May 13, 2008

Imprison Jason Kubel? ("Brooks Was Here")

I can't believe how fast things move on the outside. Maybe I should get me a gun and rob the Foodway, so they'd send me home. I could shoot the manager while I was at it, sort of like a bonus. I guess I'm too old for that sort of nonsense. I don't like it here. I'm tired of being afraid all the time. I've decided not to stay. I doubt they'll kick up any fuss. Not for an old crook like me.

- Brooks Hatlen, The Shawshank Redemption

Everything was going so well. After a slow start last year Jason Kubel was very quietly the Twins' best hitter from mid-May through the end of the season, batting .283/.349/.492 to lead the team in slugging percentage and OPS over the final 130 games. That five-month stretch saw Kubel hit .303/.379/.511 in the second half, including .364 in August and .325 in September. His hot bat carried over into this year, when he hit .280/.302/.500 with three homers and 12 RBIs through the Twins' first 15 games.

From May 10, 2007 through April 16, 2008, Kubel put up the following numbers:

  G      PA      AVG      OBP      SLG     HR     XBH     BB     SO
114 409 .283 .343 .493 16 45 37 70

To put Kubel's .283/.343/.493 hitting line over that time in some context, consider that Justin Morneau is a career .271/.341/.496 hitter. Over the span of 409 plate appearances between two seasons, Kubel more or less hit like Morneau. He had a solid batting average with a fair amount of walks and flashed good power without tons of strikeouts, making the campaign for his freedom look plenty smart. And then, just like that, Kubel stopped hitting. Apparently things were moving too fast for him on the outside.

After going 2-for-4 with a double on April 16, Kubel went through a 12-for-67 (.179) funk that included just two extra-base hits and an ugly 12-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He entered last night's game in the midst of a 0-for-15 slump that got him benched in favor of Craig Monroe while dropping his overall line to .222/.238/.359 on the year. Freedom has not been kind to Kubel, and the fans and media members who were skeptical about him to begin with have once again given up on him.

There's no doubt that Kubel has looked awful over the past month or so and he's definitely guilty of bad timing, but the fact that he's struggled for 70 plate appearances after thriving for 400 plate appearances obviously shouldn't be viewed as conclusive evidence that he's a hopeless case. With that said, he's nearing the point in his career where it's simply time to sink or swim, and Kubel has already sunk in the minds of many people.

I've never held Kubel's ugly 2006 season against him, because he was clearly playing at far less than full strength after missing all of 2005 with a severe knee injury. When a young hitter spends his entire age-23 season rehabbing a gruesome leg injury and then limps through his age-24 season, there's plenty of reason to show some patience. All of which is what made Kubel's strong five-month run last season so promising, because it made sense that he'd start thriving again two years after the injury.

Kubel hitting .222/.238/.359 to begin this season was disappointing, but he was batting .237/.287/.301 in mid-May last year too. He went on to hit .283/.349/.492 for the remainder of the year and finished at .273/.335/.450 in 128 games overall. There's plenty of room for debate about what Kubel's future holds, but if you believed in him on April 15 you should believe in him on May 15. And if you doubted him on April 15, you should doubt him now. Good or bad, 70 plate appearances mean almost nothing.

Far more important than what Kubel has done over the past month is that he turns 26 years old next week and is a .259/.309/.418 career hitter in 890 trips to the plate. Those numbers include his strong debut after being called up in 2004, his struggles after coming back from the injury in 2006, last year's slow start and strong finish, and of course his poor start this season. A corner outfielder producing a .727 OPS through 890 plate appearances isn't very good, but it's also not unique:

                    PA      AVG      OBP      SLG      OPS     IsoD     IsoP
Jason Kubel 890 .259 .309 .418 .727 .050 .159
Player X 961 .290 .318 .402 .720 .028 .112

Kubel has shown more plate discipline and power while our mystery man has hit for a higher batting average, but the end result is essentially identical production whether you look at on-base percentage, slugging percentage, or OPS. Player X is actually Delmon Young, who's begun his much-hyped career that's supposed to be filled with all sorts of power potential and offensive upside by hitting like Kubel through 900 trips to the plate. The difference is that Young turns 23 four months after Kubel turns 26.

Young still has all kinds of time to develop further and everyone remains heavily invested in him doing so, whereas Kubel is rapidly running out of time. He's running out of time to show that the tremendous potential he displayed in the minors still remains, he's running out of time to prove that last season's five-month run was for real, and he's running out of time to convince Ron Gardenhire and the Twins that he deserves to play. A month ago Gardenhire was almost as excited about Kubel as me:

I've said all along, this guy is one of our best hitters. It was just a matter of time. Last year, I thought the last month and a half we were starting to see signs of his legs underneath him better and him really being able to get after balls. In spring training, we saw him put a lot of good swings out there. I think you are seeing a guy that is coming along and his legs are really underneath him right now.

Gardenhire followed that up with even more praise of Kubel when asked whether or not the Twins were interested in Frank Thomas after he was cut loose by the Blue Jays:

I've got a DH. I'm very happy with Jason Kubel. I like Frank, but I'm not really interested in that. I don't how in the hell I would get him at-bats because I plan on letting Jason Kubel have all those at-bats.

All it took to completely change Gardenhire's plans was four weeks of Kubel struggling, because in the span of 67 at-bats things went from "I've said all along, this guy is one of our best hitters" and "I plan on letting Kubel have all those at-bats" to Kubel starting just three of the past nine games while losing playing time to Monroe against both lefties and righties. Apparently batting .179/.188/.254 over 70 plate appearances violated the terms of Kubel's probation.

Gardenhire almost immediately changing his mind after publicly stating a plan and showing a lack of patience in Kubel are par for the course, but it's tough to blame him too much this time. While Kubel entered last night at .179/.188/.254 over the past month, Monroe hit .320/.346/.640. Kubel could have locked up a spot in the lineup by following up his strong showing last season with another couple months of good hitting to begin this year, but he didn't.

Instead, he picked what may be the worst possible time to fall into a month-long slump, going from drawing rare public praise from Gardenhire to sitting on the bench in the span of weeks. Smart plans shouldn't change because of 70 plate appearances, good or bad, but Kubel has seemingly always been on thin ice with Gardenhire and certainly didn't have enough leeway built up to withstand even a month-long cold streak.

He already did it last season, so there's little doubt in my mind that Kubel would out-produce Monroe and emerge as one of the Twins' better hitters if given another opportunity to play every day against right-handers for months rather than weeks. However, history has shown that Kubel clearly won't be handed a spot in the lineup and so far at least he's made it too easy for Gardenhire to push him aside for a mediocre 31-year-old veteran on a hot streak.

The gate was open for a brief moment and Kubel failed to run through it, but he remains very capable of enjoying life on the outside if given another extended chance. If last night's game was any indication another opportunity to make a break for freedom may be right around the corner. Monroe started at designated hitter versus a right-hander and went 0-for-4 with three strikeouts, while Kubel shook off another benching to deliver a pinch-hit homer. It's not time to carve out "Jason Was Here" quite yet.

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

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