March 31, 2008

Free Jason Kubel!

Jason Kubel split the 2004 season between Double-A and Triple-A, hitting .351 with 22 homers, 42 doubles, 16 steals, and a 59-to-53 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 127 total games. That performance earned Kubel a September call-up to Minnesota, where he batted .300/.358/.433 in 23 games with the Twins. Just 22 years old, Kubel had dominated two levels of the minors and experienced immediate success in the majors, establishing himself as one of baseball's premier hitting prospects.

Following the breakout season Kubel headed to the Arizona Fall League and his career took a horrible turn. While chasing after a fly ball in the outfield, Kubel collided with AFL teammate Ryan Raburn and suffered extensive ligament damage in his left knee, including a torn ACL and meniscus. Some reports described the injury as Kubel's knee "exploding" and then-general manager Terry Ryan made it clear immediately that Kubel would be facing a long road back:

It's a bad deal. It's going to be a long ordeal. It's a shame. This is a serious injury. I feel bad for Jason. He had a tremendous year for us. Jason was going to be battling for playing time in right field next year

Instead of "battling for playing time in right field next year" Kubel missed the entire 2005 season while recovering from the career-threatening injury. He returned in 2006 and hit .291/.324/.485 in the first half to seemingly replant himself firmly on the prospect map, but his surgically repaired knee let him down in the second half. Clearly hobbled, Kubel often struggled just to make it down the first-base line and hit just .163 after the All-Star break, ending the season with an ugly .241/.279/.386 hitting line overall.

When Kubel batted just .237/.287/.301 through his first 100 trips to the plate last season, questions naturally began to swirl about whether the knee injury had completely sapped his potential. Fortunately, something finally clicked for Kubel in mid-May and he hit .283/.349/.492 over his final 100 games. His breakout was hidden by the awful start and many fans had already given up on him by that point, but from May 10 through the end of the season Kubel was arguably the Twins' best hitter:

                     PA      AVG      OBP      SLG      OPS
Jason Kubel 365 .283 .349 .492 .841
Justin Morneau 523 .272 .338 .485 .823
Torii Hunter 524 .274 .324 .477 .801
Michael Cuddyer 502 .275 .363 .435 .798
Joe Mauer 348 .273 .359 .408 .767

For nearly five months and a span of 129 total games, Kubel led the Twins in both slugging percentage and OPS. And he got stronger as the year went on, producing a .303/.379/.511 hitting line in the second half that included batting .364 in August and .325 in September. Even with the slow start included, Kubel's .273/.335/.450 overall hitting line for the season was very solid for a 25-year-old and made him one of the team's best hitters:

                     PA      AVG      OBP      SLG      OPS
Torii Hunter 650 .287 .334 .505 .839
Justin Morneau 668 .271 .343 .492 .834
Joe Mauer 471 .293 .382 .426 .808
Michael Cuddyer 623 .276 .356 .433 .790
Jason Kubel 466 .273 .335 .450 .785

For the entire season he was among the team's five top hitters, basically matching Michael Cuddyer's overall production. For the final five months of the season Kubel was arguably the team's best hitter, topping Cuddyer, Justin Morneau, Torii Hunter, and Joe Mauer in both slugging percentage and OPS. And for the final two-plus months of the season he was inarguably the team's best hitter and one of the best hitters in the entire league.

It would have been tough to finish last year any better than Kubel did and it seemed clear that he was finally healthy again after the severe knee injury essentially wiped away two seasons. Cuddyer posted a .790 OPS as a 28-year-old and parlayed it into a $24 million contract extension this offseason. Kubel posted a .785 OPS as a 25-year-old, emerging as the Twins' top hitter for a huge chunk of the season, and apparently somehow managed to lose his job during the winter.

From the moment that the Twins traded for Craig Monroe and signed him to a one-year contract worth $3.82 million, Ron Gardenhire began dropping hints that Kubel's playing time was in serious jeopardy. At first it was assumed that the right-handed hitting Monroe would simply platoon with the left-handed hitting Kubel, working his way into the lineup against southpaws. However, once spring training arrived it became clear that Gardenhire had much bigger plans for Monroe.

A career .256/.303/.446 hitter, Monroe hit just .219/.268/.370 last year--including a ghastly .194 against right-handers--yet Gardenhire acted as if the Twins had acquired a big-time weapon and treated him accordingly. He repeatedly stressed that Kubel and Monroe weren't in a straight platoon, suggesting that he'd choose which player started at designated hitter on a game-by-game basis. Asked what would influence his decision, Gardenhire said: "I think we'll probably look at success against pitchers."

Looking at "success against pitchers" is essentially how every hitter is evaluated all the time, but what Gardenhire meant specifically was how Kubel and Monroe have fared against each day's starter. After quoting Gardenhire's plan, the Minneapolis Star Tribune was quick to point out that Kubel was 1-for-5 during his career against Angels Opening Night starter Jered Weaver, while Monroe was 0-for-3. The first problem with those numbers is that they're completely and utterly meaningless.

Even with a large sample of at-bats it's unlikely that a hitter's past numbers against a pitcher will have significant predictive ability and when the "sample" is a handful of trips to the plate spread over multiple seasons it's beyond useless. Of course, Gardenhire didn't actually use those numbers. Instead, he merely offered them up as a preemptive strike and potential excuse, knowing full well that he'd be giving Monroe the Opening Night nod over Kubel. Either that or Monroe's 0-for-3 was really impressive.

What's especially frustrating about Gardenhire's decision to start Monroe against Weaver on Opening Night--and his likely decision to give Monroe regular playing time against right-handed pitchers at Kubel's expense all season--is that looking at some truly meaningful numbers shows how clearly wrong the move was. For one thing, Weaver is a right-handed pitcher who has been significantly worse against left-handed hitters during his career:

                 PA      AVG      OBP      SLG      OPS
vs RHB 608 .228 .276 .349 .625
vs LHB 577 .275 .329 .441 .770

Platooning is a viable strategy because nearly all pitchers are worse against opposite-handed hitters, but Weaver's splits are even more extreme than usual. He's dominated righties, holding them to a .228/.276/.349 hitting line that looks eerily similar to the .219/.268/.370 that Monroe hit overall last year. Meanwhile, lefties have had plenty of success against Weaver, batting .275/.329/.441 to nearly match the .273/.338/.450 overall mark that Kubel posted last season.

During his career lefties have been about 23 percent more effective than righties against Weaver, with a 145-point gap in OPS. To put that in some context, the difference in OPS between Morneau (.835) and Jason Tyner (.686) last season was 149 points. Weaver's extreme split alone would make starting Monroe over Kubel a bad decision, but that's just the beginning. Next, take a look at how Monroe and Kubel fared against right-handed pitching last season:

                AVG      OBP      SLG      OPS
Kubel .280 .336 .474 .810
Monroe .194 .247 .308 .555

Kubel was 46 percent more effective against right-handers than Monroe last season, with a massive 255-point gap in OPS. For comparison, the difference in OPS between Hunter (.839) and Nick Punto (.562) last season was 277 points. Of course, Gardenhire is surely ignoring Monroe's struggles last year and remembering the success that he had in the past with the Tigers. With that in mind, here's how Monroe and Kubel fared against right-handed pitching over their past three seasons:

                AVG      OBP      SLG      OPS
Kubel .269 .321 .443 .764
Monroe .244 .289 .425 .714

Kubel is again clearly superior, although this time it's "only" 50 points of OPS. The point here is simple and unavoidable if you're willing to take any sort of meaningful look at performance-based evidence. Lefties have been 23 percent more effective than righties against Weaver and Kubel was 46 percent more effective than Monroe against righties last season. All of which should have made starting Kubel at designated hitter against Weaver an obvious decision.

Instead, Gardenhire went out of his way to bench a left-handed hitter for an inferior right-handed hitter against a right-handed pitcher who has one of the most extreme splits in baseball. My guess is that Monroe will steal plenty of Kubel's at-bats against righties all year, but that it happened on Opening Night is maddening. It's also a direct slap in the face for Kubel, who finally got healthy last season following a major injury and was arguably the Twins' best hitter over the final five months.

Kubel hit .273/.338/.450 overall as a 25-year-old, including .283/.349/.492 from May 10 to the end of the season, 303/.379/.511 after the All-Star break, and .341/.418/.553 over the final two months. On most teams that sort of performance from a young hitter would be celebrated, but on the Twins it's ignored because of the presence of a 31-year-old veteran who hit .219 last season, has zero long-term upside, and is clearly a worse option than Kubel against right-handed pitching.

Monroe went 0-for-3 against Weaver, but Gardenhire struck out before the game even started. Say it with me: Free Jason Kubel!

Once you're done here, check out my latest "Daily Dose" column over at Rotoworld.

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