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2013 Indians Player Preview: Drew Stubbs

As we count down the days until the start of the season, we’re profiling every player who will be on the Opening Day roster and how he could impact the team. Today, we continue our trip around the outfield with the Indians’ starting right fielder: Drew Stubbs.

Background: The Cincinnati Reds took Stubbs with the No. 8 overall pick in the 2006 MLB amateur draft out of the University of Texas at Austin. Stubbs was seen as a very talented prospect (he made Baseball America‘s Top 100 Prospects list twice), but since breaking into the majors in 2009 he has yet to live up to his potential. He came to Cleveland from Cincinnati in the Shin-Soo Choo trade in December.

Last year: Stubbs, 28, had the worst season of his career in 2012, hitting just .213/.277/.333 (36 percent worse than a league-average MLB hitter, per wRC+) with 14 home runs, 40 RBI, 75 runs scored, and 30 stolen bases in 136 games. An uncharacteristically low .290 BABIP was the biggest factor in his seasonlong slump (his career hit rate was .335), but he also saw his walk rate fall (8%), his diminished power stagnate (.120 ISO), and his already-high strikeout rate rise (31%). However, he was still a demon on the basepaths and played very good defense in center field.

The various value estimators took very different views of Stubbs’ 2012 performance. FanGraphs pegged him at 1.3 wins above replacement, while Baseball-Reference put him at roughly replacement level (-0.2 WAR) and Baseball Prospectus had him at an abysmal -1.6 WARP.

Key factor: Batting average on balls in play. BABIP, also known as “hit rate,” is exactly what it sounds like: the proportion of batted balls hit inside the confines of the baseball diamond that fall for hits. Though batters have some control over their hit rates, BABIP is notoriously unstable and even a full season’s worth of plate appearances are not often enough to eliminate large amounts of random variation.

Stubbs’ .290 BABIP last year was about in line with the league average, but it was a big drop from his norm—as a fast runner with raw power he’s the kind of hitter who could reasonably sustain an unusually high BABIP, and he had done so for the first three years of his career. It’s possible that his diminished hit rate was just a one-time fluke, but some changes in his batted-ball profile (particularly the drop in his line drive rate) were consistent with the idea that he’s making weaker contact.

A player with Stubbs’ raw tools doesn’t need to rely on a high BABIP to be successful. But even if he doesn’t make any major gains in other aspects of his game, he can be a respectable hitter again if his hit rate bounces back.

2013 projections: Courtesy of FanGraphs. (*—estimated with the Simple WAR Calculator)

Steamer and Oliver’s projection are virtually identical save for their different assumptions of playing time. Bill James‘ vision would be nice; ZiPS’ wouldn’t.

Best-case scenario: Things finally click for Stubbs the way it looked like they would in 2010. His walk rate rebounds, his power comes back, and he still flashes impressive speed and leather. He returns to the 20/20 club and makes a push for 25/25 and pushes his way towards the top of the Indians’ lineup.

Worst-case scenario: It can’t get much worse than 2012. Stubbs is an outright liability at the plate and his defense isn’t good enough to compensate for it. He finds himself relegated to the bench and his days as an everyday player are over.

What to expect: The projections’ consensus looks about right. Stubbs will never be what he once seemed destined to become, but he isn’t as bad as he looked last year. He’ll benefit from some regression to the mean and will earn his keep in the Tribe lineup.

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