May 08, 2009

There's a magical number for baseball hitters, heralded for realizing power potential, heightening performance and boosting confidence. This might sound like the first line to a bad commercial for a different sort of performance enhancer (wink, wink). But we're not talking about blue pills and happy wives here. We're referencing the age of 27, when ordinary hitters become mashers and bashers.

David Ortiz (1B, BOS) had a pair of 30-homer seasons in the minors under his belt, but had never translated that power against major league pitching when he signed with the Red Sox in 2003. At 27 years old during the '03 campaign, "Papi" discovered his power stroke by posting career-highs in doubles (39), home runs (31) and slugging percentage (.592).

Travis Hafner (1B, CLE) found his power mojo at 27 when he drilled 28 homers and posted a .993 OPS for the Indians in 2004. Ryan Howard's (1B, PHI) power maturation began a year earlier than 27 -- in 2006 when he hit 58 homers at 26 -- but you tend to get the point. The mid-20s, specifically the age of 27, is when hitters start to kick it into another gear.

That sets up this week's Deconstructing candidate -- Jason Kubel (OF, MIN). The Minnesota outfielder, who will turn 27 on May 25, is pushing his offense to another level. The question that needs to be asked, though, is whether it's legit or a facade. To the Deconstructing machine!

2008 stats: .272 AVG, .805 OPS, 74 runs, 20 home runs, 78 RBIs, 0 steals2009 stats: .295 AVG, .879 OPS, 14 runs, 4 home runs, 16 RBIs, 0 steals

A rise in fantasy value could have been forecasted for Kubel entering the '09 campaign. The left-handed hitter saw gains last year in runs (49 to 74), home runs (13 to 20), and RBIs (65 to 78), despite receiving just 51 more plate appearances than in '08.

His hot start in April wasn't unlike his April last year; in fact, it was nearly identical. In the first month of both seasons -- this year and last -- Kubel laced four homers and drove in 16 runners. The difference was that he supported those stats with a .303 batting average this time around, vs. a .237 mark last year.

A quick look at his Batting Average On Balls In Play -- up from .257 last April to .302 this year -- could lead fantasy ballers to surmise that straight luck is the reason for the increase in his batting average. There is some truth to that. One can't ignore a 45-point boost in a luck-related statistic like BABIP, but there is far more than meets the eye when it comes to Kubel's increased hitting ability.

He cut his strikeouts by more than half in April, whiffing just nine times compared to the 20 strikeouts -- in 21 more at-bats, it should be noted -- he racked up in April '08.

An early May mini-slump where he's laced just three hits in 12 at-bats -- striking out five times in the process -- has upped his strikeout total to 14 through 93 at-bats. That strikeout percentage of 15.9 is still far below his '08 mark of 19.7 and his career percentage of 19.1. Of course, he's also walking less. A measly 5.4 percent of his plate appearances have resulted in a free pass to first base, well below the 9.2 percent figure he posted last year. Is he just so excited about turning 27 that he can't wait to put his Louisville Slugger -- figuratively speaking -- on the ball?

His aggressiveness has never waned, but there has been talk around the Twins camp since spring training about Kubel's newfound confidence. A two-year, $7.2 million contract in the off-season likely eased some concerns about his future, and Twins hitting coach Joe Vavra stated in a March story that Kubel was more sure of himself.

"You can see immediately that he's a lot more confident," Vavra said. "He feeds off that confidence, as does everyone, but with him, he really has to feel like he's helping the ballclub."

He has certainly helped. It might be slightly unrealistic to expect him to maintain his .545 slugging percentage (Miguel Cabrera [1B, DET], David Wright [3B, NYM] and Josh Hamilton [OF, TEX] are among the hitters who fell short of that mark last year), but it's not unreasonable to think he can keep it over .500 -- and continue to go deep.

Kubel has a very manageable 41.9 fly ball percentage that could rise as the weather warms. (He's played eight games at Chicago, Boston, Cleveland and Detroit, all colder, northern cities.) Wait until he gets to Seattle and Oakland, albeit pitcher's parks, in June, and St. Louis and Kansas City later that month, then see what his fly ball percentage is.

Finally, his home run/fly ball percentage is just 12.9 percent, literally 0.4 points higher than his career norm. That stat, for those unsure, means that 12.9 percent of his fly balls have left the park. That's another sustainable power statistic that could actually rise with some luck. Again, wait until the weather warms, and the Twins begin visiting some hitter's ballparks.

It seems Kubel's increased confidence as a hitter is entirely sustainable. His strikeout percentage has lowered, his fly ball and home run/fly ball percentages are stable, and he has a new contract with a reliable role as a designated hitter. Kubel should improve on his 20 homers, reaching 25 by the end of the season.

Hitting in the five-hole, just after Joe Mauer (C, MIN) and Justin Morneau (1B, MIN) could lead to a 90-RBI campaign, although RBIs tend to be a crapshoot to predict; Kubel would be reliant on Mauer and Morneau, and Minnesota's top two hitters in the lineup, to put themselves in scoring position when he gets to the plate. But if Kubel can reach 25 homers and flirt with a .500 slugging percentage this year, even a 100-ribbie season isn't out of question. It's likely that after this season, Kubel will wish he could turn 27 every year.

All statistics through May 4.

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