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« Brewers Sign A-Ram | Main | Cahill and K's »

Can Stewart, Colvin Solve Soft Stuff?

The Cubs and Rockies completed a four-player challenge trade this past Thursday, as Chicago picked up third baseman Ian Stewart and Casey Weathers while Colorado acquired outfielder Tyler Colvin and infielder DJ LeMahieu.

Weathers, the eighth overall pick in the '07 draft, has walked over seven batters per nine innings in the minors and walked over a batter per inning in his first season back from Tommy John surgery. LeMahieu has good contact ability, if little power, and can man second or third base. But this move may ultimately boil down to a challenge trade of failed first-round position player prospects who haven't been able to solve soft stuff -- curveballs, sliders and changeups -- at the major league level.

Stewart (taken 10th overall in 2003) peaked at #4 on Baseball America's top 100 list prior to the 2005 season, ranked in the top 50 each of the next three years and performed decently with the Rockies as a rookie in 2008. He never built upon that decent start, though, and now holds a .236/.323/.428 career line in over 1,400 plate appearances. Adjusting for Coors, his on-base plus slugging percentage is 11 percent below average (89 OPS+). Colvin, meanwhile, was considered an overdraft at #13 in 2006 as the Cubs wanted to save cash to persuade Jeff Samardzija to give up football. Colvin did rate as high as #75 on BA's prospect list before 2008 and ran into 20 balls in 2010 before a bat impaled his chest, but he also bombed in 2011 and has a .215/.274/.422 triple-slash and an 84 OPS+ in 600+ PA.

In both cases, these prospects-turned-suspects haven't been able to handle breaking and off-speed stuff. Despite taking lots of cuts at Coors, Stewart's .211/.266/.371 performance against curveballs, sliders and changeups is worse than the .235/.278/.371 MLB average for non-pitchers since 2008. Colvin has been downright awful against soft stuff, with a .189/.218/.375 line.

Stewart hasn't been a total hacker against soft stuff, with a 35 percent chase rate that's pretty close to the 33 percent MLB average, but contact has been a problem. He has swung and missed 35 percent of the time against sliders, curves and a changeups, compared to the 28-29% average. Check out his contact rate by pitch location versus soft stuff, compared to the league average. Unless the pitch is right down Broadway, he's whiffing often:

Stewart's contact rate vs. soft stuff by pitch location, 2008-2011

Average contact rate vs. soft stuff by pitch location, 2008-2011

Colvin has whiffed even more against soft pitches -- 37 percent from 2009 to 2011. While Stewart at least shows about average strike zone discipline against breaking and offspeed pitches, Colvin is like a sugar-crazed kid trying to crack open a piñata. Here's his swing rate by pitch location vs. soft stuff, and then the league average:

Colvin's swing rate vs. soft stuff by pitch location, 2009-2011Average swing rate vs. soft stuff by pitch location, 2009-2011Colivn has chased 49 percent of soft pitches thrown outside of the strike zone. The only hitters to go fishing more often since 2009 are Humberto Quintero, Pablo Sandoval, Vladimir Guerrero and Dewayne Wise.  Wisely, pitchers rarely throw Colvin soft stuff over the plate: opponents have tossed a slider, curve or changeup in the zone just 39 percent of the time, way below the 45 percent average.

Stewart, 27 in April, seems to have a clearer path to playing time and possible redemption than Colvin. He'll likely get the 2012 season to show he can improve his performance against slower offerings and offer enough bat to complement his quality defense at third base. Aramis Ramirez is gone, and prospect Josh Vitters has his own strike-zone issues to hash out before he's ready for the show. Colvin, also 27, gets to swing a mile above sea level, but the Rockies have Carlos Gonzalez, Dexter Fowler, Seth Smith, non-tender candidate Ryan Spilborghs and prospects Charlie Blackmon and Tim Wheeler in the mix as well. If either player is to make good on his former promise, he'll have to make huge strides against the soft stuff.

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