The Rockies were up 3-0 in the third inning of their game against the Dodgers Sunday afternoon when L.A. pitcher Rubby de la Rosa reached on an infield single. Jamey Carroll followed with a bounding ball two steps to the left of third baseman Ty Wigginton - a picture-perfect double-play ball, with Wigginton's momentum already moving him toward second base.
And then the ball clanged off his glove. Everyone was safe. After a bunt and a strikeout, it looked like Ubaldo Jimenez would get out of it anyway, but then he walked Matt Kemp, the hottest hitter in baseball, and James Loney hit the first pitch he saw for a grand slam. Dodgers lead, 4-3, and although the Rockies made a charge at the end, they'd never catch up, and ended up losing 10-8.
Whenever bad stuff has happened to the Rockies this season, Ty Wigginton has been in the middle of it. The turning point to the season, to my mind, came on Saturday, May 14, against the Padres. The Rockies had cooled off since their hot start, but they went into that game in a virtual tie for first with the Giants, and got out to a 7-1 lead at home, with Joulys Chacin rolling along. Then came a couple of walks, Chacin botted a grounder, and Wigginton flubbed a simple little bouncer. Before long the Padres had come all the way back, the Rockies fell out of first, and they have never been back.
Make no mistake: Wigginton botches the un-clutch plays as well. He's a dreadful third baseman. According to Baseball-reference.com, Wigginton has been worse than replacement level in the field every year since 2004. He played for the Orioles last year, and the Orioles are a bad team, but even they had the sense to move him off third base last year.
But he makes up for it with his bat, right? No. Wigginton shows a little bit of power, but he has a mediocre batting average and never walks, so his on-base percentages are quite poor. He hasn't had an OBP above .320 since 2008. This year, he's at .310 Last year, by comparison, Ian Stewart's OBP was .338.
Ah, Ian Stewart: There's the rub, isn't it? As hitters, Stewart and Wigginton are pretty similar; Stewart has a lower batting average, but he walks more, so he's on base more often. Their power numbers are about the same. Defensively, Stewart is far superior. Then you have to consider that Stewart is 26, an age when most players are just entering their prime; Wigginton is 33, a journeyman on the downside of his career.
So you have another player who hits as well as your starter, fields much better, and has a much greater chance to improve his game - and you stash him in AAA. Why? Well, Stewart got off to that famous slump this year, after he was hurt in spring training, and his numbers are pretty ugly for the 2011 season. Then again, he did what the club asked, he went down to AAA and hit the snot out of the ball, earning a return trip to the majors.
On his second tour of duty with the Rox this year, do you know how many plate appearances he got before Jim Tracy decided Stewart wasn't any good after all? Twenty-four. He got six starts at third base before he was discreetly disposed of like an old tissue. Twenty-four times at bat was enough to throw a young slugger with the potential to hit 40 homers into the trash, for a guy the Orioles didn't even want.