Pundits and analysts in all sports, but especially baseball, like to talk about a player’s “arrow.” It’s an easy image to help get a point across. The arrow is pointing up, or it’s pointing down. He’s getting better, or he’s getting worse.
In DJ Stewart’s case, however, the arrow is pointing...well, it depends on who you ask. It might depend on the week. Or the day. Or the game. Or the latest article you read.
With Stewart, it’s hard to tell.
As he begins his seventh year with the team, Stewart is something of the Orioles’ mystery man. He’s either a disappointment who’s running out of time to take a step forward and make an impression with the big club...or he’s a slugger looking to bust out in a big way who might just be the team’s breakthrough candidate this season (or one of them, at least).
At this point, would you be surprised if either happened?
You can easily make the case for both. You can argue without breaking a sweat that Stewart’s window has come and gone, and that he’s yet another high pick (first round, 25th overall in 2015) who didn’t pan out. He’s 27, not 22 or 23 like most big prospects who are still trying to figure out the big leagues. Considering that’s generally considered a player’s peak, that doesn’t indicate several strong seasons lie ahead.
And if the stats are any measure, he’s still trying to figure out this level. Stewart hasn’t supplied much evidence that he’s made a jump; if anything, the numbers suggest he’s getting more and more lost at the plate. He batted .250 with an .890 OPS in 40 at-bats in 2018, then slipped to .238 and .698 in 2019, and then saw his OPS climb to .809 but his batting average drop to .193 last season. He started the season 0-for-his-first-16. For much of the year, he looked like someone who needed help. At times, he looked like a lost cause.
According to Baseball Savant via MLB.com, Stewart made less contact on balls in the zone (71.2 to 79.7) percent, chased a higher percentage of balls (24.0 to 22.6), and whiffed a higher percentage of the time (26.4 to 36.0) after those numbers all improved from 2018 to 2019.
So that’s the evidence out of the pessimist’s playbook.
There’s plenty in the optimist’s too, however.
The optimist can start with the fact that Stewart has passed all of the tests before this stage, as he jumped from .235 and .716 (again, average and OPS) to .291 and .944 at the Triple-A level in 2018 and ’19. The optimist can also cite the improvements in plate discipline Stewart has made since he’s reached the majors. After drawing 14 walks in 142 plate appearances in 2019, he worked 20 free passes in 112 appearances last season. That led to an on-base percentage that rose 38 points from .317 to .355; not easy to do when your average takes the hit his did.
And then, of course, there’s that power surge from last year, which has everyone wondering just how seriously it can be taken. After that opening slump, Stewart went 13-for-his-next-33, swatting seven home runs and driving in 12 runs. It’s a big reason why he went from barreling up 6.9 percent of his batted balls to 19.2 percent last season, and why his hard-hit percentage (according to Baseball-Reference.com) went from 38.9 percent to 46.2, after climbing from 33.3 percent the season before.
No one outside of Baltimore is expecting a big breakthrough — Baseball-Reference predicts a .229/.330/.424 slash line, while Fangraphs projects .226/.323/.425 — but Stewart showed flashes of becoming an asset to this lineup last season, and he’s appeared to keep up the momentum going into this season. Reports are that he’s slimmed down this season, working on becoming a better two-way fit in the Orioles’ competitive outfield picture, and we all know by now about the two-run home run he hit off of the Phillies’ Aaron Nola on Monday.
So the jury’s out on Stewart, and it’s tough to get a sense for where that arrow is on his career going into the season. There are plenty of indications that he’s shown he has room to grow and an ability to continue those improvements, but there is also plenty of support for the notion that he’s running out of time before he no longer gets to play under the prospect label, and is instead deemed just a player who never became anything special at the big-league level.
It’s tough to read. Fortunately, answers are on their way.