“…and if you put me in center field, I will promise 20% fewer strikeouts than my distinguished competitor, 10 to 20 points higher batting average and I will even promise to successfully lay down a few bunts for hits. Now I know what the campaign ads say: he won’t steal as many bases, he won’t shag as many fly balls, he can’t possibly hold up with more playing time. But I can and I will. Vote me into Center Field and let’s move the Reds forward!”
Election season is upon us and it’s always a temptation to look toward the new, the young, the next generation and to call for the next guy in line. Even in baseball, especially when a Drew Stubbs has so many strikeouts and Jay Bruce appears so…clutch-less at times. And like any other campaign, you will have supporters of both sides coming up with reasons for and reasons against and they will probably contain more half truths than you’d hear at your local bar scene.
This look back into the history of the Cincinnati Reds won’t really add many miles to the old odometer, just a short trip to 2008 and 2010. But it also kind of serves to the point in that we don’t have to travel too far.
Back in 2008, Ken Griffey Jr was still patrolling right field and Adam Dunn was still toiling out in left. So when the next great thing was brought up from the minors in the form of Jay Bruce, they elected to put him in center field. And what a magnificent beginning it was. The whole city was buzzing over Junior’s chase to home run number 600 and here was this kid, brought up under an enormous amount of hype, living up to the billing, and amplifying the electricity of a sub-.500 baseball club by an order of magnitude. The park was simply alive the day this new guy cemented expectations in every Reds fan’s heart. 38,000+, all there to watch the Kid reach for glory and see the new kid continue his trailblazing start.
And of course, we were all rewarded as Griffey hit number 599 in the first inning. But that was all but overshadowed by a walk off, deep drive to right field by Bruce. And thus his bar of clutch-ness, fair or unfair, was set in stone. When he would clinch the division with an even longer home run to center field some two years and a few months later, that was only further emphasis on what was expected of him in the future.
Now, as a fan of the Reds witnessing those performances, one is expected to fall victim to hype, to be prone to overreaction whenever there is failure, and call for the heads of the old to be replaced by the new. So when Bruce failed as much as he did in the situations deemed most clutch, 2 outs, RISP, he took a lot of criticism from fans far and wide. Batting .211 there will do that for you and not even a .417 OBP in those situations is enough to engender good will for him from those that remember the walkoffs and the wins.
And then there was Drew Stubbs, who came up with a lot less fanfare and a lot less of a meteoric start, but showed real promise at the end of 2009 and carried that forward to 2010 with a 20 HR, 30 SB campaign. And he made spectacular plays in the outfield like the homerun he robbed during the division clinching game back in 2010. He tracked down balls that other people around the league couldn’t even reach. He reached fly balls standing up that other outfielders would have had to dive for. He has made a total of 8 errors in two and a half years and he has always been at or above the league average in fielding percentage.
And thus, expectations arose for him as well. But in 2011, his slugging percentage dropped 80 points, his OPS dropped 87 points and his OPS+ dropped nearly 20 points. And of course he was the author of 205 strikeouts, saw a drop in his batting average and he was the owner of an innate inability to bunt, despite the obvious weapon he has with his speed.
And so he’s become one of the main whipping boys for 2011’s disastrous results. The argument that he had a decent year because his BABIP was healthy and his OBP barely dropped is not exactly endearing to anyone who watched him struggle so mightily at the plate. There are breezes generated from his bat that still are traveling around the tri-state area. However, if the hits he actually did have had been of the extra base variety, doubles, triples or homeruns, the number of strikeouts wouldn’t seem near as important. We’re used to power hitting outfielders having high strikeout totals.
So what if Stubbs is a victim of misuse and misunderstanding? Simply because he is the fastest player on the current 25 man roster, he was immediately thrust into the Reds’ leadoff spot even though he has shown no basis for being a contact hitter and his OBP is decent not spectacular. And since that was the role given to him, he has been told by everyone and their mother to shorten his swing, make contact, learn to bunt, use that speed. Maybe that’s the wrong approach. Maybe he will always be the high strikeout guy with a good slugging percentage, should it rise enough to be considered good again.
And maybe his speed only comes into play in the outfield, where the dropoff between him and Chris Heisey was at the very least noticeable. During a game in 2011 where Heisey played in center field, he missed two outs that Stubbs would have closed, simply because he doesn’t have the same closing speed. Maybe the affectionately labeled Gazelle shouldn’t focus on bunting and slap hitting and instead improve his power swing and return to his 2010 ways.
While it’s always the easiest thing in the world to criticize a player, manager or general manager for their ineptitude and hope that the man waiting in his shadow will come forth and shine, remember how you felt that first couple of weeks when Bruce hit the cover off everything that even grazed the plate. Remember how it felt when Stubbs would launch three homeruns per game whenever he visited the northside and Wrigley Field. And remember how the strikeout sandwiched between those ABs seemed less important.
It’s a no-brainer to cast your ballot for Zack Cozart to replace the inevitable 2012 version of Renteria and Janish. When either Hernandez doesn’t re-sign or he does and Hanigan gets traded for prospects, it’s easy to throw your support behind the new catching lynch pin Devin Mesoraco. Even if you throw your support behind any of the candidates running for left field next year, you’re going to be looking for a change from Jonny Gomes and Fred Lewis to some other member of the youth movement. But remember that even though we have some history with the players currently running center field and right, they were brought up as part of a youth movement that isn’t too many years in the past. The remnants of that movement certainly isn’t beyond reproach, but they might not be far beyond repair either. Sometimes the incumbent is the right guy for the job. For 2012, “I believe in Jay Bruce” and “I believe in Drew Stubbs.”