- Buster Olney, Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
Ian Stewart, as a hitter, has been like the guy in Algebra class who knew the answers without working through the equations. Stewart got to where he needed to get to, and became one of the top power-hitting prospects in baseball.
But what Stewart has found in recent seasons is that when there's been a problem -- when he's been in a slump -- he hasn't known how to dig himself out. He didn't have the understanding of the mechanical equation so it was always hard to know why and how he had gone wrong. "I didn't know myself as a hitter," Stewart said.
He has gone to great lengths in recent months to fill in that information gap, and this should help him make adjustments pitch to pitch, at-bat to at-bat, game to game. "You kind of become a hitting coach yourself," Stewart said. "If you can kind of self-diagnose throughout the game, you can adjust."
Spring training is just an imperfect snapshot, but they are the first results that Stewart has since he started with his new approach to hitting, and so far, so good: Stewart is hitting .347, with a .385 on-base percentage, this spring. But the most interesting barometer on Stewart right now might be his strikeout total: he's got just five in 49 at-bats, a greatly improved ratio over last season, when the third baseman had 138 strikeouts in 425 at-bats.
During the offseason, Stewart's agent, Larry Reynolds, arranged for a get-together between Stewart and Rockies hitting coach Don Baylor, and the hitter and coach talked about Stewart's understanding of his own swing. In the past, when Stewart struggled, his instinct was to try harder, to swing harder -- and the effect was actually to slow down Stewart's swing, make it longer, and make him more vulnerable.
So Stewart has shortened his swing this spring -- and he also has developed a keener feel of the mechanics involved. The other day, Stewart, a left-handed hitter, got a meaty fastball to hit on a two balls, no strikes count, and he popped a ball up to left field and knew immediately what had happened. His front shoulder in his swing -- his right shoulder -- had opened too quickly, and his bat had dragged through the zone. And in his next at-bat, Stewart was able to restore his short, compact swing again.
"I feel like I know myself as a hitter," Stewart said. "I've been ready for the season to start."
All the Rockies are, amid their own great expectations that stem from their four strong months of play last year. "We've kind of talked about how we have some momentum," Stewart said. "We were playing well at the end of last year."
Stewart is part of the Rockies' organizational roster depth that has greatly impressed the scouts and executives who have seen them this year. Here's a snapshot:
"They've got the deepest team in the National League," said one GM. "The question is going to be their bullpen."
Elsewhere, here are some concerns about the Rockies, from Renck.
• The Athletics' obstacles to moving to San Jose are myths, writes Mark Purdy.
Dings and dents
2. Cliff Lee threw with no pain, writes Steve Kelley. Without Lee, the Mariners' season-opening rotation will be Felix Hernandez, Ian Snell, Ryan Rowland-Smith, Doug Fister and Jason Vargas, Larry LaRue reports.
3. A Blue Jays starter is going to miss the next six weeks, writes Bob Elliott.
Moves, deals and decisions
1. Heard this: One GM said that this spring has seen easily the least amount of trade activity ever seen. "You aren't even hearing from the teams that have contracts to dump," said the GM.
2. Wrote recently that Target Field has the second-least amount of foul territory in the majors. A Twins executive noted that the team's new ballpark actually has the sixth-least amount of foul territory. It is expected to be a park that leans toward hitters (except on those April days when the fingers of the batters are numb).
3. Found it very interesting -- but not surprising -- that Jason Heyward was lined up in the No. 2 spot in the Braves' lineup on Wednesday. It's a natural place for him, and Yunel Escobar is a pretty good No. 6 hitter, because he usually puts the ball in play; if Chipper Jones and Troy Glaus play 130 games each, Escobar might drive in 90-95 runs hitting sixth in this lineup.
4. Jerry Manuel is under more pressure than Omar Minaya as the season starts, writes John Harper.
5. Have heard this: The Giants' players feel like they have an outstanding clubhouse mix.
6. Heard this: There is surprise among some rival talent evaluators that the Tigers chose to keep Dontrelle Willis over Nate Robertson, as they made their choice to eat money. Skepticism about whether Willis can throw strikes consistently lingers among rival scouts.
The battle for jobs
3. Tyler Colvin could push the Cubs into the future, writes David Haugh. The guy can hit left-handed, which the Cubs desperately need, and if he hits, you can bet that Lou Piniella will find a place for him to play.
4. Mike Leake could learn today whether he has made the Reds' rotation, writes John Fay.
8. Wilson Ramos was sent to the minors, Joe Christensen writes.
11. The Orioles have only one roster issue lingering, writes Dan Connolly.
14. The Padres lined up their rotation.
3. The Rays say their strong spring training performance will launch them. Have heard this over and over and over from scouts and executives: The Rays and Braves have looked like the best teams in Florida.
4. Mike Sweeney is awaiting official word that he has made the Mariners' roster. What the inclusion of Sweeney would mean, of course, is that the Mariners would basically be committed to playing Milton Bradley in left field on most days.
8. Troy Glaus is killing the ball.
• There are reasons for hope and cynicism around the D-Backs, writes Nick Piecoro.
• Jon Weber's .483 batting average is not quite good enough.
• The Tigers' farm system has become a winner, writes Lynn Henning.
• The most important guy in the Jays organization is their CEO, writes Dave Perkins.
• The Angels' offense is shifting again, writes Bill Plunkett.
• The Twins and Cardinals are a lot alike, writes Charley Walters.
• Bernie Carbo is a cleaned up hitter, writes Stan Grossfeld.
• Offense won't be a problem for the Mariners, says the Mariners' hitting coach.
Amelia Lincoln, my sister, has essentially finished Round 2 of her treatment, and is home and preparing for Round 3 in another month or two. Thanks for the many notes and thoughts.
And today will be better than yesterday.
Ian Stewart spent time this offseason learning how to diagnose his own issues, after a lifetime of just knowing he was good and hoping slumps would cure themselves. For the Rockies, the diagnosis is also clear -- the team is as deep as ever.