Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Dickerson vs. Stubbs: Two battles, not one

Chris Dickerson's 4-4 performance yesterday, raising his OBP to .455 should have caught Dusty Baker's attention, finally. Dickerson's home run that capped off the Reds 10-run first inning flew entirely out of Goodyear Ballpark and landed somewhere near the Siesta Key, I think. Throw in a double, a triple and a couple of stolen bases, and Chris Dickerson is having the best spring offensively of any Reds player. He needs to play.

Drew Stubbs has struggled in Goodyear, although today against the D-Backs in Tucson he doubled and tripled, scoring two runs and knocking in two others. So perhaps Stubbs is finally warming up. Good. Stubbs demonstrated an excellent upside in his call-up last fall, although he has yet to prove he can sustain that production over the course of several months or longer.

Dickerson's recent standout performance has caused many in the media and blogosphere to focus on the competition on the Reds as one between Dickerson and Stubbs for the centerfield job. See Mark Sheldon, John Fay, C Trent Rosecrans at CNati, and Chad Dotson at Redleg Nation for four examples of this framing.

That's certainly an important aspect of the duel. But it's not the only one.

A separate contest between the two Reds, namely the battle to see who gets to lead off the batting order, should also be taking place. But is it?

Much has been made of manager Dusty Baker's tendency to bat his CF first, regardless of OBP. One need look no further than the number of AB he gave to Corey Patterson and Willy Taveras the past two years as evidence of that. Last year, inspired by the 1-2 lineup punch of Taveras and shortstop Alex Gonzalez, sportswriter Joe Posnanski referred tongue-in-cheek to Dusty's disdain for factoring in OBP as "something awe inspiring."

Yet even this spring, when Baker clearly does have more than one viable leadoff hitter, he has made comments that would lead one to believe that determining his leadoff hitter is simply a matter of identifying whomever is playing CF.
"Right now you've got the No. 1 spot, you've got Stubbs and if he's not playing, Dickerson slides right in there without me tearing up my lineup."
-- Dusty Baker, 2.28.10
Baker could have said, "Right now you've got the No 1 spot, you've got Stubbs, but if Dickerson is doing a better job of hitting and getting on base, he could slide right in there." Reading Baker's actual statement, one couldn't be faulted for coming to the conclusion that defensive position is more important to Baker in determining who leads off than other factors such as who makes fewer outs. Remember that the leadoff hitter bats more times than anyone else on the team.

So what happens this year in the circumstance where both Stubbs and Dickerson are playing at the same time, who then should bat leadoff?

This is not an academic question. Dickerson and Stubbs are each double-plus defenders in the outfield, and both bring great offensive potential to the team. One could easily see a situation where they both deserve to start - with Chris Dickerson playing LF and Stubbs in CF, especially against right-handed pitchers. Johnny Gomes is another candidate for LF, as are a handful of others - Frazier, Heisey, Balentien and now, apparently Juan Francisco. But if the Reds want to emphasize preventing runs with their defense, Dickerson and Stubbs may both play. They may even turn out to be the two best hitters of that group.

So then, who leads off? While the battle for CF may be a close one, the competition to bat leadoff is not. If (and that is a mighty big two-letter word) a fair and open-minded competition is taking place, then Chris Dickerson's past and current performance should have easily, yes easily, won him the first spot in the order.

Why? Well, he gets on base at a much higher rate than Drew Stubbs. This is primarily due to Dickerson's greater skill at taking walks. Batting averages can be misleading in this regard. Last year, Stubbs (.267) and Dickerson (.275) had reasonably close BA. But when factoring in walks, their production levels diverged, with Dickerson (.370) almost .050 points higher in OBP than Stubbs (.323).

Dickerson's excellent walk rate of around 13% has remained steady throughout his career in the major and minor leagues, so there is every reason to believe he can sustain it. Stubbs' walk rate has steadily declined as he has progressed through the Reds organization -- 14% in A+, 10.5% in AA/AAA, and down to 7.7% for the Reds in 2009.

What difference does this make? Over 600 AB, a margin of .050 in OBP equates to 30 extra times on base for the likes of Joey Votto, Jay Bruce, Scott Rolen and Brandon Phillips. It also increases the number of times those hitters get up to bat over the course of a season. That's not a trivial factor.

Batting Dickerson in the leadoff spot and moving Stubbs down in the order, say to 6th or 7th, would also reduce the pressure on Stubbs, still a relatively inexperienced player.

It would be great news for the Reds if the Drew Stubbs of 2010 and beyond was the same as the autumn 2009 model. I hope he is. But it still wouldn't make him a leadoff hitter anymore than Brandon Phillips is.

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