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Tigers 2020 player preview: Christin Stewart needs to hit the ball harder this season

Stewart’s underlying numbers weren’t bad in 2019, but he didn’t make enough hard contact.

MLB: Spring Training-New York Yankees at Detroit Tigers John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

The 2019 season was a disappointing one for the Detroit Tigers, full stop. The major league team lost 114 games, and generally looked lethargic for large stretches of the season. They scored 582 runs, the lowest total in baseball, and their 149 home runs were last in the American League.

There is plenty of blame to share for how bad the Tigers were, but I would argue that no Tigers player was more disappointing than outfielder Christin Stewart. The former compensation round pick (No. 34 overall in the 2015 draft) arrived in September 2018 after hitting homers in bunches in the minor leagues, and showed promise, with a .792 OPS in 17 games. He displayed a patient approach in those 72 plate appearances, drawing 10 walks, and showed off his impressive raw power in spurts. While not an elite prospect, Stewart was supposed to provide the Tigers offense with some solid middle-of-the-order power and production.

That didn’t happen. Stewart showed off a little pop, with 10 home runs in 416 plate appearances, but otherwise struggled; his .233/.305/.388 performance at the plate was good for just an 80 wRC+, and his subpar defense (-8.3 UZR) led to -1.2 fWAR in all. Baseball Reference, while slightly more optimistic about his defense (-0.6 dWAR), still considered him below replacement level.

Stewart was never projected to be an elite, or even above-average defender in left field, and the numbers bore that out. Defensive Runs Saved thought he was only slightly below average (-2 DRS), while Ultimate Zone Rating and other metrics were a little more harsh; among the 71 outfielders who logged at least 750 defensive innings last year, Stewart’s -12.2 UZR/150 was second-worst.

The real disappointment came at the plate, though. Stewart’s poor offensive numbers were a surprise, though not entirely unexpected. He showed some swing and miss at times in the minor leagues, striking out close to 25 percent of the time in full seasons at both Double- and Triple-A. And while batting average isn’t everything, Stewart didn’t hit above .270 at any extended stop above Single-A ball. There were always going to be flaws in his game.

All told, Stewart’s contact rate wasn’t a huge problem last year. He struck out in 24.8 percent of his plate appearances, with a swinging strike rate on par with what he produced in the minor leagues. Stewart also put together a solid batted ball profile, with a line drive rate just north of 25 percent. His average launch angle, 19 degrees, is right around where you want a hitter to be (National League MVP Cody Bellinger, another power-hitting lefty, was at 17.6 degrees).

The two biggest issues? Stewart didn’t walk enough, and didn’t make enough hard contact.

Let’s address the walk rate first.

Stewart started out nicely in 2019, drawing seven walks in 16 April games (10.9 percent rate), then 10 more in May (12.3 percent). He started to falter after that, however, and his walk rate declined in each subsequent month he played (he missed August due to a concussion) until the end of the season.

Part of the reason for Stewart’s decline in walk rate was a climbing whiff rate, which came in tandem with an elevated chase rate (i.e. reaching for pitches outside the strike zone). He saw more breaking balls from July onward, and wasn’t able to adjust.

If Stewart is to turn things around in 2020, he needs to start laying off junk outside the strike zone.

Punishing mistakes in the zone will help too.

Stewart’s other major flaw in 2019 was that he simply didn’t hit the ball hard enough. He ranked 151st out of 250 hitters in barrels per plate appearance, and 202nd in average exit velocity. His average exit velocity on fly balls and line drives — where Stewart should really be shining — was just 91.6 miles per hour, 189th among this same group of 250 hitters. For a player whose value is largely based around him hitting the ball a long way, this is not a good sign.

Fortunately, there isn’t a downward trend to be found here. Stewart’s exit velocity and hard hit rates dipped in May and June, but rebounded in July and September. April was his best month of the season, but not by much (in this metric, at least).

Looking ahead to 2020, I don’t know if there is an easy fix here. Recognizing off-speed pitches and laying off anything in the dirt is something Stewart and the Tigers coaching staff will have to figure out. Making harder contact falls in the same boat, and one imagines there will be a decent correlation between the two — lay off pitches outside the zone, and pitchers will eventually be forced to put it in your wheelhouse.

Can Stewart do this? Projection systems seem to think so, to a certain extent. Steamer and ZiPS both project a bounce-back season (though still slightly below league average), while PECOTA’s 50th percentile numbers have Stewart hitting 27 home runs. If he can live up to those expectations and start to drive the ball more often, Stewart would provide a big boost to a Tigers lineup still searching for more power.