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.