May 21, 2012; Cincinnati, OH, USA; Cincinnati Reds center fielder Drew Stubbs (6) is congratulated by third base coach Mark Berry (41) after hitting a home run during the first inning against the Atlanta Braves at Great American Ball Park. Mandatory Credit: Frank Victores-US PRESSWIRE

Is Drew Stubbs really incapable of leading off?

Reds fans have known Drew Stubbs at the major league level for a little over two years now, and if there’s three things any Reds fan can tell you about their young center fielder, it’s (a) he strikes out a lot, (b) he’s fast, and uses his speed to catch any and all fly balls, and (c) he can’t hit leadoff.

Number 3 on that list has all but been etched into the proverbial stone, and I’m sure various stats have been thrown up that appear to more or less support that narrative.  Even this year, Stubbs (like Zack Cozart) has performed well whenever Dusty decides to move him down one spot in the order.  However, looking to really get to the bottom of this, I took to the numbers tonight (minutes after Stubbs jacked his second homerun of the game, from the 2 hole) and found that they are a lot more inconclusive than many probably think.

When looking at a player’s splits, the first question to address is, how many plate appearances does it take before a hitter’s sample is significant?  I know this type of information is out there, so I did a quick Google search and found a Fangraphs article that addresses this very question.  As the author noted, there’s always assumptions that go into this kind of study, but roughly speaking, many rate stats stabilize after around 500 plate appearances (or fewer).  Also interesting to note: this particular test stopped at 650 PA, and several stats never stabilized, like batting average and BABiP, but this at least provides a guideline.

Looking at Stubbs, he’s spent almost exactly half of his career leading off for the Reds (827 out of 1625 PA).  His next most common spot in the order is 7th, with 352 PA.  Because we are starting to get into small sample size territory, I spent most of my time looking at Stubbs’ numbers batting 1st versus Stubbs’ numbers batting everywhere else in the order combined.

A chart, with numbers:

Some things to note…

  • Stubbs’ on base percentage in the two situations is nearly identical.  Few stats, if any, are more critical to leading off than OBP.
  • When he leads off, Stubbs actually walks slightly more often, and strikes out slightly less often.
  • His batting average on balls in play is 17 points higher when he isn’t at the top of the order.  Though it doesn’t account for the entire discrepancy in slugging, it does explain a bit.

What I wasn’t able to find from Fangraphs or Baseball-Reference was his HR/FB rate splits.  I’m guessing this might account for the rest of the slugging difference, but I wasn’t able to confirm.  That difference of course isn’t meaningless.  Maybe he really does have a tendency to hit fewer homeruns from the leadoff spot.

Nevertheless, I maintain that Stubbs’ inability to bat leadoff is generally overstated, and propagated by the fact that Stubbs’ performance overall has been somewhat disappointing since the start of 2011.  Add to that the notion of confirmation bias, which notes that fans will remember the oh-for-five, three-strikeout performance because it supports the narrative they’ve predetermined as true, while conveniently forgetting the one-for-threes with a walk.

This is by no means meant to be an end all, be all look at the Reds’ leadoff situation, or whether or not Stubbs can ultimately be successful in that role.  Simply an appeal for reason regarding our talented, yet sometimes frustrating center fielder.  Stubbs is an imperfect player, and many of his shortcomings are forced into the spotlight at the leadoff position.  Most notably, his high K rate and relatively low walk rate.  However, I think you’ll find that an objective look at the evidence suggests that Stubbs is not, in fact, averse to batting leadoff.  He simply is who he is.

Follow Aaron on Twitter @aaronjlehr

Tags: Cincinnati Reds Drew Stubbs

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