If by chance, you happened to catch a Florida State Seminoles' baseball game on ESPNU at any point over the last three years, the first guy you probably noticed was Orioles' recent first-round selection, DJ Stewart.
To be honest, it'd be shocking if you didn't see the hulking 6'0, 230-pounder wearing the classic Garnet and Gold. In 177 career games as a Seminole, Stewart slashed a gaudy .344/.481/.570 with 27 home runs and 168 RBI's. He added a BB/K ratio of 1.26/1, while successfully stealing 24 bases in 32 career attempts. He was a member of the USA Collegiate National Team in 2014, and in that same season, was named ACC Player of the Year as a true sophomore.
His junior year became the breakout worthy of being selected in the first round of the 2015 MLB Draft.
Surprisingly, no rumors of slaying dragons or saving civilizations arose in the midst of his junior season, as one would suggest with a legendary .318/.500/.593 slash. On top of a career-high 15 HR's and getting on-base in half of his at-bats, Stewart led the nation in walks (69). The numbers alone show the distinguished Seminole has a bright future in the big leagues, but underneath the hood of the engine that produced Stewart's gaudy statistics are high-tech mechanics and a rare winner's mentality.
Stewart's swing is reminiscent of Donny Donowitz, you know, the "Bear Jew" of Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds, because he comes through the hitting zone with VI-O-LENCE.
A very quick load of the hands and unique toe tap put him in a position to fire with all of his 230-pound frame, and despite an initial, yet unmistakable crouch in his stance, he does have a slight lift in-sync with his swing, which history has shown, hasn't stopped him from hitting dingers. Personally, it's hard to find an issue with a guy whose stance breaks away from the norm and still hits baseballs like missiles. In theory, a flatter, more stable swing path, such as Stewart's, isn't going to find the bleachers as often as others because the lack of lift in his swing path won't allow it.
However, a closer look at the 21-year-old reveals baseball's most important facet of hitting (in my mind), and those are his lighting-fast hands. Yes, it helps to be a big, strong man who tries to uppercut baseballs to the moon, but the best hitters are the those that can bring their hands through the hitting zone with a sense of urgency. He's big and strong with a swift set of paws, so he may accidentally hit 15 HR's a season because 15 line drives happen to end up in the seats.
His enormous walk total at the college level is basic evidence of his reputation as a tough guy to strikeout, but the one YouTube video of Stewart that I could find really shed some light on the mature smarts he's made famous.
In this video of FSU's 2015 opening game versus Oakland University, Stewart kicked off his season with a 7-pitch at-bat that ended in a single to centerfield. Stewart began with an 0-2 count, before a pair of well-placed breaking balls (both taken) evened the count at 2-2. Two more curveballs on the inner-half were fouled off before a high-and-away fastball was sent on a line up the middle. He didn't swing at pitcher's pitches when ahead in the count, staved off strike three with two strikes and was rewarded for his efforts with a hard-fought base hit.
In his third at-bat that night, Stewart watched a first-pitch changeup fall in for a strike, followed with an outside fastball and a check-swing strike, bringing the count to 1-2. The very next pitch, Stewart lined a backdoor slider to the left-center field for a hustle double. A lot of hitters will jump out at that pitch and bounce it softly to an infielder, but instead, his advanced know-how with the bat was on full display, sitting back and taking the pitch to the opposite field.
To go along with his tremendous hitting skills, Stewart is a flat-out winner. I don't mean that in the cheesy way, but the guy has won a lot of games for a very long time, in more than one sport. He was a three-time state champion football player at The Bolles School in Florida, also winning two baseball state championships. At Florida State, Stewart was a two-time regular season ACC champion, two-time NCAA Regional winner and an integral piece of this season's ACC Tournament title for the Noles . That's the kind of player mentality teams covet.
By the time the O's do decide Stewart is ready for MLB action, the 25-man roster is unlikely to include many of the same faces we see now, except for the guarantees of maybe Manny Machado, Adam Jones, Jonathan Schoop and the young pitchers. The landscape of the Orioles will change when Stewart makes his debut, but there's something about him that makes me think he won't change. Nick Markakis was unrightfully assumed as someone whose power would someday grow, but it never did. And that was okay, because he was nothing more than a solid, professional hitter who always seemed to take care of business. Stewart has that same mold, except his power will translate.
Whatever the ex-Seminole does become, with power or not, his ability to hit baseballs will be the primary reason O's fans invest in jerseys with "Stewart" on the back.