DJ Stewart. Oh, DJ Stewart. In 2015 he was a first-round draft pick out of Florida State with plenty of pop, the ability to hit for average, and more stolen bases than you’d expect. In 2021 he is an accident-prone fourth outfielder with below-average power and way too many strikeouts.
It was supposed to be a big year for Stewart. With the Trey Mancini and Ryan Mountcastle experiments in the outfield ending and Austin Hays and Anthony Santander both missing time due to injury, there was room for the fourth-year outfielder to show his stuff. With only 92 games of MLB experience in three years, the stocky lefty still felt like a “too soon to say” prospect coming into this season. He had just above-average career numbers, with a .768 OPS, a 110 OPS+, and an intriguing 110-point gap between his batting average and his OBP.
A year later, that gap is still there, but not much else. Stewart hit .204 over 270 at-bats this season. His OBP was a respectable .324. But his power tanked, as a .374 slugging percentage proves.
For Stewart, the batting eye was always there and so was the easy power. In the 2015 draft Stewart was considered one of the better hitters coming out of the college ranks. That year, as a junior at Florida State, he slashed .318/.500/.593 with 15 homers and 69 walks in 64 games. Every third fly ball he hit left the yard. The year before he’d won 2014 ACC Player of the Year honors. The Orioles selected him with the 25th overall pick (Ryan Mountcastle was 36th) and gave him a $2 million signing bonus.
Stewart started slow in the O’s minors system, slugging just .345 with Low-A Delmarva in 2015. His power numbers crept up from 135 WRC+ in 2017 with Bowie to 217 WRC+ in 2019 (still with Bowie after a cup of coffee in the bigs) and a decent 123 WRC+ mark with the big-league club in 2020. His pure power numbers made the same journey, from a weakly .126 ISO in 2015 to a massive .400 in 2019 in Double-A and an excellent .261 with Baltimore in 2020.
But that power seemed to vanish in 2021. An OPS of .740 is just about league average. Even with a lowly .193 batting average, Stewart OPS’d .809 in 2020. It helped that he homered seven times in just 31 games, one home run every 4.5 games. In 2021, he hit .204 but with just 12 homers in 100 games, his OPS sank to .698. With power, maybe you’d put up with the fact that Stewart whiffs in over 20% of his at-bats: a mighty 33.9% in 2020 and a still-concerning 28% in 2021. Without power, the value at the plate just isn’t there.
Low average plus a high walk rate plus sporadic power might be a decent equation if the glove were any good. But it isn’t. Stewart’s UZR of -0.6 was the worst of any Orioles left fielder save Ryan Mountcastle. As CC’s Tyler Young put it back in August,
Not only does Stewart’s glovework fail the analytic test (-6 outs above average), but it also fails the eye test. He always appears slow to react to balls off the bat, and even when he does make it to the spot in time he is the player on the team most prone to having an attempt to field the ball turned into a blooper reel.
Maybe somebody should have seen this coming. Back in 2015, Stewart was a controversial first-round pick, with some scouts expressing concern about his body type and his odd crouched stance. The Orioles changed the batting stance, but some of the old concerns remain, namely a swing that is “muscled and lack[ing] looseness in the wrists,” liable to result in “trouble with velocity on [the] inner-half and up in the zone; [pitchers] can pound inside with fastball routinely.” If you watch video of any of Stewart’s myriad K’s, up-and-in heat regularly seems too much for him.
In Stewart’s (partial) defense, injuries slowed him down this season. He missed time with knee trouble. As we’ve seen from Anthony Santander, when your lower half isn’t feeling in tip-top shape, your bat speed tends to suffer.
That fact may well fail to move anybody in the O’s front office. Although Stewart won’t be arbitration-eligible until 2022, and he still has a minor league option, the cost of keeping him around is getting higher now that he’s almost 28, and now that the Orioles have a handful of prospects who will need to be protected from the Rule 5 draft this December, including promising outfielder Robert Neustrom.
When Stewart looks locked in at the plate, he looks locked in. But at this point, the bat speed may be slow enough, the hits infrequent enough, the power spotty enough that the Orioles could decide that the upside simply isn’t there, and that it’s finally time to move on from DJ Stewart.
Tomorrow: Tyler Wells