to these indicators are reassuring that he is in good health. If he can remain in the lineup, the Twins could wind up with a solid bargain out of a minor league signing.
There still is, of course, a lot of baseball left but, so far, the signs are good for Jason Kubel.
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