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December 12, 2012
Painting the Black
Stubbs in Reverse
Casting Drew Stubbs as a bench player a few years ago seemed delusional. Nowadays, it makes more sense. Performances trending the wrong way have transformed Stubbs from one of the game’s exciting, well-rounded talents into a frustrating enigma. Reds general manager Walt Jocketty—having strengthened his outfield already by re-signing Ryan Ludwick and transitioning Billy Hamilton to center—kept looking for additional support by eyeing Colorado’s Dexter Fowler and Cleveland’s Shin-Soo Choo. Jocketty pulled the trigger last night, landing Choo and sending Stubbs to Cleveland in a three-way trade. Stubbs’ downfall in Cincinnati merits the question—how did things get so bad, so quickly?
The Reds drafted Stubbs with the no. 8 pick in the 2006 draft, one pick behind Clayton Kershaw and two picks ahead of Tim Lincecum. The University of Texas product shot through the minors. He reached Triple-A in his second professional season, and the majors in his third. Although Stubbs’ official rookie season encompassed 42 games, he managed to smack eight home runs and steal 10 bases during the cameo. By the end of his unofficial rookie season, Stubbs had 30 home runs and 40 steals (on 50 tries) in 779 trips to the plate. Add in stellar defensive play and stardom seemed like a given.
Yet Stubbs’ star has not ascended as planned. After a mediocre 2011, Stubbs failed to bounce back in 2012. Call it a sophomore slump or regression toward the mean if you like, but that seems too simplistic. Stubbs may have been a model regression candidate prior to the 2011 season. We knew he had flaws—potentially fatal ones. His swing is long and his plate coverage is spotty. Once pitchers realized it, they could teach Stubbs a lesson about the majors. But those anticipated lectures have not come to fruition, making Stubbs even more irritating than if he were a tragically flawed tools shed.
Paul Daugherty of Cincinnati.com wrote about Stubbs’ swing in March 2012. Daugherty quoted Stubbs and manager Dusty Baker within the piece. Stubbs, perhaps unsurprisingly, offered what amounts to the patented sabermetrics defense of strikeout-heavy batters by saying, “There’s a balance point. If guys are striking out more, but also doing more damage, then OK. If guys are putting the ball in play and making outs, how is that an asset to the team?” Baker had a different take, noting that Stubbs would benefit from a better plate approach, one that saw him swing earlier in the count.
Sure enough, Stubbs did see fewer pitches per plate appearance in 2012 than in his previous two full seasons, shaving 0.02—or about 10 pitches over 500 plate appearances—off his average. He did not catch a case of the first-pitch itch—in fact, he swung at the first pitch one percent less often—and did not reduce his strikeout rate, as it went up by 0.4 percentage points. Stubbs’ ISO, meanwhile, lost a single point from the 2011 season. Stubbs has managed to combine the unpleasantness of below-average contact with below-average power production—a combination as desirable as a finesse pitcher without control.
Daugherty tried to explain Stubbs’ decline, stating, “Baker says pitchers pitched Stubbs tougher.” It looks like a defensible and reasonable explanation at face value. Big-league players are the world’s finest detectives; give them 1,460 plate appearances—as Stubbs had entering 2012—and they should know how to beat a player. But here’s the thing: Not much about how pitchers have approached Stubbs has changed. The table below shows that Stubbs saw fewer fastballs in 2012, albeit not many fewer than he saw during his good 2010 season:
Pitch Selection against Stubbs, 2009-12
Pitching is about location more than selection. The placement of the pitches thrown to Stubbs has remained mostly static. He is seeing a higher rate of inside* pitches than in 2010, yet not a career-high amount. Stubbs saw a lower rate of inside fastballs this season. Pitchers did throw him fewer high** pitches and high fastballs. Fitting Stubbs’ collapse on the meager changes’ back proves difficult, however. There are some aspects that may paint a different portrait of this data—sequencing, for instance—but buying into such a theory means accepting that everything else remained static, thereby making it a tough sell.
Pitch Location against Stubbs, 2009-12
*Defined by splitting the plate right down the middle and taking the inner portion.
**Defined by splitting the strike zone across the middle and taking the upper portion.
Stubbs has eluded noticeable adjustments, as Daugherty laments, by his own choice or the choice of the coaching staff. Examining his mechanics now and a year ago shows little change. At most, Stubbs raised his hands and tweaked his stance inward. He may have begun making a conscious effort to keep his front shoulder tucked in to prevent it from flying open. In a way, you wish pitchers were throwing Stubbs more breaking balls, or that he fidgeted with his mechanics in a perceptible manner. Then it would be easier to accept his decline. As is, you have to settle on one of two possible conclusions: 1) Stubbs is decaying at an abnormal rate, or 2) he was never good to begin with.
The latter argument borders on nonsensical. We know Stubbs has baseball-playing talent and top-shelf athleticism. He is a former top-10 pick, not a rank-and-file player that snuck his way into the majors by the dirt on his jersey. But what of the former argument? I asked Dan Turkenkopf how often players in their 20s had consecutive seasons in which they lost 20 or points off their True Averages while receiving at least 300 plate appearances. Turkenkopf found that it’s happened 61 times, including Stubbs and another 2012 entrant (Geovany Soto). Comparing Stubbs’ decline to those experienced by players like Mickey Mantle and Al Kaline, both in the late 1950s, makes no sense. Those were elite-level players still performing at a high-level. Stubbs went from a tick above average offensively to well below.
Implementing a .259 TAv threshold for the final season left us with 38 past instances to observe. Stubbs had a better season than 10 of the cases: Gene Clines, John Donaldson, Kevin Stocker, Granny Hamner, Timo Perez, Corey Patterson (twice), Zoilo Versalles, Tommy Helms, and Fred Kendall. Of those players, only Patterson managed an above-average TAv in the next season—and he did so before falling back into the abyss. When weighed by their plate appearances, those players produced a .229 TAv in the next season. The average rises to .263 if you include the rest of the entrants. Successful rebounds by Larry Walker, Jimmy Wynn, Fred Lynn, even B.J. Upton—a similar player in era, position, and skill set—suggest Stubbs could dig himself out the hole.
Declining in back-to-back seasons without injury during your perceived prime seasons is typically a bad sign. Stubbs’ aforementioned flaws and lack of adjustments does not portent a successful turnaround. Making matters worse is how Stubbs’ poor play seems caused by himself, more so than his opponents on the mound. Now that Stubbs is with a new team, it might be time to rethink his commitment to selling out for power. Shortening his swing and embracing his speed may not be an ideal change for Stubbs, who seems to understand that one home run is inherently more valuable than a few infield singles, but such a change might be required to keep him in the league beyond his 30th birthday.