BRADENTON, Fl. – Over the off-season, the Pirates signed Chris Stewart to a very team friendly extension. The deal will pay him $3 M guaranteed over the next two years, with a $1.5 M option and a $250,000 buyout in 2018. The maximum deal would amount to three years and $4.25 M.
Putting this in perspective, one win above replacement has been worth at least $7 M on the open market in recent years. Stewart has been worth at least 0.5 WAR every year since 2011. So in one season, he could justify his entire deal, and possibly even the option year.
“Chris has done a fantastic job as our number two catcher, both in the clubhouse and on the field. We love what he does from a defensive standpoint, receiving, blocking, throwing, game calling, leading behind home plate,” Neal Huntington said. “We just felt like he’s one of the better overall backup catchers in the game, and the opportunity presented itself to keep him in a Pirates uniform for two, hopefully three years, and who knows beyond that.”
The extension seems team friendly for what Stewart has done in recent years, with his WAR numbers and other metrics placing him among the best backup catchers in the game. But it didn’t take much to get him to agree to a deal.
“I’ve been expressing interest [since] as soon as I got here,” Stewart said of signing an extension. “I think in my position, a long term deal is kind of what you’re looking for. Been around, my sixth organization at the time, so I kind of wanted to stay in one place as long as possible. Kicked around the idea for the past couple of years, fortunately this off-season we were able to get it done.”
Stewart has played in the majors since 2006, spending time with the White Sox, Rangers, Yankees, Padres, Giants, and the Yankees again, before finally ending up with the Pirates. The 2016 season will mark the first time in his Major League career that he will spend a third year in a row with the same team.
“It’s definitely a little different,” Stewart said of knowing where he will be playing the next few years. “I can’t say enough about what the Pirates were able to do for me, bringing me here first of all, and extending me so I know I’m going to be here for a long time. It’s relieving for myself and my family, knowing where I’m going to be at least for the next two years, and hopefully three or more. I know I’m going to be in a good spot, great teammates, and great city. I think that all played a part in me wanting to come back for a long time.”
His Role as a Mentor
The extension has raised questions about the future of the catcher position. Many speculated that this means the end of Francisco Cervelli’s time with the Pirates, beyond the 2016 season. Cervelli is a free agent at the end of the season, and the Pirates have a top catching prospect in Indianapolis with Elias Diaz. But Huntington isn’t committed to just one scenario playing out yet.
“If we’re fortunate enough to be able to keep Francisco in Pirate gear for a long time, [Stewart is] a great complement to him,” Huntington said. “If we’re not able to, and we decide to go in a different direction, then Chris is a great complement to whoever we decide to bring in. If it’s Diaz and he shows that he’s ready to go, it’s great to have a veteran tandem with him.”
If the Pirates move on from Cervelli, it would be more about what Diaz could do, than it would be about a Stewart extension. The Stewart deal has value in both scenarios, as it gives them a very cheap and a very strong backup catcher. But Stewart provides extra value if the Pirates move on to Diaz as the starter in 2017, as he can serve the mentor role. This also applies to the young pitchers who are arriving in the next year.
“Chris is great, not only because he works with the catchers, but because he’s there with the young pitchers too in their pitch selection, their pitch execution, helping them to get through an inning or a pitch,” Huntington said. “His leadership is strong. He’s helped our guys grow. He’s great in the advanced process. He pays attention. He’s catching every pitcher of every game, whether it’s from the bench or it’s from behind home plate, and he’s hoping to share that knowledge and help our guys get better.”
Stewart said that the Pirates didn’t say specifically that they wanted him to take on that role, but he knows that will be part of his role in the future.
“I’m kind of aware of it,” Stewart said. “I know my role now is to try to help out as best as I can. I’m not in there everyday. Trying to help the team win, even though I’m not necessarily in the lineup. Whether it’s working with the pitchers, whether it’s helping [Francisco Cervelli] out with an extra set of eyes, or in Spring Training right now, getting these young guys ready in case they get called up during the year.”
Stewart prepares the younger catchers by talking about the pitchers they will work with in Pittsburgh, how to attack hitters, philosophies, and what Ray Searage wants to see from the catchers, among other things.
“It’s basically just trying to pass on my experience, my knowledge, what I’ve gained throughout my years to these guys,” Stewart said. “Helping them out the best as I can, that way when they do get up here, it’s not a culture shock. It’s really not too much I’ve been having to do. It’s little things here and there.”
The Upcoming Catchers
The Pirates stress defense with their catchers, and it’s no surprise that they’ve got several strong defensive catchers in the upper levels of their system. Stewart seemed the most excited about Diaz, who he has had the most experience working with after working with him last September when Diaz was in the majors.
“I think it’s easy to say his arm is his best asset,” Stewart said, when describing what makes him such a good defender. “It’s unbelievable how hard it comes off his arm, how accurate it is. That’s first and foremost what you recognize with him.”
Reese McGuire will make the jump to Altoona this year, and is another strong defensive catcher. He and Diaz are both rated among the best in the minors, with both getting named the best defensive catcher in the minors this year by different outlets. Stewart hasn’t seen much of McGuire outside of this camp, but likes what he sees.
“With Reese, I’m still getting a look at him, but it seems like he’s a total package,” Stewart said. “He’s quiet back there. He seems like he’s going to be the guy that knows what he’s doing. He’s going to soak up as much information as possible, put in as much work as possible, study scouting reports, pitchers. Just trying to get as much knowledge as possible, and then putting it all together when he gets back behind the plate.”
Both of those guys project as future starters, and Stewart said that “the sky is the limit” for both of them. The Pirates also have another strong defensive catcher who has been in camp this year, and one who looks very similar to Stewart as a future backup. Jacob Stallings is a tall, skinny catcher who is surprisingly agile for his frame, is great with a pitching staff, and doesn’t hit for power, but hits for average. There have been many times where I’ve compared him to Stewart, so I had to ask if Stewart also saw the comparison.
“Just being around him, I’d say he’s very comparable to myself,” Stewart said. “Not going to do anything too splashy out there, but just going to get the job done every time. He’s a very smart guy back there behind the plate, I think he knows what he’s doing working with the pitchers, calling a game. I think it’s a very similar prototype for me. I know it was a struggle for me to overcome some barriers, because I didn’t have anything that stood out too much. With a guy like him, he’s very capable of doing the job back there. It’s just a matter of if he gets the opportunity to do it.”
Improved Offense With the Pirates
The reference to overcoming barriers brings up an interesting trend with Stewart the last two years. His offensive numbers have gone up with the Pirates, going for a .584 OPS from 2011-2013, to a .675 OPS the last two years with the Pirates. This has largely come from a jump in his BABIP, which was .364 in 2014 and .348 in 2015. That might not be just luck, but a change in approach, which I’ve written about before.
When Stewart arrived, the Pirates had him focusing on using the opposite field, and hitting more line drives rather than fly balls and trying to pull the ball. This is a similar approach the Pirates take with their minor leaguers, and it has worked for Stallings in recent years.
“When they first called me in, they said ahead in the count they didn’t mind my aggressiveness, trying to drive the ball,” Stewart said. “But when I got behind in the count, it was more about seeing the ball deep. Trying to work the count a little bit better. Don’t be afraid to hit the ball to right field. It was definitely a change in approach to me. I kind of integrated that behind in the count approach to my entire game. I know I didn’t really have the power to try to hit a home run every single time, so I kind of abandoned that, and I just stuck with the line drives over to right field.”
You can see the change in approach in the chart below, with Stewart seeing more line drives and ground balls, and fewer fly balls. He also is seeing an increase in hits to right field.
The offensive upside here is still limited. When Stewart plays, he isn’t going to be an asset to the lineup. But he’s been a lot better than most backup catchers have been, especially the ones who are stronger defensively.
“I think my spot in the eight hole is pretty solidified,” Stewart said. “My job basically, trying to turn the lineup over, and trying to have a tough at-bat to make sure the pitcher up there is forced to throw a lot of pitches, and hopefully if he misses with one, I’m able to drive it.”
So will he be able to drive a home run this year, after two seasons without one?
“Hopefully the pitcher hits my bat a little bit better, and I’m able to get one over the fence,” Stewart joked. “I’ve been satisfied with my last couple of years. If a home run happens, it happens. If not, I’m still going to go up there, put up some good at-bats, and see how it goes.”
If Stewart maintains this approach, then the offensive production he does have, combined with his strong defense and work with the pitchers, will make him a valuable guy to have under his current extension. His work with the pitching staff (Have I mentioned he’s Gerrit Cole’s personal catcher yet?) and his ability to help mentor the young catchers and arms coming through the system will only add value to that deal.