April 15, 2008 12:21 PM
Is Ian Stewart back?
This week I want to take a closer look at the renewed hitting prowess Ian Stewart has displayed this spring. I've asked professional scouts and sources within the Rockies organization about some of the possibilities as to why Stewart would be resurging now, and whether they think it's legitimate, or just a small sample blip that will come undone as the season plays out.
One number that's helpful to look at with players that project to be middle-of-the-lineup sluggers is their isolated slugging percentage, which is simply the slugging percentage minus the batting average (usually labeled ISO). This number just gives you an idea of how much damage a player's hits typically cause. A good number for a run producer is over .200 in a neutral park. The following charts Ian Stewart's ISO's through his minor league career:
2003 Casper: .241
2004 Asheville: .275
2005 Modesto: .223
2006 Tulsa: .184
2007 Colorado Springs: .174
2008 Colorado Springs: .298 (through 4/14)
OK, given the basic over .200 rule, you'll note that there are a few good seasons there. His year in Ashevillle was spectacular even considering the hitter-friendly environment. That season, Stewart was considered one of the top prospects in all of baseball. Baseball America, for example, had him ranked the No. 4 prospect in the minors that year, behind only Felix Hernandez, Joe Mauer and Delmon Young. Most of the other seasons have been at least solid.
That said, the numbers that stick out in a bad way have been recent, a slide that started for Ian in Tulsa in 2006 dipped to a low last season at Colorado Springs. That .174 ISO looks worse when you consider that, much like Coors pre-humidor, Security Service Field boosts a player's slugging tremendously. The flat truth is that Stewart's numbers in 2007 were nowhere close to indicating major league-ready player, particularly for somebody the team envisions possibly taking the place of Garrett Atkins, one of the best run-producing third basemen in the NL. Luckily, the team didn't look at just the numbers, and it appears he could be on his way back to star potential in 2008.
Now let's look at a couple of possible reasons why:
First, wrist injuries are a big deal for sluggers, and sometimes they are slower to recover than you would expect. Adrian Gonzalez, for instance, had two teams -- the Marlins and Rangers -- give up on him fully recovering from his wrist troubles and traded him away before he finally did recover with the Padres.
So, I keep looking back to the slide into second that cut short Stewart's Arizona Fall League stint in 2005 as the downward turning point in his career. MRIs said there wasn't much damage, but the numbers showed a pretty dramatic decline from that point forward. Not until late last season did I see signs things were turning around.
Let me explain why this may have been an issue even if he never complained of further discomfort. One side effect of an injured wrist for hitters is that though the pain might completely dissipate, lingering weakness in one wrist will throw the timing of the rest of a player's swing out of whack. Stewart seems to be a classic case.
Last season, from the reports I received, Ian's little power was all being generated from the back side of his swing. Scouts I asked would mention how he kept topping out on his contact. They were saying his right wrist would break more slowly, under and behind the quicker left wrist, generating a lot more grounders than you'd want to have from a middle-of-the-lineup slugger.
The numbers bore this out. After having a groundball rate in the low 40 percent range for much of his early professional career, Stewart's groundball percentage spiked to more than 50 percent with the Sky Sox last season. This year, in a very good sign, he's back to around 42 percent thus far.
Another possible source for the turnaround is an adjusted batting stance. A couple of sources have mentioned that he seems to be closing his stance more frequently than he has in the past, although he's not consistent with this and will open up on occasion. It seems to be helping him keep the inside of the plate covered a little better and cut on his strikeouts. One thing I've noticed this spring that I believe to be related is that he's hitting left-handed pitchers with a lot more authority, including an impressive game against a rehabilitating Randy Johnson early in the season, and key home runs in major league camp while in Tucson. That's an excellent sign.
Whatever the reasons for his resurgence, the Rockies have to be breathing a collective sigh of relief with the results so far. Nearly everybody I've contacted feels that if he continues to drive through the ball, Stewart still has the talent to be a legitimate offensive threat. I've got to warn you that it's early, however, so we'll want to keep an eye on that ISO and GB rate through the season to make sure the comeback is real.
Note: The Rockies signed 17-year-old Australian outfielder David Kandilas for $150,000. According to the Sydney Morning Herald, Kandilas has the range to play center and was sought by six other MLB teams. He will play with Casper starting in 2009.
Colorado Springs: Chris Frey played both games of Sunday's truncated double-header and collected five hits in seven at-bats, raising his average to .375. He's a strong defender in center, and his bat had a bit of a surge last season in Tulsa. He doesn't project to be an everyday player but could be a capable backup for Dexter Fowler in a couple of years. Omar Quintanilla's OBP was at .595 after getting two hits and two walks in four plate appearances in one of the Sunday games. In the second game of that double-header, Jose Capellan pitched six innings of no-hit ball but couldn't get through the seventh to complete the first no-hitter ever at Security Service Field.
Tulsa: Eric Young has heated up after a slow opening weekend and has his average up to .306 through today's Drillers game. He also has five stolen bases. Also from this afternoon's game, Daniel Carte hit his fourth home run, and the Drillers won 11-5. Unfortunately, Brandon Hynick's ERA is now 10.18 after allowing all five of those runs in three innings.
Modesto: Hector Gomez had been scheduled to come back last week, but a slow recovery and continued pain in the leg when he tried to plant it have led the Rockies to send him to the DL and back to Tucson to recover. Daniel Mayora continues to struggle with the California League after being a bit of a surprise the last couple of years. Modesto pitchers had a 26-scoreless-inning streak last week, led by a pair of excellent starts from Esmil Rogers and Aneury Rodriguez. Both have been mortal thus far this week. Mike McKenry had a huge night at the plate in the Nuts' 9-5 win yesterday. He went 4-for-5 with two doubles, a home run and six RBI.
Asheville: Capellan wasn't the only Rockies farmhand to flirt with a no-hitter this week. Jhoulys Chacin had a perfect game through five innings and wound up pitching eight in a shutout of Kannapolis last Tuesday. He returned to the mound last night, but didn't fare so well in the 3-2 loss. He still looks to be a very promising prospect. Brian Rike has now hit safely in nine straight games and leads the team with a .319 batting average. He leads his league with four home runs.