How Did Chris Stewart Start Hitting For Average After Joining the Pirates?

The Pirates added Chris Stewart to be their backup catcher prior to the 2014 season, getting what appeared to be a defense-only option. The former Yankees catcher had a .575 OPS in his career at the time, including a .584 OPS in his previous three years, while never topping .611 in a single season. He didn’t hit for average, with his .241 mark in 2012 representing a high mark, outside of his limited time in 2007 when he had a .243 average.

None of this seemed to matter to the Pirates, as they were focused on defense first with their catchers, and didn’t need offense from a backup. But Stewart suddenly started producing that offense. No, it wasn’t anything that would make him a starting candidate. It was enough to make him a solid all-around backup catcher, and more than just an all-defense option.

Stewart put up a .693 OPS in 2014, fueled by a .294 average and a .362 OBP. He wasn’t hitting for any power, with his .037 ISO actually representing a low point from 2011-2014. This year he has returned with similar numbers, posting a .286/.317/.331 line. The walks are down, the power is still low, but the average is there. Stewart has basically turned into a singles hitter who can hit a lot of singles.

There’s just one glaring problem: His BABIP over the last two seasons suggests this is a fluke. He had a .364 BABIP last year, and has a .344 mark this year. His previous career bests were .290 in 2007 (which led to a .243 average), and .273 in 2012 (.241 average). His BABIP from 2011-2013 was .239, and that led to a .216 average. It became pretty obvious that this hitting was all luck that wouldn’t last.

Or was it?

I chalked it all up to luck after the 2014 season, figuring that Stewart couldn’t repeat that success. This year, he’s repeating it to an extent, and I started to get a crazy thought that he might have figured things out at the age of 33. I started wondering if maybe there was a change in his approach since joining the Pirates.

That theory got more credence when I noticed a change in Stewart’s batted ball trends. His line drives were up since joining the Pirates. His ground ball rates also took a big jump. In turn, his fly ball rate took a dive. Suddenly, the massively increased BABIP made more sense. The BABIP rate is the highest on line drives (.679 in MLB this year), lower on grounders (.236), and the lowest on fly balls (.128). Replacing his fly balls with more line drives and grounders is definitely going to drive the numbers up.

Then there was the location of the hits. Stewart pulled the ball 47.4% of the time, and went opposite field 20.1% of the time from 2011-2013. With the Pirates, he has dropped down to 40.3% pull rate and 25.9% opposite field hitting. It’s not a massive spike, but there definitely seems to be something there, especially in an organization that preaches to every minor leaguer the value of going to the opposite field.

So we asked Stewart if he changed his approach, pointing out the discovered trends, and sure enough, he confirmed that a change had been made.

“Before, I would try to see the ball inside and try to put a big swing on it and really try to drive the ball,” Stewart said. “When I came over here last Spring Training, I sat down with [Pirates’ Manager] Clint [Hurdle] and [Pirates’ Hitting Coach Jeff] Branson.”

Hurdle and Branson told Stewart that they didn’t mind his approach when he was ahead in the count, which involved him being aggressive and looking for a pitch to drive. However, once he got behind in the count, they wanted him to let the ball go deeper in the zone so he could see it longer.

“That eventually allowed me to drive the ball to right field or stay inside the ball better,” Stewart said of the new approach. “That approach is the biggest difference that allowed me to have the success I am having now. I think the behind the count approach is something I can take on early in the count, too, sometimes. If I’m ahead in the count, I use the same approach so I can see the ball longer and put a better swing on it.”

Stewart did a lot of work with Branson on this approach. He now focuses on the fastball up and out over the plate. This also allows him to hit hanging off-speed pitches, while his quick hands allow him to get back to the inside pitch with this approach. Overall, the fact that he’s now able to see the ball longer is leading to a lot of success, especially with the line drives.

“I’m able to see the ball longer, and I’m not getting as big,” Stewart said. “I’m trying to stay on top of the ball. You can find a lot more holes on the ground than you can in the air, usually. I’m just trying to hit line drives or hard ground balls, and stay short on the ball wherever it is pitched.”

It’s still too early to tell whether this success from Stewart is legit. His BABIP is still suspect, especially after his numbers before the Pirates. It takes 820 balls in play for a sample size to stabilize and give the true results. Stewart barely has that amount in his career, which would make his career .273 mark the baseline to use. But there has been a clear change in approach here, and it has been working for the last two seasons. It also makes sense as to why the BABIP is now higher, with Stewart hitting more line drives and fewer fly balls.

Stewart might not keep this up. Then again, he was acquired to be an all-defense and no-bat backup catcher. The fact that he’s now putting up some decent offensive numbers for a strong defensive backup catcher can only be seen as a bonus. And the Pirates will surely welcome that bonus in production, no matter if it’s legit, or just a result of an unsustainably inflated BABIP.

Sean McCool contributed to this report.

  • I don’t have access to the advanced metrics that others here do, but Stewart doesn’t pass my eye test as an especially good defensive catcher. his throwing is getting terrible and he seems to let too many pitches get by him. When was the last time he threw out someone trying to steal? Usually it’s not even close and it can’t always be the pitchers fault.
    I think he’s playing his last games with the team. Cervelli and Diaz next year and someone with major league experience signed to be in Indy.

    • Completely agree. It seems he’s become a defensive liability more than a defensive specialist. I don’t have the energy to look up any advanced stats to back this up, but 9 errors in 35 starts is evidence enough for me.

      All that being said, there can be a lot of hidden value in catchers, like how they call games, framing, etc. Not sure where Stewart rates in those categories.

  • I think both Cervelli and Stewart along with Pedro, Neil Walker, and Melancon can all play out their options at the end of next year. It will be interesting to see who they keep or trade this winter.

    • Of that group…Cervelli is a lock and, most likely, Walker is, as well. Pedro and Stewart are gone. Melancon is the wild card.

      …just my opinion.

      Thoughts on Melancon…one of the top relievers in the game going into his walk year. There’s no way the team resigns him or offers him a QO, they’d be crazy not to take a heck of a haul for him. Also, he’s not replaceable. Bullpen would take a major hit with his exit…they’d be crazy to trade him.

      Whatever decision is made with him is going to be vastly unpopular for, at least, half a season. Unless, of course, he’s traded and turns into Hanrahan.

  • Chris Stewart has been fine to better than fine as our backup mainly due to clutch nature of his RBI’s although limited they are.
    He may not be willing to stay for 2million as other teams may be willing to pay more as there are some sucky other catchers out there.
    Perhaps Sanchez is ready to be a backup with Diaz starting in AAA and not to mention there are several other up and coming options not just named McGuire either. I think Stallings may be another Stewart for example.
    All in all, the primary role is Cervelli’s and I’d like to see if he can continue to provide play similar to what he’s given us in 2015 because that’s the primary player I’ve been impressed with. Not to mention he seems to be a really cool guy!

  • Chris Stewart has the 8th lowest average exit velocity of hitters with at least 50 data points and would struggle to beat Pedro Alvarez in a foot race. That combination of contact authority and speed most certainly will not results in a true-talent high BABIP hitter, as Stewart has lucked into the last two years.

    Regardless, anyone who can’t post an ISO over .100 while *trying* to hit with authority probably shouldn’t be putting the ball into the air, so kudos to him for adjusting.

    • He might not be a burner, but like Pedro, Stewie has a positive BsR (0.7).

    • Exit velocity? I think you take this stuff way to serious. I believe you are what your average says you are. Some guys know how to put the ball where the fielders are not while others continuously hit into shifts. I am not going to deduct points from a player because he knows how to hit.

    • Joey Votto said if you want to hit .300 you have to go the other way, hitting to all field is an important competent of BABIP, I’d say more so than incomplete exit velocity numbers.

      A .274 BABIP on grounders, considering that he has eliminated the weak rolled over one that are a product selling out for pulled power, isn’t anything absurdly ‘lucky.’ A true talent .350 BABIP unlikely, but I think he is better than .240 version prior to 2014.

  • So that is what Stewart means by smart hitting?

  • Is he worth the 2 million he will get next season is what I’m wondering? My guess is we’ve seen his offensive peak by far and he may not have much + WAR offense left in him. If they think Diaz is a better defender than Stewart, there would not really be a reason to keep him. They can just find a cheaper 3rd catcher as injury depth at Indy next year. I think that’s what I would do.

    • Would it not make more sense to have better depth as opposed to cheaper depth in AAA? Right now, they can roll with the 3 men they have and thats decent depth. Ridding themselves of Stewart really gives them almost no depth in AAA. For all his issues, you really can do worse than Stewart as a backup and he’s bringing in enough WAR that the cost is justified.

      Not saving enough money to make the lack of depth make sense as i see it.

      • I agree. $2M will be the least of the Pirates issues. The JHK injury means we likely need to keep Walker for next year before letting him walk bc we will need the added depth. We need starting pitching badly…watching Morton and Locke really, really gives huge cause for concern if they are 2 of your 4 that you’re relying on at the start of next year. That $2M estimate for Stewart is the least of our concerns…keep the depth.

        • Locke and Morton arent great, but as Tim has written those two oh so woeful options have been here the entire time the rotation has been one of the best over 3 years.

          Im all for upgrades, but i dont think we badly need 3 SPs. Give me a decent mid rotation FA pick up and a cheap reclamation type and we are fine. Plenty of young options possible for next year, so id be content rolling with Cole-Liriano-FA-Morton-Locke-FA low buy as top depth options. Fans will hum and haw but its largely a strategy that gets us playoff bound most years.

      • I’d rather see them develop Diaz as Cervelli’s eventual replacement when he leaves ala Martin. So keep Diaz in MLB next year as Cervellii’s back up.

        • This idea that stashing Diaz in AAA for all or most of 2016 will better prepare him to take over full time in 2017 is just silly.

          • Agreed NMR. Diaz hopefully will become the backup next year. I guess him needing a few more months at AAA is possible. They could always pay Stewart 2 mil and option or deal him in June and hope he clears waivers or you can work a deal for him. You’d only be out a million or so if you lost him. Small price to pay for the piece of mind of having solid veteran catching depth.But with Stewart’s 9 errors this year and the good chance he will be a sub .270 hitter next year, and age…I’m not so sure a cheaper, younger option isn’t out there.

            • This would be my strategy.

              Another few months in AAA wouldn’t hurt Diaz, but I absolutely want him seeing a hundred PA or so before just handing the job to him in 2017. Why they threw away so many AAA at bats by splitting time with Tony Sanchez this year is beyond me.

              I wonder how many folks realize Elias Diaz has outhit Alen Hanson at high-A, AA, and AAA?

              • That had me baffled also, unless they wanted to make sure Sanchez would have been as ready as he could be in case of a serious injury to either Cervelli or Stewart

              • I think Diaz with his ability to take pitches, work counts, and strength combined with decent speed make him a pretty decent bet to at least be an 80-90 ops+ player…that’s way better than stewart

          • Not really my argument though. I dont think stashing him makes him better for 2017, but also not worse. Its plainly about making the team depth better for 2016. Im highly skeptical they can bring in a catcher to replace Diaz as depth that is near Diaz quality.

            • Please explain how it would be best for the organization to go into 2017 with a 26 year old starting catcher who has little to no Big League experience just for the off chance that they need significant at bats from their 3rd string catcher in 2016.

              • Well id argue the tone of “off chance” is pretty biased when its not a small chance you need at least some time from a 3rd catcher most years….and your starting catcher isnt without an injured past. Yes, its smart to have a non replacement level 3rd catcher if you can get it to avoid 2-4 weeks of poor catcher play overall. Assuming either of the top guys stay healthy isnt really all that wise.

                It’d be best for 2016, and i dont see why it seriously hinders Diaz to not having a ton of time before taking over as a starter. He’ll have caught Glasnow and Taillon plenty, have experience with Cole in limited time, and be ready.

                Doesnt seem at all like a PGH move to sacrifice quality depth because you gotta get a guy 50 games because without it he’s not ready to take over.

                • That doesn’t seem like a Pittsburgh kind of move BECAUSE THEY’VE NEVER ACTUALLY DEVELOPED A CATCHER.

                  This isn’t rocket science. Cervelli had about 800 PA before taking over this year. Martin obviously had a few under his belt as well.

                  Yes, I’d absolutely rather have my actual starting catcher take over the job with actual catching experience than worry about having a third string catcher for a few weeks if my top two go down.

                  • It doesnt seem like a PGH move because they actually value depth and dont enjoy giving up assets for nothing.

                    You’d be getting rid of depth because you think 50 games makes a huge difference for Diaz in his ability to take over.

                    • Remind me again how Jordy Mercer was broken in?

                    • A better comparison would have been if Mercer was in AAA with an okay backup SS already around and they released said okay backup to force Mercer into the mix.

                      I dont see many signs of them being that casual with catcher depth. Sure, they’d find a replacement but it’d almost assuredly be a worse replacement and an injury (again not terribly shocking) results in 2+ weeks of replacement level catching from both guys.

        • I think you have to weigh that with whats best for the organization. If Cervelli were to get hurt (which isnt crazy) you’d have Stewart+Diaz. OR its Diaz+the filler you found for depth.

          I dont think Diaz is hurt/benefits all that differently whether he’s in AAA or MLB.

          • Is the Doumit/Snyder/Jaramillo/Brown/Torregas/McKenry/Fryer/Pagnozzi season too far removed for folks to remember that decent catching depth is sort of important?

            I’ll agree with Luke here. Bucs are already pushing their luck with Cervelli’s health. Stewart is competent – he may have throwing issues, but seems to handle the pitchers well and call a solid game. Unless Diaz is the next coming of Johnny Bench or Thurman Munson, keep him at AAA for the almost-inevitable point when one goes down. Meantime simply go with two proven pros the starters like pitching to.

            I’m assuming Tony is gone.

            • Speaking of memories, go ahead and remind me how many *other* years the Pirates have seen a catastrophic chain of injuries at the catcher position?

              • It wouldn’t take a chain of five or six. Might only take one.

                fwiw, with Molina out, the Cards backup is a guy who hit .140 at AAA. Of course he got a hit in his first MLB AB. Because Cardinals. But going into the final 10 games with Cruz/Tartamella is likely going to hurt them a bit.

                If Cervelli goes out, we’ve got Diaz and who? Wilkin Castillo? Stallings or Valle? Cripes, that would scary.

                The only FA who’s having a better year than Stewart is Pierzynski. And nobody wants that.

                • I’m not at all downplaying the role of depth at the catcher position, but you make it sound like it’s impossible to add backup depth once the season begins.

                  Look around the league at how non-elite catching prospects were broken in. Almost to a man, they were brought up in a backup role first. Yankees did it with Cervelli, and now are doing it again with JR Murphy.

                  I just don’t see how one can be more comfortable handing the reigns over to Diaz on Opening Day of 2017 without any clue as to how he’ll handle the job than they are with the possibility of a lesser third string catcher sitting in Indy for all of next year.

                  Bring Stewart back to start the season, by all means, but at some point you gotta see what Diaz can do.

              • Or how many years they needed 3 catchers to play. 2014, 2013, 2011. More years beyond that as well, but i feel its unfair to use years during the dark ages since its not always clearly injury related and at times just suck related.

                But since we’ve been somewhat competitive, we’ve seen 2 years with only needing 2 catchers and 3 years needing a 3rd guy for some time. Rather that be a decent option than a random filler because we gotta get the rookie 50 games.

                • Then you’re smarter than the league, I suppose. Makes sense.

                • By the way, D’Backs have put up the 8th highest WAR from the catcher position in all of baseball. They started the season with Tuffy Gosewich and Oscar Hernandez. Insinuating a club is up the creek if they don’t have a good 3rd and 4th depth options already in the org is just plain wrong.

            • Players are like bananas in that they don’t keep well.When they are ripe for advancement you should play them up. Diaz looks to be the starteries in 2017 and 2018. He needs real MLB experience before that. This is essentilly similar reasoning as playing Polanco this year rather than sending him down. He is MLB caliber. He needs to get better against MLB competition. AAA doesn’t simulate that.

          • This was pretty much my thoughts exactly. I think it’s pretty unlikely that we go through 2 straight years without either of our top two catchers missing time so you’re gonna have a chance to get Diaz in there next year anyways.

      • Most orginizations do not have a Jacob Stallings type defensive catching prospect at AAA. He is not a player to go to sleep on as a future MLB catcher.

        • Im okay with that as a future option, but not a guy i want getting ML backup time in 2016 if someone pulls a groin.

    • In the last four seasons he has been worth anywhere from 0.5 WAR to 1.0 WAR per year. The low point (0.5 WAR) would be worth at least $3 M on the open market. So I’d say he’s worth $2 M.