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What's Up With...? Stephen Drew

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"Compared to the good year I had in '08, I know that feeling and it's getting there. [I'm] waiting just to really get going. I've just been staying consistent all year, and that's what you want, but I haven't had a really hot week or two weeks. The name of the game is consistency, and that's what I strive for. Right now my swing feels OK."
    -- Stephen Drew

Quick: who has been the most valuable player on the Diamondbacks so far? Kelly Johnson? Ian Kennedy? Nope. The Arizona man posting the best overall Wins Above Replacement number to date is actually Stephen Drew, who has put together a very nice start to the season, and largely slid beneath the radar in so doing. He's hitting .303, with an OPS of .862 - while it's still relatively early days, that would be a career high for a full season, if he maintained that pace the rest of the year.

But can he? After the jump, we'll see if we can find out the reason for the new hotness, and inquire politely, what's up with Stephen Drew? [All stats are through Wednesday night's game]

He may not exactly look like a grizzled veteran, but Stephen Drew has played in more games for the Diamondbacks than anyone currently with the team. His 539 appearances narrowly beats Chris Snyder (527) and Chris Young (518), with Drew now the longest-tenured short-stop in team history - he should move into the franchise's all-time top five for games played by the end of the season, good health willing. But if you quizzed the average fan, you'd probably get a sense of mild disappointment with Drew's performance, since his debut for the team in 2006.

Stephen has never quite caught fans' imagination or interest in quite the same way as some other players - of considerably less talent - have managed to do. Drew has always seemed a reserved kind of individual, who never shows his feelings on the field: "He just goes out and does his thing," commented former manager Bob Melvin. That has read by some as Stephen "not caring," but I tend to think it's just his nature: quiet and reserved, with a strong Christian faith. How many 24-year old millionaires do you know that have never been in a nightclub? "That ain't me," he said. "I'm a low-key guy."

Great Expectations

Still, Drew had already seen two older brothers, Tim and JD, picked in the first round of the 1997 and 1998 drafts, before Stephen joined them there in June 2004 [He was almost a Pirate - Pittsburgh picked him in the 11th round of the 2001 draft, but he didn't sign]. Drew didn't come to an agreement with for the team until almost a year later, holding out and playing indie ball until just minutes before the deadline to strike a deal. It was a lucrative choice for the then-prospect, who got a five-year major-league contract with us, including a $4 million signing bonus. It was those demands which were partly the reason he fell to the Diamondbacks, with the #15 selection, at one point being considered by the Padres for their #1 pick [they instead went with Matt Bush. Tee-hee!]

However, with this came expectations. After finishing 2005 in Double-A, Drew spent the first part of 2006 in Tucson, and was listed by Baseball America before the season as the #5 prospect in all baseball. That put Stephen ahead of names such as Chad Billingsley, Prince Fielder, Ryan Zimmerman and Troy Tulowitzki [who was immediately credited by the Coors Field scorer with a triple as a result of his listing...] At the time, Diamondbacks scouting director Mike Rizzo said, "He's got power. He can hit for average. He's got instincts. He has all the defensive tools to play an outstanding shortstop. He is one of the most instinctual players for his age that I've ever seen."

Mercurial Drew

Stephen got his call-up in July, the result of an injury to Craig Counsell, who fractured a rib while swinging through a high fastball. Drew hit the ground running, posting a line of .316/.357/.517 over 59 games in the second-half of the season. That more or less set the pattern: for months at a time, he'll play at the level of his potential. But he'll then regress, and for the same length time, scuffle along at or below .250. The 2008 season is perhaps the clearest example. Over the first-half of the 152 games he played that year, he had a ..751 OPS. Over the second-half, that figure exploded by 160 points, as he hit .323 with ten homers.

2009 saw him return to his normal level, and he was troubled by problems with his hamstring, particularly at the start of the season, and he missed 17 games at the end of April as a result. While he was reluctant to use it as an excuse, later on in the season his pregnant wife experienced complications, that undoubtedly proved a distraction for our short-stop over much of the second half of the season. Stephen said this spring, "The best way to describe it is pre-term labor. From about the 25th week on it could have happened at any time. And 25 weeks is really, really early." Fortunately, it had a happy ending, with the birth of a healthy son, Hank, on October 14.

Digging in to the Stats

To some extent, this variation may simply be BABIP related. Over his three full seasons, 2007-09, Drew's batting average has been consistently between 27 and 31 points below his BABIP - it's just that the latter has ranged from .267 to .322. His line-drive rate has been consistent, between 19-22% his entire career, and is there again this year - when Fangraphs adjusted his numbers for a more consistent BABIP, the results were a great deal more even. however, his BABIP is even higher so far in 2010 (.354). Given Drew's career average is .307, I'd expect that to regress, and take his batting average with it, probably to somewhere around the .280 mark.

Looking at the rest of his numbers, there isn't an enormous amount else to point at, as far as the reasons for his success this season. For instance, his plate discipline numbers are almost all within a point or two of what they were last season. However, I do note that he is swinging at less first pitches: he was already well below the league-average of 27%, but this season, Drew is only taking a swing 18% of the time. Is it coincidence that Chris Young, experiencing a similar resurgence this year, is the only lower AZ batter - 15%, also a career low? [For amusement, contrast Pablo the Buffet Slayer and Jeff Francoeur, who hack at 44% and 47% of first pitches respectively]

Platoon Possibilities and Defensively Different

One of the problems with Drew is that he no longer handles left-handed pitching very well. He did at first - through 2008, he had a decent line of .268/.315/.431 against them. But in 2009, that dropped to .200/.237/.336 and the problems have continued this year, with Stephen just 5-for-30 against southpaws. Again, part of that may be bad luck - his BABIP against lefties has been .217 and .250 respectively.Given Tony Abreu's career line vs. LHP is a more healthy .268/.325/.437, that's an area which we may expect to see leveraged increasingly in the coming months by AJ Hinch.

However, it seems to most that Drew has improved his glovework. Do we have numerical evidence to back up what we appear to be seeing? Yes, though I am extremely cautious about drawing any conclusions from it: even a full season's worth of fielding data can be subject to significant random variation. That said... Drew's fielding percentage is a career-high .981. In the more advanced metrics,'s Fielding Runs Above Average has him at zero, compared to an overall negative number for his career. And Stephen is also on pace for a best-ever mark of +10, in Baseball Info Solution's Defensive Runs Saved Above Average.

To Free-agency and Beyond

Drew has two more arbitration-eligible years left with the Diamondbacks before he hits free agency, but it's notable that, unlike our other young stars e.g. Young, Justin Upton, Mark Reynolds, there has been little or no talk of a contract extension. As a Scott Boras client, this probably isn't surprising: they prefer to go to free-agency as quickly as possible, rather than signing extensions that delay the process - or, as Boras put it, allow teams to "receive premium talent for a grossly devalued cost."  Yeah: no extensions there. Drew and the Diamondbacks agreed to a one-year, $3.4 million deal before this season, and it's a number that will certainly increase in 2011 and 2012.

In November, Derrick Hall said Drew "would be too tough to replace if we ever moved him." However, the arrival of Tony Abreu, likely to be a middle-infielders of the future, makes me believe either Drew or Kelly Johnson will be deemed expendable in due course. Abreu's use at shortstop [thus far, six of his dozen starts have been there, with four at 2B and two at 3B] slightly suggest it's likely to be Drew; if that's the case, then trading him sooner rather than later might be the best way to get maximum return. That's both because the closer he gets to free-agency, the less his value, and because (as noted above), I doubt he'll keep up the current level of offensive production.

I'm not sure how I'd feel about that. I do think Drew has been under-rated in his time with Arizona, but I can't say I feel a great connection to him - I wouldn't be as sad to see him leave as, say, Chris Snyder or Conor Jackson. I would, however, miss yelling "DROOOOOOOO!" at moments both appropriate and inappropriate. We'll see what happens as things go forward, both with regard to his performance, and his future on the Diamondbacks' roster.