2012 Preview: Cubs Corner Infield

I previewed the Cubs outfield a couple of days ago with one meaningful question regarding each of DeJesus, Byrd, and Soriano. In this post, I do the same for the Cubs 2012 corner infield.

First Base: Bryan LaHair | Is Bryan LaHair a Quad-A player?

Al recently put a good story together on this, but I figured we'd use some analytical tools to determine whether or not he has shown signs of being a Quad-A player.

The skill that differentiates Quad-A players from major league players is their ability - or inability in this case - to hit breaking pitches. Quad-A players face a lot of bad breaking pitches in the minors, and tend to lay off these in favor of fastballs. However, once they come up to the majors, they begin facing breaking pitches that are much better than the Triple-A pitches they have been accustomed to, and have trouble hitting them.

If we look at LaHair's Pitch f/x Pitch Values, we see that he hits fastballs really well, (5.00 wFA/C), but that he struggles mightily against curveballs, (-2.64 wCU/C), and changeups, (-2.06 wCH/C).* To put this into context, I looked at two other players who recently reached the majors - Starlin Castro and Matt LaPorta. We know how good Starlin has been - he's clearly not a Quad-A player. LaPorta on the other hand looks like a classic Quad-A player as he doesn't hit curveballs or changeups well. Here are their 2011 Pitch f/x Pitch Values:

As we can see, both LaHair and LaPorta struggle against breaking and off-speed pitches, while on the whole, Castro has shown an ability to hit both breaking and off-speed pitches.

I then looked at Pitch f/x data to determine swing-and-miss rates on certain pitches. Here are their swing-and-miss rates:

As we can see, both LaHair and LaPorta swing-and-miss at a very high percentage of curveballs and changeups. While Castro swings-and-misses at a high percentage of curveballs, he makes up for this by making strong contact on the curveballs that he does hit, as evidenced by his 1.54 wCU/C. Unfortunately, we can't say the same thing for LaHair or LaPorta. They not only have negative pitch values on breaking and off-speed pitches, but they also have very high swing-and-miss rates. In other words, even when they do end up making contact, they end up hitting them poorly, (or at least not well enough to make up for their high swing-and-miss rates).

Finally, I looked at LaHair's Pitch f/x swinging strikes charts.

As we can see, there are a lot of squares, (curveballs), and diamonds, (changeups). 17 of LaHair's 32 swings-and-misses came on the curveball and changeup. He was thrown one of these two breaking pitches 25.9% of the time. In other words, 53.1% of his swings-and-misses came on 25.9% of the pitches thrown; another indication that LaHair has trouble with major league breaking pitches.

Each of the three analytical tools that I've used shows us that LaHair struggles with major league breaking pitches, suggesting that he could be a Quad-A hitter. However, there are two things that give us some hope: (i) not only does he make contact on sliders, (something LaPorta doesn't do well), but he hits sliders well, (0.78 wSL/C), and (ii) we're looking at a very small sample size as LaHair only had 69 plate appearances last year. And if this isn't enough hope for you, Bryan did say that he's "probably in the best shape of [his] life."

Third Base: Ian Stewart | What was wrong with Stewart in 2011?

Stewart's 2011 was horrendous, plain and simple. There are some numbers that point to a potential bounce back - especially a career low .224 BABIP. Furthermore, Stewart has had an above average walk rate each year he's been in the majors, and an above average ISO in three of the four years. However, I dived into some Pitch f/x numbers and found some glaring issues. Here are Stewart's career Pitch f/x Pitch Values:

In the past, Stewart has clearly had some issues hitting curveballs and changeups, which made me wonder if he could be another potential Quad-A player. However, Quad-A players don't typically have 25-home run seasons, even those who are lucky enough to call Coors Field their home, (although, in 2009, Stewart only hit 13 of his 25 home runs at home). I took a quick look at his HR%, and, as we can see from below, it's been significantly higher than the league average, (3.42 HR%), in every year except 2011.

Getting back to his pitch values, we can see that while Stewart has struggled with breaking and off-speed pitches in his career, he was well above average against the changeup in 2008, only slightly below average against the changeup in 2009, and above average against the curveball in 2010. In other words, in each of his first three years, Stewart only really struggled with one of the three breaking and off-speed pitches. However, this trend didn't continue in 2011 - he was well below average against the slider and changeup, and below average against the curveball. In fact, Stewart was even below average on the pitch that he made his living off of during his first three years in the league: the fastball. No longer could his production against fastballs make up for his lack of production against breaking and off-speed pitches. I then took a look at Stewart's swing-and-miss rates:

Stewart has always had high swing-and-miss rates on sliders, curveballs, and changeups. In the past, despite his high swing-and-miss rates, he managed to be a productive hitter because of his ability to hit pitches well when he made contact. His high swing-and-miss rates finally caught up to him this past year; because of his negative pitch values, we can infer that even when he managed to make contact, his contact wasn't strong enough to be productive, and he was consequently one of the worst hitters in the majors.

While we can hope that Stewart's struggles were a result of his injuries and lack of consistent playing time, there are some warning signs that his issues may be too large to overcome with just good health and playing time. Here's to hoping that I'm wrong.

As always, let me know what you guys think. Time permitting - I'll be busy with exams over the next couple of weeks - my next post will focus on our pitchers. If you have any suggestions for questions you'd like me to answer about our rotation or bullpen, then please let me know in the comments.


* Here's a short primer on pitch values.

Thanks to FanGraphs for Pitch f/x Pitch Values data.

Thanks to Joe Lefkowitz for his Pitch f/x data.

This is a FanPost and does not necessarily reflect the views of SB Nation or Al Yellon, managing editor (unless it's a FanPost posted by Al). FanPost opinions are valued expressions of opinion by passionate and knowledgeable baseball fans.

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