Drew Stubbs' debut was one of the more pleasant surprises last year. Stubbs put up a respectable rookie line of 267/323/437 in 196 PAs to go along with 10 steals and terrific defense. Whether he can build upon that is a tricky question that centers on two issues in my mind - his ability to make contact and hit for power.
Making contact has been the biggest concern with Stubbs during his amateur and professional career. Stubbs hit .269 in the minors, which is decent but obviously not spectacular. Maintaining a .269 average in the majors would be fine given his above-average walk numbers (.364 OBP in the minors), but there's a strong possibility that he may not be able to make contact against major league pitching at the same rate. His minor league K-rate (~26%) is high, and suggests potential difficulty with making sufficient contact at the major league level.
Then again, Stubbs demonstrated better contact skills as he progressed through the minors, cutting his K-rate from over 30% in rookie ball to 25% in Louisville. Hopefully, this demonstrates that he can adjust to better pitching as he moves up the ladder. With the Reds last year Stubbs struck out in 27% of his plate appearances. If he can maintain or improve that and walk in 10% of his PAs, he should be able to get on base at an acceptable rate (330+ OBP). But if he can't (K-rate over 30%), he'll make too many outs to be a productive hitter.
One possible factor concerning Stubbs' contact ability is his height. Even though I follow our top prospects fairly closely, I didn't realize how tall Stubbs is when he came up. At 6'4" he'll be the tallest Red to patrol CF on a full-time basis. Is a hitter that tall less likely to make contact, given the expanded strike zone and longer swing? There are of course plenty of tall power hitters, but the tall burner is a much rarer athlete. This article on Usain Bolt got me thinking about why it's a rarity and the conventional wisdom on what is the ideal build for speed.
When Bolt first took up track, he suffered from tall man's maladies. For one thing, he ran as if he were wearing seven-league boots. His coach, Glen Mills, sped him up by shortening his stride. "Biomechanically, his body placement was not ideal for sprinting," Mills told the Jamaica Gleaner. "His head was back, his shoulders were well behind his center of gravity, this resulted in him spending too much time in the air and over-striding." Now, Mills says, "his length of stride is compatible with his height. One of the reasons he has such a long but efficient stride is because he lifts his knees so well."
Like track, we're starting to see more tall speedsters in baseball. No player as tall or taller than Stubbs stole 30 bases until 1976, but since then 11 players have done so, most recently Carlos Gomez and Alex Rios in 2008. Lower the standard to 6'3" and several others join the list, including B.J. Upton and Hanley Ramirez. This past year the Rockies' 6'4" CF Dexter Fowler stole five bases in one game (though he only finished with 27). Stolen bases aren't a perfect proxy for speed, but until bb-ref adds 40-yard dash times it will have to do.
So does any of this mean something for Stubbs? Is there a good reason most tall hitters rely on power rather than contact hitting? And is this the direction Stubbs is heading? Stubbs had always wowed scouts with his "light tower power," but mostly slugged in the low 400s as a minor leaguer (and quite a bit lower than that in Louisville last year). Was Stubbs' power surge in Cincinnati a mirage, or does it signal the arrival of a well-rounded hitter?