In the dying throes of a largely forgettable 2018 Detroit Tigers season, Christin Stewart’s September call-up was a welcome breath of fresh air. At long last, after three consecutive years of earning the honor of being the Tigers’ minor league player of the year, the faithful fan base was going to get their first look at the player they had heard so much about.
He didn’t disappoint.
The sample size is quite small, but it’s hard not to like what Stewart showed in his 72 plate appearances for the Tigers: a slash line of .267/.375/.417 with two home runs and 10 RBIs, as well as a .150 isolated power average (ISO) and a .348 weighted on-base average (wOBA). He drew 10 walks (13.9% BB rate) against 13 strikeouts (18.1% K rate) while showing a very mature approach at the plate during his “cup of coffee” period.
The same cannot be said of Stewart’s defensive abilities, however. As he came through the Tigers’ minor league system it was evident that he was not going to be a player known for his performance in the outfield. A simple eye test during his time in Detroit saw him making awkward plays on fly balls to left field and the bouncing of many throws, including routine tosses to the cut-off man. His -4 defensive runs saved rating (DRS) in just 130 innings in left field, as well as his -4.2 outfield arm runs above average (ARM) and -31.8 ultimate zone rating per 150 defensive games (UZR/150) only served as further confirmation of this.
Fielding prowess notwithstanding, Stewart’s keen eye and ability to hit for power make him one the first young bats that this Tigers lineup desperately needs.
The big question: How will he handle a full season at the MLB level?
There’s no doubt that Stewart will be the left fielder who comes north to Detroit to begin the 2019 season. His scorching spring training numbers are making sure of that. While he looked more than comfortable last September, he was also something of an unknown quantity. Opposing pitchers have a lot more data to go on nowadays, even for players just on the scene, but there’s still often an advantage in that unfamiliarity.
2019 will be different. There are ways to gauge where Stewart’s weaknesses lie. FanGraphs’ Pitch Values show that he, like other younger hitters, struggled against breaking pitches last season. In particular, the sinker (-3.43 runs above average per 100 pitches), cut fastball (-2.31 runs above average/100), and curveball (-2.88 runs above average per 100) were problem spots. This is information that opposing pitchers will exploit to keep him at bay. It would be prudent to assume that Stewart will see far more off-speed pitches during the coming season in attempts to keep his damage to a minimum. And it will be up to Stewart to make the necessary adjustments in his approach at the plate to keep these kinds of pitches from getting him down.
There’s no reason to think that Stewart won’t make those adjustments as he acclimates to the full major league experience. As he’s advanced through the Tigers’ farm system his ability to hit for power and draw walks, as well as high strikeout numbers, have been remarkably consistent. The adjustment period may be a bit longer in 2019, as Stewart’s major league pitching opposition will be more talented and equipped with more crafty stuff than most arms he’s faced to this point in his career. But Stewart is a well-seasoned hitter for a guy who still has his rookie eligibility. If his trends of consistency are any indicator, then it’s quite possible that the ride won’t be a rocky one.
Projections for Stewart are about what you’d expect: mediocre batting average with higher on-base and power numbers. FanGraphs’ ZiPS projection, for one, projects a .232/.314/.428 line from him in 135 games to go with a .196 ISO (23 HR, 23 doubles, 76 RBIs) and a 9.7% walk rate against a 26.6% strikeout rate. Various other projections paint prettier or uglier pictures, depending on which you prefer.
It’s possible that it won’t always be pretty, particularly in the field. There will likely be periods of adjustment and struggles. But, at the very least, Stewart will bring some serious thump to a Tigers team that is in dire need of home run power.