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Fowler vs. Stubbs: Marginal Improvement or More?

The Reds have been looking for a consistent leadoff hitter since the current iteration of the team began contention in 2010. Drew Stubbs was supposed to fill that role, but his performance has trended the wrong way since 2009 — after a sharp 105 wRC+ in 2010, Stubbs has posted marks of 90 and a brutal 64 in 2011 and 2012 respectively. Between Stubbs and Zack Cozart, Reds leadoff hitters hit an awful .208/.254/.327 last season.

Now, the Reds are looking to fill the two holes Stubbs’s decline has left them with — leadoff hitter and center field. The club was interested in Ben Revere but the Phillies beat them to the punch. CBSSports.com’s Danny Knobler reports the Reds are shifting their sights towards Rockies outfielder Dexter Fowler.

Knobler reports starting pitcher Mike Leake may be the cost for Fowler. Homer Bailey‘s name has popped up as well. Is Fowler enough of an upgrade over Stubbs for the Reds to deal away one of their MLB-ready starting pitchers?

Fowler is a clear upgrade at the plate. He owns a 104 career wRC+ against Stubbs’s 88, and recent years favor him even more strongly:


Source: FanGraphsDexter Fowler, Drew Stubbs

The above chart shows wOBA, which misses the park adjustments, but the relationship is similar with wRC+ as well, just a little tighter. Many will point to Fowler’s wide home-road splits as a black eye, but Stubbs has had a similar road experience in his time as a Red — Fowler’s 79 road wRC+ outpaces Stubbs’s 70 mark.

The ZiPS projections agree with Fowler’s superiority. Fowler is projected for a .273/.366/.452 slash line, a touch better than his 2011 season — roughly a 110 wRC+. Stubbs is projected for just a .230/.301/.370 line, between his 2011 and 2012 seasons — close to an 80 wRC+ — about a 15-run difference over 600 plate appearances.

But what about defense? Both Stubbs and Fowler are speed demons with highly regarded defensive skillsets. Defensive metrics disagree — UZR has Stubbs 50 runs better over the past four years, nearly closing the gap with the bat. DRS, however, has Stubbs with just a 20-run lead since 2009, which would still leave Fowler as worth roughly a win more per season.

Stubbs’s defense makes him well worth a roster spot even though his bat leaves a lot to be desired and seems unlikely to be fixed anytime soon. Even if Fowler is as good a defensive player as Stubbs, the difference between their bats isn’t big enough to warrant moving Homer Bailey, who took a huge step forward in 2012. Bailey posted a 3.68 ERA and 3.97 FIP at just 26 years old, made even more impressive by the constricting dimensions of Great American Ball Park as well as a no-hitter against the Pirates late in the season.

But what about a deal for Mike Leake? Leake has just a 4.23 ERA and 4.43 FIP in his first 485 major league innings. The club has Tony Cingrani waiting in the pipeline to serve as depth, and Aroldis Chapman’s foray into the rotation makes Leake expendable. Fowler could be a regular starter in center field, with Stubbs serving as a reserve outfielder able to cover center field as a defensive replacement and spot starter. Ryan Ludwick (who appears to be near a deal to return to Cincinnati) can start in left field with the stalwart Jay Bruce in right field.

The Reds gave 487 plate appearances to non-starter outfielders last year — opportunities would be available for both Stubbs and Chris Heisey off the bench. Or, if the Reds trust Xavier Paul to serve as a fifth outfielder, they could explore the trade market for either reserve. Stubbs is a former top prospect with undeniable ability as a defensive center fielder, and a non-contender may find a project in him. Heisey offers reliable corner outfield defense with a sharp bat against left-handed pitching (119 wRC+ career).

The difference between Dexter Fowler and Drew Stubbs is there. It’s not a grand chasm, and not one worth a budding starter like Homer Bailey. But if the Reds can pick up Fowler for a replaceable talent like Mike Leake, the flexibility and depth they would pick up in the outfielder would be worth the cost.