D-backs' Kubel: A lot of bang for the buck
PHOENIX – The Diamondbacks are beginning to believe that Jason Kubel packs more than a productive bat, a try-me arm and a midseason resume that makes him look like the steal of the winter free-agent season.
The joking started in the dugout after Kubel’s second-inning home run Sunday, his fourth homer in six at-bats. His high fly ball lingered along the right-field line long enough to kiss the foul pole before settling in the Houston bullpen.
“Guys are talking about him bending it back to hit the foul pole and things like that. That he has mythical powers that we don’t know about,” said D-backs right-hander Josh Collmenter, the beneficiary of Sunday's blast.
“He’s almost becoming a cult figure.”
Mythical or not, the power is there.
Kubel hit three home runs on Saturday, and his solo shot Sunday gave him six in his last five games.
Kubel is tied for the National League lead with 71 RBI after getting 11 in five games last week. He started the binge with two homers in Cincinnati on Tuesday, when he returned to the lineup after missing four starts with a tight right hamstring.
The big weekend brought Kubel’s home-run total to 21, the fourth 20-homer season in his last five, and he is on pace to set career marks in virtually every production category. He had 28 homers and 103 RBI for Minnesota in 2009, the Twins’ last season in the Metrodome.
Throw in 11 outfield assists, which is tied with Toronto’s Jose Bautista for the major-league lead, and the D-backs are getting more value for their two-year, $15 million free agent than any club can say about its winter signing, including the Los Angeles Angels’ Albert Pujols (eight years, $240 million), Detroit’s Prince Fielder (nine years, $214 million) or St. Louis’ Carlos Beltran (two years, $26 million).
After spending his last two seasons in the Twins' new pitcher-friendly ballpark, Target Field, Kubel has a special fondness for Chase Field. It was first on his list of potential homes after hitting the free-agent market last winter. Kubel told his representatives that the first time he played in Chase "it was love at first sight," according to agent Joel Wolfe. The feeling has become mutual.
Fans in left field have begun bringing “Kubel’s Corner” signs, but the thing that has set Kubel apart in his first season with the D-backs is his ability to use all parts of the field, whether at home or on the road. Seven of his home runs have gone to left or left-center field, including two of his three Saturday. Four others have gone to straightaway center.
It does not surprise old or new teammates.
“That’s Kube," said friend and former teammate Michael Cuddyer, who was visiting Monday as a member of the Colorado Rockies. "When we played in the Metrodome, that’s what he would do. He would go ‘oppo.’ He’d go center. He’d go right. He hits the ball to all parts of the field and hits the ball with power to all parts of the field."
Willie Bloomquist, one of the few D-backs with extensive American League experience, told friends he believed Kubel was ideally suited to his new home. Chase Field is consistently rated as one of the most hitter-friendly parks in the league and the ball carries well, especially when the retractable roof is open. Curt Schilling, who gave up a lot of fly balls, made it a point to request the roof be closed in his starts.
“The first thing I said was, ‘That’s 30 (homers) and 100 (RBIs) for our lineup.’ In this ballpark? Yes,” Bloomquist said.
“He gets good backspin on his ball, and especially in this ballpark, if you get a ball in the air with good backspin, it is going to go a ways. He goes the other way really well, too. In heavier-air ballparks, when you go the other way in the air, the ball doesn’t carry as much. He’s got that type of swing where he is going to hit some home runs to left field as well as right field.”
Kubel was not on the D-backs’ radar immediately entering the offseason, with starting pitching a top priority. Although general manager Kevin Towers entered the Kubel sweepstakes late, he came in aggressively, calling the Kubel camp while on vacation in Bruges, Belgium, in December, after free-agent pitcher Hiroki Kuroda kept putting off the D-backs. The deal was done in four days, accomplished in part because Kubel proactively saw a foot specialist in the offseason to assure all suitors that the injury that limited him to 99 games in 2011 was not an issue.
Towers took some heat locally and nationally for adding Kubel to a D-backs outfield that returned all three starters, including Justin Upton, who finished fourth in the 2011 NL MVP voting, and Gold Glove left fielder Gerardo Parra. But Towers' aim was true.
“Score another one for Kevin Towers and his major-league scouts,” an official from another National League team said the other day.
The D-backs relish Kubel’s success because it comes the old-fashioned way, with hard work and an attitude that prevents boasting or bravado. He is not loud, and he makes it a point to keep his emotions in check.
“The first thing I saw was a guy who cared about the game and a guy who wanted to be a part of a winning team,” Upton said of their first spring training together.
Kubel jokes that his recent numbers are built on “coffee and no sleep” following the birth of his second child, Heidi, on May 30. And he really does like the options Chase Field provides.
“I think the difference is the feeling of knowing that you can hit it anywhere," he said. "In Target Field, there were a couple of times I hit it out there (left field) for an out, and I just stopped trying to do it. Here I keep going for it."
“I can’t explain what’s going on," Upton said. "We started laughing about it, how even that ball hits the pole and stays fair. It’s weird how it’s working right now.”
“He’s like the silent assassin,” Upton said. “ ‘Oh, Kubel’s up again, there’s a homer.’ It’s been fun to watch.”