Last night, Jason Kubel hit three home-runs, putting him on pace to hit .294 with 34 home-runs for this season, and with a league-leading 70 RBI. How things change. Back when Kubel was signed in December, the reaction from the blogosphere was swift and ferocious:
In their chase for left-handed power, the Diamondbacks likely just wasted a roster spot and $15 million over the next two years. For a team with a limited budget, this isn't the kind of move they should have been making.
-- Dave Cameron, Arizona Downgrades With Kubel Addition
Now. some of Cameron's predictions have become legendarily inaccurate. Most famously, he pronounced his Seattle organization the 6th-best in baseball before the 2010 season. The reality? They had 101 defeats that campaign, 95 last year, and are on pace for 93 more this year. No team in baseball has had more losses, since Cameron's article pronounced, "After years of being a joke, the Mariners have made one of the most impressive turnarounds in recent history." Google "#6org" for more, but his near-outright rejection of the Kubel deal may rival #6org for sheer inaccuracy.
While probably the highest-profile opponent of the signing i.e. on top of my Google search results, he's far from alone. Let's crank back the SnakePit time machine to December 2011 and see what was expected then, both here and in the rest of the world, and what has transpired...
Reaction then: SnakePit
That aside, reaction was generally a little more muted here - the signing thread for Kubel did not contain quite the same Lovecraftian expressions of horror as were blurted out after the signing of Willie B [man, last night's game must have been a nightmare for the anti crowd, with each man getting three hits, and combining to drive in nine runs!]. Here, it was more (fairly) polite bemusement, as we couldn't quite figure out how the various pieces were going to fit together. At the time, it seemed possible a further move, trading one of the current outfielders was a real possibility. Of course, that never happened.
Probably the most vocal opponent was DbacksSkins, who labeled it "a dumb move", and went on to call it worse than signing Russ Ortiz, saying that one "was a bad move, but at least you could see the thinking there. This just doesn't make any sense." But he wasn't alone. txzona said, "I'm an optimist BUT WTF KEVIN TOWERS!", songbird chirped in, "Bloomquist is no longer the 4th outfielder. On the minus side the rest of this deal is insane," ish95 went with "the dumbest move that Towers has made so far as GM of the Dbacks," and Dan wrote... Well, in the interests of space, have this link here. It's Dan, so you should probably get a cup of coffee before reading his opinion. :)
But all hail sonic barracuda, who was just about the only person on the 'Pit to be entirely in favor of the deal:
I know I'm in the minority but I really like this move... We really needed another bat on this team and especially a LH power bat. It improves our bench dramatically. It gives us major injury protection in our OF. It gives Gibby more lineup flexibility. He can bench CY against righties he can't hit. We now get a late inning PH at bat with someone other than McDonald or Blum. Etc, etc. With the team clearly in Win Now Mode, this can only help. We also get 50 or so DH at bats from him during inter-league... This gets a big thumbs up from me.
Reaction then: Elsewhere.
Towers is terrible... Handicapped by a ridiculously low payroll, but constantly blows money on fungible over the hill vets. Most of his moves have been LOL bad... Every single signing he's made has been awful.
The DIamondbacks just spent $15 million to get worse in the field and at the plate.
-- Grant Brisbee
It could be a decent fit. Kubel's numbers have not been stellar over the past couple of years, especially for a DH/corner guy, but Target Field has hurt him a lot... Where he plays is an interesting question. I'm not going to counsel Kirk Gibson about how to deal with this because he'd probably yell at me and frankly he scares me a little.
-- Craig Calcaterra
I can understand the Diamondbacks' desire to add a left-handed bat with some power... But when you do the math, it's difficult to come up with a scenario where taking away playing time from Parra for Kubel makes the Diamondbacks better.
-- David Schoenfield
In the National League, Kubel shouldn't be a left fielder, or even a first baseman. In the National League, Kubel should be a pinch-hitter. He should be the new Matt Stairs. Instead he's apparently going to be the new Greg Luzinski, except without the durability or the consistency.
-- Rob Neyer
To Neyer's credit, he has recently admitted the error of his original prediction, but the above are a fair and representative sampling of online opinion: damning, with a sprinkling of "Maybe it'll work out?"
The reality (so far)
The only way this works out as a plus for the D backs is if Kubel hits 25-30 HR with respectable batting avg and walks and doesn't suck quite so bad in LF.
Sure, Kubel could possibly have a better season on offense, but would that be enough to offset Gerardo Parra's superior defense? It didn't start well: through the Diamondbacks' first 14 games, Jason had hit no home-runs, and posted a woeful .633 OPS. The Gameday Threads when he started turned into impromptu Kubarbeques, with our new left-fielder being roasted, medium-well. But the rest of April, he went 14-for-32 with a 1.298 OPS, to finish the month at a .928 OPS. He dropped back in May, with only one home-run, but since June 5th, Kubel hasn't needed charcoal briquettes to be on fire. Over 35 games, he has hit .316 with 16 homers, 46 RBI and a 1.114 OPS.
The way things have worked out could hardly have gone any better. Initially, Kubel got the starts in left, with Parra coming in as a late-inning defensive replacement. But then Chris Young broke, and Parra became the everyday center fielder for a month. And even when CY came back, it wasn't long before his struggles led to an increasing use of Gerardo as a platoon partner. The net result, thus far, is that Kubel has 351 PAs, Parra 268. And that's about right, since Parra has regressed somewhat offensively, dropping from the 111 OPS+ posted last season, to a figure of 101 this season [albeit mostly because his BABIP has returned to nearer league-normal].
Particularly of note is the way Kubel has hung in there against left-handed pitching. While his power numbers are (understandably) lower, he is still hitting them at a very respectable .290 clip. My main complaint would be his plate discipline sliding, with only ten walks in 120 PAs, but it's hard to complain about an OBP of .342 in anti-platoon advantage situations. However, that number is based on a BABIP of .380, so I would not be at all surprised if that number drops over the remainder of this campaign.
Why is Kubel better than expected?
"I'm just healthy," Kubel said. "The average went down; I hit a couple of homers here and there, but that was about it," he said. He also said he got into trouble trying to pull the ball in pitcher-friendly Target Field, developing bad habits at the plate instead of using the whole field the way he had earlier in his career. "It screwed me up," he said of his old approach. "That first year in Target Field I hit .249, and that's because I was trying to pull everything. I hit 21 homers, but that's not enough to hit .249."
-- AZ Central
He's certainly not being hurt by Chase, which as I noted at the time, is an awful lot more favorable to left-handed power hitters than his former home in Target Field. That likely plays into his splits:
Home: .331/.412 /.713, 15 HR
Road: .257/.320/.414, 5 HR
Does that make him, as some have suggested, a "Chase Field product"? Possibly. But there's nothing wrong with signing players for your park, and the mentioned change in approach is apparent if you compare the home-runs hit by Kubel in 2011 + 2012, courtesy of hittrackeronline.com. It's obvious Kubel is now using a lot more of the field.
Defense 'n stuff
What's particularly notable is how Kubel has not hurt the Diamondbacks on defense as much as feared. Last season, our outfield led the NL with an overall UZR/150 of 8.8. In 2012, it's still second in the league, with a UZR/150 this year of 7.6. And Kubel in left? His UZR/150 is -0.3: basically league-average, because what you give up in range, you get back in an impressive arm. Not quite what Cameron expected when he said, "Kubel has essentially proven to be so bad [on defense] that he should probably have been moved to permanent DH." The 11 runners Jason has gunned down, leading the league in outfield assists, might beg to differ with this conclusion.
Indeed, the main problem with Kubel has likely been, especially in the early going, base-running best described as glacial. Though I suspect the majority of his outs on the basepath largely come down to Matt Williams' erroneous belief that "Kubel" is actually the German for "gazelle". This has led to Matty adopting a hospice-like approach for Jason, i.e. keep sending him home to die.
It's hard to see how this could have worked out much better for the Diamondbacks. If you wrap all the numbers up, and allow for playing time, Kubel and Parra are not all that far apart in terms of overall value - but each man has been significantly better than Young and Justin Upton in the Arizona outfield, both of whom have underwhelmed with their performances, albeit from greatly different expectations. The outfield depth provided by the signing has been very helpful in providing flexibility in the face of Young's struggles (particularly against RHP), and coverage for injury. It's likely a toss-up between Kubel and Aaron Hill, as to which was the best contract signed this winter.
[All stats exclude tofay's game]