- Brendan Roberts, Fantasy
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Can Ian Stewart deliver on his promise as a full-timer?
It's just that batting average, that's all.
Let's say you were confronted with this player's 2009 season stats:
Player X: 24 years old, 25 homers in only 425 at-bats, 70 RBIs, 74 runs, seven steals, .464 slugging, qualifies at both second and third base.
You'd be salivating, right? But then toss in the fact that said 24-year-old is Ian Stewart, and he hit just .228 last season, and owners get out the red pen to strike him from their wish list. "Oh boy, no can do. I gotta have Derek Jeter or Ichiro Suzuki just to make up for that."
Fair enough; .228 is pretty bad. A poor batting-average guy can hurt you, especially in mixed leagues. But here's the thing: Ian Stewart is not a .228 hitter.
Stewart is projected to hit 25 homers with 80 RBIs, 84 runs and seven steals in 2010. Now, those first three numbers may be a bit low. If you took his number of at-bats from last season (425) and project those out to the 515 at-bats we expect him to get this season (515), the result is 30 homers, 85 RBIs, 90 runs and eight steals. And that extrapolation is based on what was Stewart's first full season in the bigs. I project him to finish with more like 31 homers, 90 RBIs, 90 runs and five to seven steals, but that is within range of our projections, which are completely reasonable. Also, his value increases because he qualifies at both second base and third base -- even though he'll be starting at third base for the Colorado Rockies -- and that is indisputable. Thus, those facets of his game are not what are up for discussion; it's the worry over his dastardly batting average. Beware, lest it cause you to underrate Ian Stewart.
Expect Stewart to hit around .275. Yes, that's a full 47 points higher than last year, but here are the reasons Stewart will improve mightily in the batting-average category, and why that .228 mark last year was an anomaly.
• He was a .293 hitter in the minors, including a .295 mark in Triple-A. Now, that doesn't automatically translate to a .290 hitter in the majors; he strikes out a bit too often achieve that kind of average. But certainly that minor league mark (in 2,297 at-bats) doesn't equate to a .228 average in the majors.
• He's only 24 years old (25 on April 5). In other words, still young in baseball terms. His best years are ahead of him, and they won't come just in the power categories. His average will increase, too.
• He's a legit prospect with a sweet swing. We're not talking a come-out-of-nowhere call-up here. We're talking about a guy who set Orange County records in high school, was a first-round pick (10th overall) out of high school in 2003 and a perennial top-50 prospect coming through the minors. It's not like he's doing anything right now, in terms of power and run production, that he wasn't expected to do. Having seen the guy play in person a handful of times, he truly is a natural athlete with very fast hands. So far he has struggled with big league breaking stuff, but he'll figure it out. The great young hitters do. It would be more of a concern if he couldn't hit the fastball. All it takes is a curveball bounced back through the middle once a week to transform him from a .228 hitter to the .270 hitter he can and will be.
• He'll hit better than .178 against lefties in 2010. Nowhere in his scouting or statistical background does it indicate that Stewart would struggle versus lefty pitchers, and until he proves otherwise by matching last season's split, do not believe that he's a sub-Mendoza Line hitter against them. As the story goes, Stewart grew up taking batting practice against his southpaw father, and he has carried that into his professional career. In 2007 at Colorado Springs, he hit southpaws at a .316 clip with a .547 slugging percentage in 117 at-bats. He has the ability to get to the .250 mark against them, and then hit righties hard enough to finish with a respectable batting average overall.
• His .270 batting average on balls in play (BABIP) in 2009 is simply way too low for a player with Stewart's decent speed, moderate ground-ball/fly-ball rate and someone who plays half his games with the most fair-territory space in the majors (more on Coors Field in a moment). For instance, in 2008, his BABIP was .362 in his 266 at-bats. His 2010 BABIP is bound to get back at least to the league average (which was .299 in 2009), taking his batting average with it.
• Stewart hit better on the road than at home in 2009. Again: Stewart hit better at such places as Busch Stadium, AT&T Park and Chase Field than at arguably the top offensive ballpark in the majors. He hit just .221 at Coors (.235 on the road). That's almost unheard of. There's a darned good reason Coors Field ranks as the most favorable hitters' park in our 2009 MLB Park Factors page in terms of both runs and batting average, and it's because that outfield is expansive, balls travel farther and pitches don't move as much because of the thin air. Overall, Coors Field yielded a .276 batting average, 14 points higher than the major league average. It's improbable that Stewart is going to hit .221 there again. Expect instead that he'll hit closer to what the Rockies hit there as a team in 2009: .287.
• He did show improvement as the season went along in 2009; his season batting average is being pulled down by a horrid .141 May average, hit while he was getting used to life as an every-day major leaguer. In the other five months, he hit .244; much more respectable. And he actually hit 12 points better, with an OBP that was 32 points better, after the All-Star break (albeit with a lower slugging percentage; not that we're concerned about his slugging). His best month, batting average-wise, was August (.260).
• Instead of bouncing around the diamond -- he started 85 games at third base, 20 at second base, three in left field and one in right field in 2009 -- Stewart will be locked in at third base in 2010. That will save the mental toll of bouncing around, not to mention the physical toll, since third base is considerably less work than a middle-infield position or an outfield position (especially at Coors Field).
Convinced yet? Look, no one is saying Stewart will lead the league in hitting, but he'll reach at least a respectable level. I'm saying .275. You heard me! And if you combine that with second-base qualification, an every-day starting job, his 30-homer potential, five to 10 steals you have a potential top-100 fantasy producer.
According to early live draft results, Stewart is being taken with the 172nd pick. Hogwash, my friends. No way should Stewart be available when Round 13 rolls around, much less Round 18.
Do yourself a favor and take him in front of Jorge Cantu and Chipper Jones at third base and Asdrubal Cabrera and Dan Uggla at second base. Value him at around the same level that .272-25-96 hitter Jose Lopez is. The only thing missing in Stewart's game is his batting average, and he'll correct that this season. Eight months from now, you'll be thinking to yourself "Hmm, maybe he could hit .290 one day after all."
Brendan Roberts is a fantasy editor and Fantasy Sports Writers Association award-winning contributor to ESPN.com.
Brendan Roberts believes Ian Stewart has the ability to be a .275 hitter as soon as this season, making him a sound sleeper.