Cincinnati’s center fielder of the future is nearly ready. Drew Stubbs may not be putting up the power numbers many expected of him when he was taken eighth overall in the 2006 draft, but the 24-year-old University of Texas product still promises to upgrade Dusty Baker‘s lineup when he arrives in the Queen City. Not only is Stubbs widely regarded as the best defensive outfielder in the minor leagues, he brings to the table a component that has been sorely lacking at the top of the Reds‘ batting order: an ability to get on base. An academic All-American at the University of Texas, Stubbs came into the weekend hitting .290/.386/.426 with 18 stolen bases for Triple-A Louisville.
David Laurila: I first interviewed you in spring training of 2007. How much have you changed since that time?
Drew Stubbs: The past, I guess, year and a half has given me a chance to gain more experience, including games at the upper levels of the minor leagues. I’ve played with some older guys who have been around for awhile, and you can just learn a lot by being around them. You can pick up some tricks of the trade, learning a lot of the little things about the game, and I think I’ve been able to do that. It has helped me in my path to getting to the big leagues.
DL: Is there any one part of your game that you feel has developed more than the rest?
DS: I would say that my approach at the plate has gotten better. So far this year I’ve been able to be more consistent, throughout a longer period of time, than what I saw in my earlier years of pro ball. I would have periods of time where I was on top of everything-I was hot-but that would be followed by a cold spell. It was kind of a drastic cycle. Now I think I’ve been able to kind of even it out a little bit more, and that is a key to success in this game.
DL: Addressing your development, Kevin Goldstein recently wrote: “He’s not less valuable, he’s just different.” Do you agree with that?
DS: Yes and no. I know that if you see things on paper, it might look different, but I feel that I’m still the same player. I would assume that he was talking about the power numbers being down and me shifting over to being more of an on-base guy who steals bases, and stuff like that, but in reality, although I’m not putting up the home-run totals that I have in years past, I still feel like that is part of my game. It’s still in there. I think your swing goes through periods of change and the last year and a half I feel that I’ve had more of a swing path for ground balls and line drives as opposed to a lofty swing for driving the ball in the air. But I still feel that I have the capability to hit for power. That will always be there, but even if I’m not hitting a lot of home runs, I can still be a threat at times. Either way, something I feel I can bring to the table is getting on base, stealing bases, and producing runs.
DL: Is your swing shorter now than it was in the past?
DS: Maybe so, but I’ve always felt that I’ve had good bat speed. I don’t know that I’ve ever had a long swing. Some of the problems that I had before were pitch selection and recognition, and I feel like I’ve gotten better on those points, so when I’m talking about tightening up my approach a little bit, it comes from that.
DL: In our conversation two years ago, you said: “[My coaches] want me to work on my load, keeping my hands back and getting better separation to track balls better.”
DS: Yes, that’s been one of the things, over the past year or so, that my hitting coordinators and I have worked on, and I think I’ve gotten a lot better with it. It’s helped my balance at the plate. Coming from them, as opposed to just seeing results, which have been there, the fact that they tell me that I’m on the right track, and moving in the right direction, is some real assurance for me. On a consistent, year-to-year basis, our hitting coordinator, Ronnie Ortegon, has been big for me. You have a different hitting coach at each level, and I’ve gained valuable experience and knowledge from each one of them, but Ronnie is a guy I go up and hit with once or twice during the offseason, and he’ll come in town, to the different spots we’re at during the season, so he’s a guy that you can be on the same page with throughout the course of the season.
DL: How would you describe Ortegon’s approach to hitting?
DS: That’s where I talked about getting a better load and separation with my hands, and really getting a good pivot with that to sync your whole swing up. That’s one of the things that he, and our big-league hitting coach, Brook Jacoby, kind of preach to everyone. It’s something that probably took all of us a little getting used to, because it was somewhat of a new concept for us when they came in, but it’s something I’ve really picked up on and it has helped me a lot.
DL: Willy Taveras is the starting center fielder in Cincinnati right now. How would you compare your game to his?
DS: I don’t know, but I guess we both have a lot of the same strengths. I think we can play the outfield well. We can run and use our speed both offensively and defensively. We both throw pretty well from the outfield. I think that offensively Willy might be a guy who will get on more with bunts when he’s not hitting line drives, while I might be a little better power threat than he is. That’s one of the tradeoffs when it comes to the type of player that you’re looking for. But I think we do share some of the same strengths. I got to play with Willy a little bit this spring, and just watching him day in and day out, and knowing the success he’s had in the big leagues, has been invaluable for me.
DL: Taveras receives criticism for his relatively low on-base percentage hitting at the top of the order. Do you place a lot of value on that part of your game?
DS: Sure. When you get on base… in my case, I can take an extra base stealing, and in essence score runs for my team. On-base percentage has always been a priority of mine, whether it’s drawing walks, getting hits, or even reaching on an error-however you can get on. It’s something I’ve felt I’ve always done fairly well, but recently I’ve done better than I have in the past.
DL: Do you view yourself as a leadoff hitter?
DS: Prototypically no, but if it’s the Reds’ choice to put me in that spot, then I’ve done it before and I can do it again. But I view myself, naturally, as more of a middle-of-the-order guy who can manufacture runs in different ways.
DL: How would you assess your 2009 season thus far?
DS: I’ve been pleased with it. To be two months in and hanging around the .300 mark-I feel pretty good about that. I’ve been able to get on base and steal some bases, so I’d say the only thing that I’d like to do is get those power numbers back that I’ve had in the past. But I think that will come. It’s something I will always have, and it’s just a matter of regenerating it.
DL: Will those power numbers come back without you altering your approach in any way?
DS: You hear guys talking about it all the time-younger hitters in the big leagues-they don’t worry about the power numbers so much, because they know they’ll come with time and experience. Again, that’s something where if you’ve got it, you’ve got it. Hitting with consistent power is something that is learned a lot of times. Some guys will do it naturally, but just learning to make that little adjustment to your swing when you need to drive that ball, and get some loft, is something that you gain with time. As long as I’m making solid contact and hitting the ball squarely, at this time, I think that’s all that anybody is worried about.
DL: Your alma mater, the University of Texas, recently played a 25-inning game in the NCAA tournament.
DS: Yes, and luckily they came out on top, because it would be a tough one to overcome if you come up on the short end of that kind of game. Fortunately, they were able to capitalize and win what I think was the longest game in college history. I remember when I was there, one of the years we played at Kansas State and had a 20-inning, six-hour game. That seemed like an eternity, so I can’t even imagine playing any longer than that. I was proud for those guys to gut that one out and win the game, and eventually win the regional.
DL: In that game Austin Wood threw 169 pitches in relief over 13 scoreless innings to help his team win. What are your thoughts on that?
DS: Well, it just shows the character that he has. I played with him for one year when I was there; he was a freshman my junior year. This is his fourth year there and he has been kind of their closer, not throwing more than two or three innings at a time, I believe, so for him to go out and throw 12 or 13 innings of no-hit ball is nothing short of remarkable.
DL: College coaches are often accused of caring more about wins and losses than about the best interests of their players. Is that a fair criticism?
DS: To an extent. [The players] aren’t paid; they’re not professionals. Honestly, they go out and they want to do what is best for the team, and they believe that with all of their heart. I talked to some guys after that game-after he pitched for so long-and asked, “Will that ruin him?” They were like, “Well, that’s to be seen, but I doubt it.” A lot of times, before each inning, the coaches will ask the guy. They’ll say, “We’ll get somebody up if you’re not feeling good,” or something like that. Apparently, Wood was just adamant about staying in the game, and to do that shows what kind of character he has.
DL: Within your own organization, Dusty Baker has been criticized for his handing of pitchers. Can you comment on Dusty-not necessarily about that specific subject?
DS: Well, I haven’t spent a whole lot of time around Dusty outside of spring training, but that’s the thing about this game. I think that, at times, there is too much stock put into exact pitch counts and… I don’t want to say babying guys, but more not letting them go and do what they feel they can do. I know that with this team here, it’s been the first time in awhile that the organization has left it up to the coaching staff to determine the pitch counts of the Triple-A pitchers, and that has allowed them to stretch out. We had Matt Maloney throw a complete-game shutout the other day, and if he had his normal pitch count, in years past he might not have been able to do that. Letting the coaches and the players have the freedom to do that kind of stuff-I think everybody appreciates that.
DL: You grew up playing the piano and excelled academically at the University of Texas. How does an intellectual mindset such as your own fit within the parameters of the lifestyle of a professional baseball player?
DS: Baseball is a funny game. You have all different kinds of people, you know. You have your intellectual guys, and you have your guys who just go out and play the game without really thinking a lot about it-they just react on instinct. The way you approach it each and every day can be done several different ways. Just coming to the ballpark every day and preparing… I think the key to success in this game, outside of hard work, is having a strong mind and keeping your confidence up. I think that being educated, and being able to use your mind to your advantage, can help play a huge role in this game, because during the tough times you can build yourself up, whereas other guys may not know how. That’s one thing I try to use to my advantage. I use what I’ve learned, and my past experiences, to help me through the difficult times.
DL: Some guys have both an on-the-the-field personality and an off-the-field personality, but it sounds like that really isn’t the case with you.
DS: No, no, no. When you hear about a guy being laid-back and calm off the field, and when he gets on the field he becomes a monster, I don’t think that’s me necessarily, but I feel that I’m as competitive as anybody. While it may not look like I have gritted teeth out on the field, I play as hard as anybody and want to win as bad as anybody. But I’m like that with pretty much anything. If I’m in a competition, I’m there to win.
DL: Any final thoughts?
DS: Just that I’m in this game because it’s something I’ve wanted to do ever since I was a little kid. I’ve always wanted to be a professional baseball player and I try to go out each and every day and do things the right way. I play hard and try to give back to the fans what I can while enjoying every minute of it.