Chris Stewart’s Role as a Mentor to the Young Pirates Pitchers and Catchers

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.

StewartHitLocation

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.

  • BuccosFanStuckinMD
    March 15, 2016 9:36 pm

    Stewart is likely a good guy and may make a good coach or manager some day, but that doesn’t change the fact that he shouldn’t be the backup in Pittsburgh in 2016. If he was a great defensive catcher and had a great arm and helped neutralize base stealers, I would get it. But he isn’t either of those things – and he has a weak bat. Diaz is already better than him. We should package Diaz and Hanson and try to get a good #3 starter – since neither of those are going to get fair opportunities to make the Pirates 25 man. We might as at least use them to patch up the rotation.

    • Stewart sucks, not good at any part of the game……so trade Diaz.

      Okie doke.

      • BuccosFanStuckinMD
        March 16, 2016 10:01 am

        You’re not too quick on the draw there Luke – that was partly sarcasm, but mostly telling the Pirates to do the right thing by the kid and trade him somewhere where he can play, instead of rotting away in AAA for another year. With him and Hanson packaged together, we should be able to get a very good starting pitcher….

        • No its not. Its not sarcasm, you post it all the time. Embrace it, you feel Stewart is a terrible backup. Thats well established. Errors and CS percentage are the basis for that, sans any other causation for those numbers.

          To then go “just trade Diaz” makes your point seem incoherent. Its a terrible use of resources that forces the guy you, and only you, think is terrible as a backup to be a backup for his entire contract.

          If you feel Stewart is a poor backup, wanting them to trade Diaz makes 0 sense. Not to mention the fact that nothing about Stewarts deal forces Diaz to stay in AAA for the entire year, nor would time in AAA hurt Diaz.

      • BuccosFanStuckinMD
        March 16, 2016 10:02 am

        BTW, Stewart is a good “pitch framer”! I know that excites me….

    • It will be interesting who he catches for this season. Is it Cole?
      Will he be catching one of the ” young guns” when the come up?

      • It looks like they may continue the Stewart-Cole dynamic. Though it wouldnt surprise me if its less strict than last year, allowing for a bit more cohesion between Cole and Cervelli.

    • There aren’t many catchers who could overcome our pitchers’ inability to hold runners. Martin was one of them, but he’s gone, and I don’t think we’ll find another who can do that.

      But Stewart’s arm is actually pretty good. He gets the ball to second among the fastest catchers in baseball. That tells you all you need to know. He simply has less time than other catchers to actually throw guys out.

      He provides positive defensive value despite the low CS%. Imagine what would happen if our pitchers did anything to control the running game.

      • Well put. CS% is just an indicator. There are always 4 key factors to consider in the world of Stolen Bases – pitcher’s ability to hold a runner and his release time to the plate, catcher’s pop time and accuracy of his throws, capability and speed of the runner, and least considered is the type of pitch thrown, and the location of the pitch.

        Every team has a book on the release times of every pitcher, the pop times of every Catcher, and a team’s propensity to pitch out, or have a pitcher use a slide step delivery. The Pirates have subtracted AJ and CM (two of the slowest release times in MLB in 2015), and have added Niese and Vogelsong who are much quicker to the plate from the stretch. The unknown is whether the Pirates will put emphasis on trying to stop the running games of other teams.

        • BuccosFanStuckinMD
          March 16, 2016 9:58 am

          Martin worked with AJ and CM – and was pretty good at throwing out base runners. In addition, Stewart had 9 ERRORS last year, in very limited work…that was atrocious.

          • Martin is a freak. There aren’t many catchers who could do what he did controlling the running game while working with AJ and Morton. That Stewart is not Martin is not an indictment of Stewart.

      • BuccosFanStuckinMD
        March 16, 2016 9:57 am

        I disagree – by all indications and scouting reports, Diaz is capable of doing that, as he supposedly has a cannon for an arm. I am tired of people letting the catchers off the hook, and blaming it all on the pitchers – as you said, Martin was able to be successful. Stewart may have a quick release, but terrible accuracy – and his statistics in throwing out runners speaks for themselves.

  • The irony in Stewart’s mentor role is that his presence is what is keeping Elias Diaz in AAA.

    Tricky situation for the Pirates and their fans. It’s rare for a rookie catcher to be handed the starting job on a contender without any big league experience, which is the situation the Pirates will find themselves in next year unless a significant injury to Cervelli or Stewart himself in 2016. Not to mention relying on Stewart to be the full time starter for a period in 2017, unless the club makes Diaz the first rookie starter to break camp with the big club in Huntington’s entire tenure.

    • I really would like to see Cervelli extended and trade one of the prospects. They have two good ones and two decent ones. I know nobody wants to extend him but prospects are a crap shoot.

      • If prospects below Diaz’ s level are ” a crap shoot “, why would another organization give up anything but another lottery ticket for one of them ?

    • We can always start Stewart and ease Diaz in.

      *ducks* (100% sarcasm)

      • But also reality?

        This is how a lot of catchers are broken in these days, especially non-elite prospects on contending teams. Some significant split with a veteran. In a perfect situation, a veteran in a walk year. Sounds awful familiar.

        Chris Stewart is a great backup catcher, but does anyone really want to see him wrack up 500 AB? If you don’t know what you have in Diaz until next year, that’s a very real possibility. Just not sure if I believe Stewart is a commodity so much in demand that an extension was necessary. If Huntington wanted him back in 2017 to back up Diaz, he could’ve easily had him.

        • I think even the most giving scenario never has Stewart getting 500 at bats. I could see him starting for a few months and then giving way to a 70/30 split, but thats a bit far out there for me.

          As rare as it might be, i dont think NH cares a ton about the notion that you cant have a catcher start from day 1. His bigger issue would be service time, if history is any indicator.

    • I wonder if the splitting time with Sanchez experiment last year in AAA led the Pirates to want to make him a full time starter right away, and that’s why they extended Stewart to serve as his backup. Perhaps they decided it would be more helpful for Diaz specifically to play everyday instead of easing him into the role.

      Sure, it would be the first time it’s happened, but have we ever had a prospect of Diaz’s caliber under Huntington’s tenure before now? Sanchez was promising once upon a time, but I don’t think he ever got the praise defensively Diaz does.

      • Boy, if it took ’em through last year to figure out that Diaz, not Sanchez, will be the only guy with a snowballs chance of one day starting big league games…

    • That’s a really good point NMR. Have to think Diaz will see time in Pittsburgh this season to see what they have before turning over the reigns to him next year. More than likely Stewart or Cervelli will have a DL stint, but if they don’t? Be Interesting to see how it plays out.

      • And you’re right to call me out on that one, Scott…I’m almost certainly creating a hypothetical that won’t come to pass. Keeping two catchers healthy for 162 games would almost be as big of a miracle as only having five starters take the mound all year.

        Diaz is likely to get his chances, but I would feel a lot more comfortable if the team had some idea going into 2017 whether or not upgrading at the position would be worth it. I really, really like Diaz but he’s far from too good to fail and we damn sure can appreciate just how important Martin and Cervelli have been to the past three years. I’d hate to have a club that looks like it’ll be so damn good have a hole at such an important position.

    • Simple solution, trade Cervelli and move Stewart into his position and Diaz in Stewart’s position. Last year Diaz spent all year at AAA and the year before [2014] had 33 ABs at AAA at the end of the season. IMO that Diaz passed the AAA test but that is not how the FO operates.

      • Without context, I agree. But I think this highlights how management is on the fence right now as to the direction of this 2016 club. I still firmly believe they didn’t do what was required for a team at this point on the “win curve”, as Huntington says, to separate themselves or even keep pace in a devastatingly competitive division, but then they did go out and get/keep veterans at positions where they have high quality prospects directly in position to get needed big league experience.

        Given the nature of the two-wildcard system, they’d probably have to be 5+ games under .500 heading into the trade deadline in order to truly be sellers of a guy like Cervelli, and this team is most certainly good enough to beat that.

        Strange transition point in this franchise, and I’m not sure I see a defined, logical strategy.

    • Fear not, I have every confidence that Cervelli will get hurt this year and allow Diaz to pick up 150-200 PAs.

      I think the Bucs are playing this situation right.

  • Wish we would have sold high on McGuire and traded him in 2014. Might as well hold onto him now. I’m guessing his trade value is considerably less than it once was.

    • What do you think they would have received in a trade for a 19 year old prospect with less than one year in MiLB, and that at one of the lowest levels ?

      • As 81st ranked prospect and a 60 grade player at that time… Zimmerman wrote this up year on prospect trade values. Could have probably expected to get a player with a surplus of 2 WAR.

  • Excellent article Tim, re an excellent Pirate.
    I do, however, disagree with the statement that “when Stewart plays he is not going to be an asset to the lineup.” I haven’t researched the stats but I believe that Stewart was an asset when hitting in the 8 hole. He seemed to me to be better than Mercer(who I like) esp Vs RHP.
    Stewart worked the count, made contact, got on base & turned the line up over by getting the pitcher’s spot to the plate. I wonder how he compared to other #8 hitters with comparable PAs.

    • I agree, it seemed like he always came up with a smart single when we needed one.

      • I remember many a time when “Stew” would hit a single, and stare in to the dugout while standing on first base, pointing to his head, as if to say, “Guys, just get a single when it’s all that’s needed!”

  • Chris Stewart has been primarily a “pitcher’s Catcher” for his whole career, and would make a fine coach on the Pirates staff after his playing days are over. He is well spoken, very knowledgeable, and could be a valuable asset to any team. Because of his years with the Pirates, his personal knowledge of the young pitchers and catchers would make him a unique resource and value to the Pirates.

    • My thoughts exactly. Figured the deal for 3 years would lead into a coaching position.

    • When I look at Chris Stewart, I see a future coach for sure. I don’t know there’s anyone on the Bucs who thinks the game better than he does.

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