The Legend of Luis Valbuena and what this means for Ian Stewart

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Today was the Cactus League Opener for the Chicago Cubs.  There are a bajillion blogs out there recapping the action, but as much as I want to talk about how awesome Brett Jackson is (spring training, grain of salt, blah blah blah), I want to talk a bit about the two guys who are in direct competition for the starting third baseman job.

Ian Stewart, the oft-maligned and oft-hated third baseman who we hope doesn’t suck, had a good start to the intrasquad game on Thursday but tweaked his quad and is now out about two weeks.

That doesn’t give Stewart a lot of time really.  Two weeks (or 10 days if you’re feeling lucky) means Stewart will be back around March 6 or so.  Then it’s about 10 games’ worth of plate appearances and defensive innings for him to prove that he doesn’t suck.  Bleacher Nation had a good look at the situation in the event Stewart is cut.  We’re basically talking about a difference of $167K here depending on if Dale Sveum convinces the Cubs that they need to cut Stewart on 3/16 versus the end of spring training before they head back to Chicago (or in the case of this season, on to Pittsburgh for the season opener).

Here’s where things get tricky.  In spring training, especially in the super-early games (PARTICULARLY the Cactus League opener), pitchers are still working on stuff and the advantage may shift a bit towards the hitter in this regard.  We’re also talking about a relative launchpad environment due to the thinner air in Arizona.  So when Luis Valbuena took former Cub Jerome Williams deep today, it was really nice to see, but it doesn’t mean that they’re going to etch his name in stone on the lineup card as the starting third baseman.

We come back to Ian Stewart, who is suggested to have benefited from the Coors effect to accumulate some of his pre-wrist injury numbers.  The thing is that Stewart’s time in Colorado coincided with when the humidor depressed some of the Mile High numbers.  So we can’t really use that as an excuse.  Also, when you look at park factors in 2010, the last year that Stewart was relatively healthy and productive, you notice that Coors has the highest run environment, while the Diamondbacks (Chase Field) are #9, the Giants (AT&T) are #22, the Dodgers are at #23, and the Padres (Petco) are at #26.  Basically, three of the five parks Ian Stewart has to play in the most have poor hitter environments.

Then we can look at his splits.  This is not to say that Ian Stewart is awesome or anything, but he’s always had a good eye at the plate despite his poor batting average.  In Colorado his combined slash line was .236/.323/.428 over five seasons, including the parts where he sucked.  You can actually look at his home/away splits during the 2008, 2009 and 2010 seasons and see that Stewart was remarkably consistent both at Coors and on the road.  There’s a noticeable uptick when he’s at home, but Stewart didn’t have significantly more extra base hits at Coors.  Compare that to former Cubs legend Tyler Colvin, who spent 2012 as a Rockie, and had a ridiculous home/away split.  Colvin definitely had a great season, no question about it, but those road numbers are abysmal.  Maybe the humidor ended up breaking in 2012 (as somewhat implied in the Rosenthal article I linked above) but it’s very strange how consistent Stewart was (even if he did suck) while Colvin got a mega-boost.

The career line of Ian Stewart is actually better than Luis Valbuena’s line, whether as a Cub or otherwise in Luis’ case.  Even if you looked just at their 2012 stats, Valbuena was just barely better than Stewart, with less homers in more at bats though he made up for the SLG with a bunch of well-timed doubles.  While Dale Sveum was strong with his language about Ian Stewart having to win the job, and imposed a soft deadline for him to show some progress, there’s very little chance that he will actually be cut, especially if the quad injury is getting better as quickly as Ian himself said it was (see Muskat’s article). And Luis Valbuena won’t get a super-boost just because he hit one home run in the spring opener.

Decisions are not usually made based on a handful of spring training plate appearances.  The Cubs front office has a good idea who has a higher upside at 3B.  Sveum’s words are most likely done as a not-so-subtle way to motivate the players, but in the end, the front office knows what each guy has done in the past, and which guy is more likely to be more productive going forward.  That doesn’t mean, however, that one or the other is definitely going to start or definitely going to be cut.  Stranger things have happened, but I’m inclined to think that the Cubs are going to choose the guy who flashed a bunch of power and above average on-base skills before he hurt his wrist.  Just a hunch though.

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