Thursday, October 28, 2010

Examining Kubel's Value

I was spurred to write this piece by two things, one was an article over at Fangraphs and the other was a subsequent conversation I had with SR about that article. I've seen a few things written about Kubes in the last few days including a good piece over at Nick's Twins Blog. I thought I would throw in my two cents.

Jason Kubel was drafted by the Twins in the 12th round of the 2000 amateur draft and spent 4 full seasons in the minors before getting his first chance with the Major League team in 2004. His injury problems are well documented but for the past 3 seasons, he has played fairly regularly with at least 140 games in 2008, 2009 and 2010. Two seasons ago he had his "break out" year hitting .300/.369/.539 with 28HRs, 35 doubles and 103RBIs. At that point everyone thought he had finally turned the corner at the age 25 and the expectations entering this past season were high. Kubel didn't deliver. Sure the RBI numbers were there (93), but the average (.249), on-base% (.323), and slugging% (.427) were all career lows (for seasons in which he played more than 100 games). Not only that, his defense left a lot to be desired, a fact magnified due to Kubel's everyday left-fielder role. Kubel had a .972 fielding% which was much worse than the league-wide average of .986 for outfielders last season. His UZR score of -10.7 was 9th worst among Major League outfielders with at least 800 innings of work.

Kubel has gotten a lot of attention so far this off-season because the Twins are now at a crossroads with Kubel, having the option to either bring him back for another season at $5.25M or buy him out and let him walk. In my conversation with SR, his argument was basically that the Twins should let Kubel walk which would essentially give Jim Thome a full-time (or at least very regular) DH spot which would ultimately benefit the Twins because Thome is a much better hitter. I'm of the opinion that the Twins should pick up the option on Kubes and let Thome walk because a) Kubel has value (albeit negative) as a fielder and b) we cannot expect Thome to replicate his 2010 campaign in 2011.

Kubel is coming off his worst season in the Majors so far. For as "lucky" as he was in 2009, he was just as unlucky in 2010. In 2009 his BABIP was a career best .327 and this past year it was a career-worst .280 (min. 100 games). Kubel's 2010 walk percentage of 9.6 was right there with his 2009 number (9.7) but his K% continued to rise for the 4th straight season, a career-worst 22.4%, an 8% increase from 2009. Kubel remained productive at the plate in 2010 driving in 93 and scoring 68, but that is mostly attributable to those who hit in front of him getting on base. Looking at the power numbers, Kubel's ISO of .178 was the lowest it's been since 2007. I could go on and on, but suffice to say, Kubel had a bad year.

So what can be expected to Kubel going forward? He has now played in 654 Major League games amassing 2,445 plate appearances which is more than enough for a healthy sample-size. Baseball-Reference has a handy line under the stats which averages out a players stats over a full 162-game season. Here's what we get:

Unfortunately, looking at that stat line, it looks like this past season's results more closely resembled "normal" than last year. An .800OPS is not bad, but if you're projecting Kubel as a DH, the Twins may indeed be better off trying to re-up with Thome instead of picking up the option on Kubel. Here's how Thome's last few seasons compare:

As you can see, Thome's 2010 season was the best one he's had in a few years depending on which numbers you look at. His batting average was the highest it's been since 2006, his OBP was the best it's been since 2006 and his slugging% was his best mark in 8 seasons...and this all despite a BABIP (.310) that was below his career average (.321).

What the Twins ultimately decide to do with Kubel will depend on two things and neither of them is money-related because Kubel and Thome will likely cost about the same amount to bring back:

1.) How do they value the flexibility they have with Kubel considering he can play a position is necessary? If you go with Thome and an outfielder is injured, then you are forced to start a less offensively talented player than Kubel and the lineup would suffer as a result.

2.) To what degree do they think Jim Thome can replicate his 2010 numbers? If you think Thome's body can handle a full-time DH role for an entire season, it might be worth it...especially if you can sign him to a deal similar to what he signed this year, laden with playing time and performance incentives. You'd maybe save a couple million dollars upfront which could then be used to resign a bullpen arm.

2a.) Do the Twins think Kubel's potential is more accurately reflected by his 2009 season or his 2010 season?

Thome's WAR (wins above replacement) last season was 3.6. Kubel, if you take out his fielding stats, had a 2.8 WAR, with fielding he had a 0.3. That suggests that most of Kubel's value is zapped if you put him in the field. BUT, for comparison purposes, Kubel and Thome stack up pretty similarly at the plate. So the question becomes, is ~350 at-bats from Thome (he had 340 last season) worth the same amount of money as Kubel with 450-500 at-bats? Will Thome have a similar season in 2011? Can Kubel have a bounce back year? What do you think?


  1. I disagree that it's necessarily "either/or" Kubel and Thome. The question of whether you bring back one is only indirectly related to whether you bring back the other. With Thome, if you can get him for $2-3 million as a part-time player (the way he was supposed to be used this year), you do it. If he commands more, you let him go.

    With Kubel, I think the option is reasonable and he has too much value to simply let walk. I think if you pick up the option, and then later decide you have other/better options at DH and the OF, you'd have a good chance at getting something of value in a trade without having to eat much, if any, of his $5.25 mil contract.

  2. Jim, the fan in me agrees with you 100%. The business/statistical part of me doesn't. Given the number of bullpen arms the Twins stand to lose, it doesn't seem realistic to think that the Twins will bring back Kubel AND Thome...unless they increase payroll which would be both glorious and uncharacteristic of the Twins.

    I suspect they will see what Thome wants, determine whether they can afford it and move accordingly because bringing Kubel back is as simple as picking up the option. The numbers say that if you're going to have one of the guys for one more year, you're better off with Thome, but the fan side of me likes Kubel, has hope for increased production and also hopes they maybe extend Kubel for another couple years.

  3. Well, I was wrong, Twins picked up Kubel's option much for all that speculation.