Well, well well. The Orioles are still alive, despite so-called professionals insisting that the Orioles would be lucky enough to hit the double-digit plateau in wins. Though, the longer you associate yourself in a game where the objective is to “square” up a round ball with a round bat, one would be wise to remember weird things usually aren’t so strange after all.
There may be no stranger tale to tell than the one DJ Stewart is currently writing. Stewart, an on-again-off-again Oriole who’s never really hit enough to keep himself around, was more of the same to start the 2020 season. Hitless over his first eight games (22 plate appearances), Stewart was sent down to the alternate Orioles site in Bowie to clear his head and find a fix to his lack of successful at-bats.
Since being recalled on September 1 with ZERO hits to his credit, Stewart now has a season wRC+ of 224, as he’s mashed five home runs in his last four games. A regular in the lineup since September 4, Stewart is 8-17 with those five dingers, while he’s walking as much as he’s striking out.
Considering Stewart owns a career .790 OPS, his current, much shinier 1.255 OPS would seem like a small sample-size being a small sample-size. Definitely, but lest you forget, before being brought back by the Orioles, the former Seminole literally did not have a batting average. I mean, this last week alone, he’s more than doubled his career WAR.
Stewart’s juggernaut-like effort at the plate would naturally raise levels of curiosity, so here we are. You, like me, would like to know why Stewart has been one of the biggest reasons the Orioles have won four of their last five games. So, I wanted to start with mechanics.
Despite posting a 1.051 OPS in three years in a really good baseball conference at Florida State, the shorter, portlier Stewart was going to be drafted with the understanding his offensive approach had to be tweaked.
If you think he’s low in the box now, you should have seen him in college. Both of the Orioles recent regimes have pretty much agreed that he needs to say taller in the box, as there’s nothing to suggest Mike Elias’ staff has tried to change what Duquette and his group had already enacted. Better yet, really nothing HAS changed.
This was Stewart two years ago, during his first stint in the bigs. Though the Orioles did manage to stand him up ever so slightly, all of his triggers are still basically the same, as he still wraps his hands while doing the same to his load leg. It’s a super unique style of timing that’s never been altered and requires a lot of moving parts to work together. It’s a part of his game scouts did not grow to love. In the present however, all pistons are firing.
You could argue that while down in Bowie, Stewart was given some advice to add some lift to his swing. The first eight games of the 2020 season, Stewart managed an average launch angle of -2.4 degrees. That same average has stood at 25.9 degrees over his past five past games, way above his career medium of 14.4 degrees.
Hitting five home runs in four games would obviously elevate the ol’ exit velocity numbers, and so is true with DJ. His first eight games, as dreadful as they were, became a byproduct of an average exit velocity of 78.1 mph. That number in the midst of his hot streak stands at 95.2 mph, and will only go up after rocketing a 106 mph ding-dong and a 105 mph single in last night’s bullpen implosion. That average exit velo would put him in the top three in baseball if he were to somehow maintain such numbers at a regular pace.
Stewart has somehow made the crushing loss of Anthony Santander a forgotten blurb, which is saying something, considering Tony Taters was one of the Orioles most intriguing hitters each and every plate appearance. It is cool to see Stewart mashing baseballs, because his career trajectory was drifting towards limbo. But right now, there’s not a whole lot else to say. He’s getting a lot of hittable pitches, and he’s taking advantage of mistakes.
The left is a heatmap of pitch locations for Stewart just after his demotion, and the right is since his return to the Orioles. Historically, DJ has handled pitches out over the plate with more consistent success versus pitches towards him, so he’s basically been in hog heaven.
To his credit, he’s carved into his whiff rate, and he’s dragging out plate appearances, and with a pretty good eye to boot, that’s caused his walk rate to stay mostly parallel with his strikeout rate. Those are pieces to his game that the scouts did like. Those traits can produce the kind of hitter that mostly refuses to chase bad pitches while punishing precious mistakes. That’s DJ Stewart, who’s probably gonna be a Topps Now card within the week.
This is essentially Stewart at his peak, and the numbers will even out, but it’s been fun to see Stewart take command of his plate appearances rather than allow the pitcher to set the tempo. He looks confident, and his latest exit velocity numbers suggest his raw power could be sneaking into his game day pop. Nevertheless, the guy’s getting good pitches to hit, and he’s “squaring” up baseballs.
Like I said, weird things can happen.