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Breakout candidate: Ian Stewart

In 2008, Ian Stewart posted a .259/.349/.455 line with ten homers in 266 at bats. However, Stewart also struck out in 35% of his at bats. His .259 batting average was inflated by a .362 BABIP – yes, he hit line drives on 25% of his balls in play, suggesting that his BABIP was not abnormally high, but that line-drive percentage was well out of line with line-drive percentages that he had put up throughout his career, and there’s no reason to think that it (or the high BABIP) will continue next season. Thus, it would follow that Stewart’s batting average should fall.

But no so fast. Stewart struck out a LOT this year – in fact, only five players with at least 200 plate appearances struck out more often. However, Stewart’s plate discipline from this year, as well as his minor league track record, both suggest that he will not continue to strike out as often in the future.

In triple-A this year, Stewart struck out in 25.7% of his at bats. Last year in triple-A he struck out in 22.2% of his at bats. In fact, throughout his minor league career Stewart struck out in 23.6% of his at bats, despite being young for his level most of the time.

Of course, it’s more difficult to hit in the majors than in the minors. That being said, Stewart’s plate discipline numbers also suggest that his strikeout rate will come down in the future.

Stewart only swung at 28.5% of pitches out of the strike zone – right at major league average in 2008. Even more telling, however, is his contact percentage. Stewart made contact with 71.3% of the pitches he swung at – a low number, yes, but higher than other players with similar strikeout rates. For example, Mark Reynolds, Jack Cust, and Ryan Howard made contact with 62.3%, 65.1%, and 66.5% of the pitches they swung at, respectively.

Furthermore, Stewart is only 23 years old. Yes, he will probably strike out a lot in the future, but he is quite unlikely to strike out in 35% of his at bats, as he did this year. Therefore, even if his BABIP falls next year (which it probably will), his batting average may not fall if he indeed strikes out less often.

Stewart also hit a high proportion of fly balls this year, both in the majors and the minors. However, last year more than half of his balls in play were grounders. If Stewart can maintain his high amount of fly balls, Coors Field will allow him to hit a lot of homers. If he reverts to his groundballing ways, his power will suffer.

While Stewart is raw and rather risky, he has a lot of upside, especially given the fact that he plays for Colorado and will qualify at third base. If he can cut is strikeout rate, his batting average won’t fall too much even after his BABIP falls, and if Stewart can continue to hit lots of fly balls he could produce excellent power numbers.