Since the day the Indians acquired Drew Stubbs, the conversation has revolved largely around his excessive strikeout totals and the role they played in his absolutely abysmal 2012 campaign. The concern is justifiable. For a player of Stubbs’ potential, it is a bit concerning just how irregularly he makes contact. The conclusion that many people have come to is that if Stubbs could reduce his strikeouts, even if it were only one strikeout per week, he has the skill set to reach an All-Star level of performance. But is that the case?
Make no mistake, Stubbs is a windmill. He swings and misses enough that the Tribe could use his wind power to light Progressive Field on a nightly basis. (And after this past offseason’s spending spree, it might be an option as a cost cutting measure. Don’t rule it out.)
In his first four years as a big league player, Stubbs has struck out 588 times. According to Baseball-Reference, that runs his 162 game average to 196 strikeouts. To add more fuel to the already raging inferno that is this topic, Stubbs’ 2011 total of 205 strikeouts is the fourth-highest single-season total of all time. So yes, Stubbs strikes out a lot. But was that the cause of his disastrous 2012 at the plate?
Before we move on, here is a closer look at Stubbs’ stats from his first four major league seasons.
Stubbs’ career strikeout rate is 29.3%. However, in 2012 he struck out in 30.5% of his at bats, not far off of his career rate. In fact, in his first two seasons as a full-time player, Stubbs struck out 28.8% and 30.1% respectively. Now, if strikeouts were the primary factor in Stubbs’ horrendous 2012 performance at the plate, wouldn’t that rate be significantly higher? In order to cause such a drastic decline in numbers across the board, wouldn’t Stubbs have had to have been striking out at a near-record pace?
In addition, Stubbs swung away at 42% of the pitches he faced in 2012 and made contact on 71% of those swings, both of which are in line with his career rates. His career balls in play percentage is right around 57% and in 2012 that number was 58%. Again, this falls in line with what we have seen with Stubbs throughout his career.
The bottom line in here is that while Stubbs was still striking out a lot, it wasn’t significantly more than his career strikeout rate and was only marginally higher than 2011 when he struck out 205 times yet still hit a reasonable .243/.321/.386. In other words, while everyone likes to point at strikeouts for the cause of Stubbs’ problems in 2012, the numbers show that simply wasn’t the case.
Now, I know what you’re all thinking. If strikeouts weren’t the problem, then what was? I’m glad you asked. Looking at Stubbs’ numbers more in depth, I stumbled upon a few things things that point to why he had such a miserable go of it in 2012.
The first and possibly the simplest explanation is that 2012 was nothing more than an outlier. In statistics, an outlier is any observation that is numerically distant from the rest of a data set. In other words, the statistical data is significantly different from all of the other data collected for a given sample. In this case, 2012 was significantly different than 2009-11. It doesn’t even look like it came from the same player. Does that mean we can simply throw this away? No, but it does mean that 2012 may have been nothing more than a fluke occurrence and that 2013 should (hopefully) return more to the norm we have seen in the past.
Stubbs’ batting average on balls in play (BABIP) in 2012, was horrendous. League average for BABIP is typically right around .300. From 2009-11, Stubbs achieved a BABIP of .335, well above league average. In 2012, that figure fell to .290, both below the standard average and significantly below his career average. Basically, this means that Stubbs was unluckier in 2012 than in any other year of his career and helps explain the drastic drop off, at least partly.
That begs another question, though. How do you explain such a significant drop off in BABIP? While much of BABIP comes down to luck, there is also a defensive factor and skill factor of the player in question to take into account. Since Stubbs spent his first four years in Cincinnati and faced many of the same defensive players year in an year out, it stands to reason then that something changed with Stubbs to help contribute to the dropoff.
A big issue for Stubbs in 2012 was the type of contact he was making. First, he experienced a 4% drop off in his line drive rate (18% for his career and 14% in 2012). In total, Stubbs hit 30 fewer line drives. As heretical as it sounds, line drives find holes more easily in defenses which equates to more hits. Who knew? Combine that with a 8% increase in his infield fly ball rate (10% career compared to 18% in 2012) and that tells us that Stubbs simply wasn’t making good contact last season.
To make matters worse, Stubbs also experienced a significant uptick in the number of ground balls he was hitting. Typically, for a player with Stubbs’ speed, this is a good thing because it places added pressure on defenses to make plays quickly and cleanly. However, even the fastest player is going to have problems if he is hitting grounders right at opposing infielders. Considering the drastic dropoff in both batting and on base average, it stands to reason that Stubbs’ increase from a 46.9% ground ball rate for his career to 51.4% in 2012 did more harm than good.
When Stubbs got pull-happy the results were even worse. He hit grounders 71% of the time when he pulled the ball, roughly a 5% increase from his career average. Where he found the most success was when he went the opposite way. Stubbs hit significantly more fly balls and line drives from center field to right field in 2012 and as a result was significantly more successful going the other way. The numbers once again support this. With the exception of his amount of power, everything improved for Stubbs when he went the other way and used the entire field.
Another factor that seems to have played a role in Stubbs’ 2012 demise was his recognition of the strike zone. For a player known for striking out, it appears as if Stubbs was trying to make an effort to be more patient at the plate. Unfortunately, that patience did more harm than good. For his career heading into 2012, Stubbs had a looking-strike percentage of 30% and struck out looking on 31% of his strikeouts. Both of those figures went up in 2012. Looking strikes came to 33% and strikeouts looking accounted for 36% of his strikeouts. This is a sign that Stubbs was either trying to be more patient at the plate, or he lost whatever handle he did have for the strike zone.
Lastly—and this point goes along with strike zone recognition—Stubbs needs to do a better job of understanding the parts of the strike zone where he flourishes and those where he flounders. Looking at Stubbs’ batting average broken down by areas of the strike zone, it is apparent that his primary area of success is up in the zone and from the middle of the plate outward. He also experiences a minimal amount of success middle in. If Stubbs can learn to recognize and differentiate these areas of success and failure, perhaps it would be possible to see drastic improvements across the board.
So, what does this all mean? It means everyone needs to calm down about Drew Stubbs’ strikeout totals because they weren’t the reason for his downfall in 2012. It had more to do with luck (or lack there of, poor contact), and poor recognition of the strike zone in regards to his areas of success. If he can improve in just one of those areas, the results could be significant and there is reason to believe it will happen.
As a general rule of thumb, there is bound to be some regression to the mean. In this case, it is highly unlikely that Stubbs will duplicate the atrocious numbers he produced in 2012. In the same way that it is hard to imagine a player replicating a career year seemingly out of nowhere, it is just as unlikely that a player will replicate a career worse year, especially when that player is in his late 20’s and has the skill set that Stubbs possesses. He should be able to get back closer to his career averages based on that fact alone.
Stubbs should also be aided by the lineup around him. Hitting lower in the order, it stands to reason that Stubbs will see more fast balls and less off speed and breaking pitches. According to Pitchf/x, Stubbs faced more sliders and fewer fastballs in 2012 than in any other year prior, an additional factor that may have contributed to his poor offensive output. It stands to reason then that more fastballs equates to better contact and better contact could equate to more line drives and base hits.
Lastly, Stubbs needs to show better patience at the plate and not be afraid to take a walk. If he is able to improve his strike zone recognition then perhaps this will follow. Until then, we may be forced to live with a poor strikeout to walk ratio. Just know that like in years past, the massive amount of strikeouts Drew Stubbs is bound to rack up won’t be responsible for any potential failings.
So, before you discount Drew Stubbs and his strikeouts, just know that they did not go hand in hand with his 2012 failures. Like most things in life, there was more than meets the eye. Did they play a part in his abysmal performance and the Reds’ willingness to give up on him? Perhaps. But, that doesn’t change the fact that Stubbs is a player with a great deal of potential and should help significantly improve the Indians in 2013 if he meets his career averages.