Auditing the 2010 Colorado Rockies: Third Base

The Rockies received below average offensive production when compared to their peers using sOPS+ at four positions (including an 82 for pitchers). Third base was not one of those positions -- Rockies third basemen hit at a 115 sOPS+ clip, 15% better than other third basemen around the league. This might be surprising to you--and no wonder, as there has been a lot written about the failures of Ian Stewart in particular written on this site and elsewhere around the internet.

Perhaps it is because our expectations for Stewart are viewed through a distorted lens. The great success of young players like Tulo, CarGo, and Ubaldo have perhaps subconsciously affected the way that we as Rockies fans view the development of young players like Stewart or Dexter Fowler (whose performance will be audited soon). Here's what I wrote a fortnight ago about Stewart's 2010 season (more detail after the jump):

What I'm trying to convey is that Stewart was essentially a league-average hitter in 2010 given his playing time (1.6 WAR in 121 games, 441 PAs), which for a 25 year old with less than three years of MLB service time is quite impressive really. Are there some warts here? Sure. Stewart's strikeout rate (28.5%) is still high, even though it's down 4% from 2009, he has problems making adjustments at the plate, and his perceived lack of focus on baseball may rub many the wrong way. However, you can't ignore that Stewart has a ceiling of much greater than a league-average player. He's still got star potential. Maybe that's why people have been so hard on him. The fact remains that the Rockies aren't going to acquire a better third baseman in free agency than Ian Stewart.

...

League-average production as a floor (and really, that's what I view Ian Stewart's 2010 season as) shows that there is a lot of room for improvement for Rockies third basemen next year as Stewart enters his prime. I say let him play every day and see if he can take advantage of the opportunity.

 Stewart has his faults, sure (perceived and otherwise), but he remains a promising young player with huge potential offensively.

Now that I've written all that about Stewart, I should probably mention that as a third baseman Melvin Mora outperformed the younger player, posting a 117 sOPS+ at 3B compared to Stewart's 111. In terms of weighted runs above average (explained here), Mora also bested Stewart, 3.1 to 1.3. Obviously this is a far cry from CarGo and Tulo's offensive excellence, but the 3B platoon at least kept their heads above water.

Keeping that fact in mind, let's begin the 3B audit in earnest. For those of you who missed it, here is the premise and methodology of this series.

Third Base

Expectations

As I alluded to above,  the expectations of most people this year for Ian Stewart were very high, as he was coming off of a 25 HR season as a 24 year old in his first full season as a starter in MLB, with some (myself included) projecting a breakout year of well over 3 WAR for him in 2010 (from 1.1 in 2009). There was hope that in 2010 Stewart would become the middle of the order force that he had shown glimpses of, but had not yet consistently proved he could be.

Meanwhile, some raised valid concerns about Stewart's approach at the plate (and lack of ability or desire to adjust it), which had led to a sky-high 32.5% K rate, and his low batting average (.228) while others railed against Stewart's perceived lack of commitment to his job.

Given this confluence of high expectations and grave concerns, Stewart was one of, if the not the player about which the Purple Row community disagreed the most.

As for Melvin Mora, he was an afterthought for many of us, having been signed to a one year deal as a 38 year-old veteran free agent to be the Rockies' utility infielder. In fact, most of us thought he'd be playing quite a bit of second rather than third, as Stewart had been penciled in as the top guy there. Few had any real expectations of Mora coming into 2010.

Results

Stewart came out of the gates looking like the breakout player many predicted he would be, hitting .293/.386/.520 (.386 wOBA, 135 wRC+, 145 sOPS+), but he cooled off in May (95 sOPS+) and was pretty awful in June (62). However, after that rough patch Stewart rebounded to have his strongest month of the year in July, hitting  .278/.373/.597 (.412 wOBA, 153 wRC+, 160 sOPS+) with 6 HR and 17 RBI in 83 PAs. He followed this up with a strong August (127 sOPS+) but was out most of September because of an oblique injury.

So basically, of Stewart's five healthy months in 2010, he had three that were well above average, one slightly below average, and one awful month. This graded out to a 114 sOPS+ overall (114 first half, 111 second). Unlike many Rockies, Stewart was actually better on the road (125 sOPS+) than at home (103) and was decent against both RHP (115) and LHP (102). Stewart's splits against lefties in particular point towards him being able to handle the workload of an every day starter, not just as the heavy side of a platoon.

Compared to 2009, Stewart improved several aspects of his game at the expense of slugging (decrease from .464 to .443). He improved his K rate (decreasing it by 4% to 28.5%), batting average (.256 up from .228), and OBP (.338 up from .322). His BABIP increased from .270 to .308, likely due to his encouraging increase in line drive rate (up significantly from 14% to 22%).

In terms of plate discipline vs. 2009, Stewart swung at more pitches (47% up from 42.2%), especially those out of the strike zone (30% up from 21%) but also made contact a higher % of the time on out of zone pitches (57.5% up from 49.4%). Overall his contact % rose from 71.9% to 74.3%.

Overall, Stewart's slightly negative defensive value per UZR (-2.5) and the aforementioned awful June kept Stewart from producing the WAR totals that had been projected for him. He finished with only 1.6 on the year, which given his playing time is league average production. His final line was .256/.338/.443 (.337 wOBA, 102 wRC+, 115 sOPS+) with 18 HR and 61 RBI.

Mora spent most of the first part of the season jumping from position to position, playing poor defense pretty much whereever he went (he finished with a -9.8 UZR). In part-time duty (which means small sample sizes and wild fluctuations of monthly data), Mora posted sOPS+ numbers of 120 in Mar/Apr, 31 in May, and 87 in June when he got a little more playing time due to Stewart's struggles. Mora's first half sOPS+ was a mediocre 91, but he improved upon this with more playing time in the second half.

You see, Mora's relative success compared to Stewart in June had convinced Tracy to start platooning him more, earning Mora consistent playing time (and consistent offensive success) in July (.339/.418/.492, .398 wOBA, 143 wRC+, 148 sOPS+) and August (114 sOPS+). With Stewart on the DL in September, Mora became the every day third baseman and turned in a .312/.340/.495 (.362 wOBA, 119 wRC+, 134 sOPS+) month with 3 HR and 17 RBI in 98 PAs. In the second half Mora became an excellent offensive player, compiling a sOPS+ of 134 to finish the year.

Mora finished with a line of .285/.358/.421 (.344 wOBA, 107 wRC+, 115 sOPS+) with 7 HR and 45 RBI in 354 PAs. He was better at home on the year (125 sOPS+) but he was also above average on the road (105). Additionally, Mora was good against both RHP (115 sOPS+) and LHP (117). Unfortunately, Mora's impressive offensive campaign (his 3.1 wRAA was fourth on the team) was counterbalanced by his bad defense (-6.4 of his -9.8 total came at third). As a result, the veteran finished with only 0.5 WAR on the year.

Analysis

As I stated above the jump, I believe that this season represents Ian Stewart's productive floor. If he had stayed healthy and had been given more opportunities against LHP, he might have finished with even better numbers. He's still a young guy (he'll be 26 in 2011) and he still has the potential to be a star for the Rockies as he enters his physical peak years. He should be the everyday starter going forward in 2011 -- in the case of the hot corner, it's better to just hope for a step forward from Stewart (which I deem likely) than to play the free agency game.

As for Mora, I'd love for the Rockies to bring him back (and I certainly thank him for his play this year), but not in a role in which he'll be getting 350+ PAs as a 39 year-old. In other words, he's a great right-handed corner utility option (on offense, not defense) and veteran presence but he's not someone I'd deem as starter material at this stage in his career. Odds are that some team will offer Mora a bigger role than he'd be getting with Colorado. Therefore, he's probably going to leave in the offseason.

Next Up...Shortstop

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