Less than six years ago, Ian Stewart was rated as MLB's #4 overall prospect by Baseball America, trailing just Joe Mauer, Felix Hernandez and Delmon Young. Rockies fans thought they had a franchise type slugging third baseman, capable of depositing dozens of home runs in Coors Field's upper deck. The Rockies thought so highly of Stewart that a year later, they passed on Evan Longoria in favor of Greg Reynolds. Yeah.
It goes without saying that Stewart has not lived up to that top billing. In MLB Network's list of MLB's top ten third basemen this week, Stewart was omitted, passed over in favor of Placido Polanco, Casey McGehee, the aging Scott Rolen and the recently jettisoned Mark Reynolds. That is not how it was supposed to be.
After 384 games, Stewart has just a .245 average and .332 on base percentage in his career, decidedly below average for a hitter who hits at Coors Field. In 2010, he managed a wRC+ of 98, a notch below MLB average. His 1.6 fWAR ranked 21st among MLB hitters who played third base.
While that is far from our hopes of years past, it is also far from a deadweight in the lineup. Some fans have taken the disappointment in his career arc too far, proclaiming his performance to require immediate removal. Make no mistake: Ian Stewart is not the NL version of Brandon Wood. He should not be immediately replaced by Joe Crede. Not in 2010 anyway.
|2010 - Ian Stewart||121||386||54||99||14||2||18||61||45||110||5||2||.256||.338||.443|
But with declining production at first base, the Rockies need Ian Stewart to take that step forward in production he has teased us with for three seasons. At just 25 years of age, he certainly could have untapped potential. Dan Lucero looked into Ian Stewart as a breakout candidate two weeks ago. If that sounds familiar, it is because it is. Stewart has been the vogue pick for a breakout player before. Say, in 2010. Also, back in 2009. And yes, even in 2008.
Will 2011 finally be the year Stewart breaks out of his shell and reaches the Tulo-level he was one thought of reaching? Due to Garrett Atkins and injury, he has never even logged enough at bats in a season to qualify for the batting title (502), so it is tough to know what a full season of Stewart means.
His potential to fulfill that role means Stewart represents the biggest key to the Rockies 2011 season. If he blossoms into that fearsome 5-hole hitter, the Rockies should make the playoffs. If he languishes as a fringe starter as he has so far in his career, the Rockies' lineup will be missing a lot of production behind Troy Tulowitzki. Given the wide window of possibilities Stewart gives to the Rockies, he deserves the closest look of the offseason. So today, tomorrow, and Friday, I will indefatigably scrutinize every last aspect of Ian Stewart's offensive game.
When looking for reasons young players don't live up to their elite prospect billing, fans immediately point to work ethic as a primary reason. It's quick. It's easy. Never mind that scouting prospects is a very inexact science (check the 2005 top 100 prospect list again). Given Stewart's laid back nature and California background, he is a prime candidate to be prematurely and ignorantly cast as a lazy player. The comments on Purple Row are plentiful to that effect, and Googling "Ian Stewart work ethic" yields several questioning articles/blogs/comments/tirades.
Fans don't need excuses to come to rapid conclusions based off of snapshot observations (it comes so naturally as is), so it is a shame Ian Stewart has expanded that potential blame window with his twitter account. Few Rockies actively manage a twitter account, a truly revolutionary media for fan interaction with players. Stewart utilizes his account for fan interaction as much as any player in MLB, but that use has given credence to preconceived notions of laziness.
He has been chastised for reaching out to fans to play Call of Duty with them late at night. Last month, he told Rockies fans to meet him at a specific Smash Burger. Criticisms flow each time he mentions excitement for a lavish dinner after a game. Frankly, it isn't fair. Do we think that Troy Tulowitzki doesn't enjoy dinner and is actually crying over an organic chicken and spinach salad after a tough game? Or that Tulo goes to sleep by ten each night if he's not at the batting cage, talking to military veterans or curing Somalian puppies from osteogenis imperfecta?
Rockies fans are fortunate to have a player so accessible to them, one that allows fans to see him for his personality and humanity rather than a perfect hero. While Stewart would do better in his situation to include more commentary on his game, it is incredibly premature (and convenient) to jump from simple fan interaction to career-crippling laziness.
For the record, Stewart is showing up to spring training a week early. He has indeed tweeted about his game, in case you have missed it.
Could Stewart be a more motivated player like Troy Tulowitzki? Probably so. Would he push harder and have better results if he grew up on a Midwestern hog farm instead of in California? I suppose it is possible, but who can really know? Is it work ethic that is causing his disappointing MLB career? The only thing we can say for sure is...we cannot know that for sure.
What I do know is that I am not satisfied with blaming Stewart's downfalls on a perceived lack of work ethic. Let us scrutinize his game further to see if he has legitimate on-field areas to improve.
When Ian Stewart avoided arbitration with his one-year contract a couple weeks ago, Aaron Gleeman wrote this:
He's yet to build on a strong rookie campaign in 2007, posting an OPS below .800 in each of the past two seasons, and has hit just .239 away from Coors Field.
The end of that sentence stuck out to me. It has become a default phrase to offer home/road splits as a weakness for Rockies' hitters. It seems from what Gleeman wrote, that is exactly what he is doing; yet Gleeman could not be more wrong. Road hitting is not a weakness of Ian Kenneth Stewart. Not at all.
The fact is the surprising revelation that Ian Stewart is the Rockies' most consistent hitter when moving from Coors Field to the road, quite counterintuitive for a young power hitter. Stewart actually had a better line away from Coors in 2010:
Considering the substantial boost Coors Field gives to hitters, Stewart truly does hit demonstrably better away from home. It wasn't just 2010 either. Since first getting consistent playing time in 2009, his splits hardly exist:
What does this mean? Is Stewart a very average hitter with an above average ability to adapt outside of Coors Field? Is it random noise? I honestly do not know. I am intrigued to see how these splits develop in larger samples. There is a more intriguing third possibility.
What if Stewart's home/road splits are not due to an unnatural positive ability to battle the Reverse Coors Effect? What if, instead, it is a result of an unnatural inability to take advantage of Coors Field?
|2010 Road Split||HR||RBI||BA||OBP||SLG||OPS||BAbip|
Carlos Gonzalez had the benefit of a much higher BABIP on the road than Ian Stewart, yet Stewart was still (slightly) a more dangerous hitter away from Coors Field than CarGo. The entire difference between Carlos Gonzalez (MVP second-runner-up) and Ian Stewart (extremely disappointing slugger) came in their at-bats at Coors Field. Perhaps Stewart has the capacity to make some of that up by unlocking the otherwise very public secret to hitting at Coors Field.
Food for thought.
Batted Ball Profile
One might be tempted to tag Stewart with a label as a high strikeout high flyball hitter. While that first label is and likely always will be true, the latter really isn't. In 2010, Stewart had a healthy 22.1% line drive rate, which is not only above average, it is better than Carlos Gonzalez. Yes, Ian Stewart hit more "lasers" in 2010 than Mr. Laser himself. Only Ryan Spilborghs and Todd Helton were better. Line drives mean hits, and yet Stewart's batting average was only league average.
In terms of luck, Stewart suffered a bit of the bad kind in 2010. That probably isn't surprising with his ho-hum statistics at Coors Field, but it should be noted his xBABIP (expected batting average on balls in play) in 2010 was .332, just seventeen points behind Mr. Carlos Gonzalez and 24 points better than his actually BABIP. If Stewart actually had that .332 BABIP, his batting average would have been .272. Combined with a very solid 15.2% HR/FB ratio, Stewart's batted ball ratios portend greater success than he has seen so far.
Ian Stewart is a power hitter with a below league average career batting average and high strikeout rate. That profile alone leads many to the conclusion that Stewart is a blind hacker, which absolutely could not be more wrong. In 2010, Stewart averaged 4.04 pitches per plate appearance, which ranked third on the team. Not only is that number well above league average (3.83P/PA), but it also exceeds the rate for MLB's most "patient" team - the Boston Red Sox (4.02 P/PA).
Think about that. An entire team made up of Ian Stewart's would see more pitches per plate appearance than any other MLB team. That certainly isn't a blind hacker.
Of course, a high P/PA can be attained simply by failing to make contact consistently. Stewart is guilty as charged here, as his contract rate would place him in the bottom ten in MLB. Such is the case for hitters whose game is built on home runs, like Stewart. But that really isn't impatience. Impatience would manifest in Swing percentage and O-Swing% (ratio of pitches outside the strike zone swung at). Stewart is very close to league average in both.
Stewart has an above MLB-average walk rate and close-to-MLB-average BB/K rate. Indeed, Ian is a very patient hitter. As you will see tomorrow, I would argue he is actually patient to a fault.