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Entries in Chicago Cubs (33)

Sunday
Dec112011

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.

Thursday
Dec012011

Epstein, Hoyer Buy Low on DeJesus

In the first significant signing of the Theo Epstein/Jed Hoyer era in Chicago, the Cubs brought in David DeJesus on a two-year, $10 million deal with a club option for the 2014 season that could bring his total earnings to $15 million.

DeJesus is coming off a down season in Oakland (a .240 average, a .323 OBP and a .376 slugging percentage in 506 plate appearances), and the 32-year-old comes with concerns about his health and a dip in contact rate with the A's. But DeJesus gives the Cubs -- eighth in the NL team Ultimate Zone Rating and 15th in walks last year -- a rangy right fielder with decent plate discipline who allows prospect Brett Jackson to get more Triple-A at-bats.

Over the last three years, DeJesus has saved 26 runs more than an average corner outfielder, according to Fangraphs' UZR. Brett Gardner, Nyjer Morgan, Carl Crawford and Jay Bruce are the corner fly catchers to add more value on defense.  And offensively, DeJesus' average should get out of the sub-.250 doldrums. His batting average on balls in play dipped to .274 in Oakland, way below his .331 BABIP the previous three seasons. And it wasn't as though he swung at a bunch of bad pitches -- DeJesus' 24 percent chase rate was well under 28 percent league average. Excluding pitchers, the Cubs collectively went after 31 percent of pitches thrown out of the strike zone.

That's not to say DeJesus should get a complete free pass for his bad 2011, though. His strikeout rate increased from the 12-13 percent range in recent years to 17 percent. Most of that was due to a dip in contact rate against "soft" stuff -- curveballs, sliders and changeups. DeJesus missed those pitches about 20 percent of the time that he swung in recent years, but that spiked to 28 percent in 2011. Those extra whiffs came mostly on soft stuff thrown at the knees and away:

DeJesus' contact rate by pitch location vs. "soft" stuff, 2008-2010

DeJesus' contact rate by pitch location vs. "soft" stuff, 2011 

It's hard to say if there was a connection, but DeJesus did have season-ending thumb surgery in 2010. DeJesus' batted ball profile also shifted somewhat, as he hit more fly balls (38 percent) than years past (31 percent). That's not necessarily a great thing for a hitter with modest power who had to take lots of swings in the Coliseum, Safeco and Angel Stadium, though it should play better in Wrigley.

With some worries about his performance against slower stuff and possible residual effects of his thumb injury, DeJesus isn't a slam-dunk signing. But even if he's beginning his decline phase, he should provide quality D in right field and be passable at the plate (Bill James projects a .270/.350/.400-type line).

The financial commitment Epstein and Hoyer made isn't huge, and now Brett Jackson can work on making more contact at Triple-A. Jackson, 23, hit a combined .274/.379/.490 between Double-A Tennessee and Iowa last year, but he did punch out 25 percent in the Southern League and 30 percent in the PCL. With DeJesus holding down right field, Jackson gets a chance to develop further without burning a full year of service time. And when he's ready, Chicago could shop center fielder Marlon Byrd and what's left of his $6.5 million salary for the 2012 season.

Sunday
Aug142011

Dan Uggla's Hit Streak Ends

Dan Uggla's 33 game hit streak came to an end versus the Cubs today in Atlanta.  One of the interesting things that stood out during the streak was his increased contact on pitches up and away.  Over the last two and a half seasons, you can see in the graphic below that Dan Uggla made most of his contact on inside pitches. However, during his hit streak, Uggla was putting wood on a lot of balls up and away. 

Dan Uggla
(Click image to enlarge)

The zone location breakdown of the 49 hits that Uggla accumulated over the streak was 8 inside, 19 middle, and 22 outside. His added contact on those outside pitches certainly helped keep the streak alive.

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