Detroit – It must be on every team’s scouting report. Be aggressive out of the box on any ball hit to left field against the Tigers. Christin Stewart graded out as the worst-throwing outfielder in the big leagues last year.
The Reds, old teammate Nick Castellanos and others, ran on him. The Royals, Whit Merrifield and Alex Gordon, ran on him. The Pirates ran on him.
But on Saturday night, Stewart took a step toward putting a caution sign on those reports.
Stewart expertly played a line drive off the wall in left in the second inning, pivoted and threw a strike to second base, gassing the Indians’ Domingo Santiago.
“He’s been working really hard,” manager Ron Gardenhire said Sunday. “He said this spring that he had a lot more life in his body, just like you saw yesterday. … He’s really worked hard at it and he’s made himself a better outfielder. It was really fun to see him make a perfect throw to second base and nail the guy.”
Outfield coach Dave Clark has worked diligently, daily, with Stewart. They work on fielding caroms off the wall, on reading balls off the bat, on his pivot, on his throwing mechanics and release. Stewart spent the offseason reshaping his body, improving his flexibility and agility, and yes, strengthening his arm.
“Arm strength plays a part in it,” said Stewart, who now has three outfield assists in his career. “I started to do a lot of stuff to strengthen my arm, heavy balls, different mobility stuff. All that kind of came together – technique and arm strength.”
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He’s handled the 19 fly balls and line drives that have come his way so far this year, showing better reads off the bat and more lateral range. According to FanGraphs.com measures, he’s not threatening to win a Gold Glove, but he’s improved significantly thus far.
He was a minus-6 in defensive runs saved the last two years, this year he’s level, zero. His zone rating, which measures range and arm strength, has gone from minus-8.3 last year to minus-0.2.
“Just coming back after having a year under my belt was big,” he said. “I got a little more confident in my ability and what I do well, and just starting to be more aggressive out there and trying to make plays. Not afraid to make great plays, like I did last night.”
And yet, wouldn’t you know, as his defense has improved, the part of his game that got him to the big leagues – his power bat – remains stagnant. To the point where he’s essentially become a platoon player in Gardenhire’s lineup.
“Stew goes about his business,” Gardenhire said. “He reads the lineup card and he’s either in or out, he doesn’t really talk about it too much. He’s a quiet kid. But we’re trying to play everybody and I think everybody understands that in the clubhouse.
“We’re mixing and matching the best we can.”
Understanding it is one thing, accepting it is another. And the Tigers don’t want him to accept being a platoon player.
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“We know what he’s capable of at the plate,” Gardenhire said. “We know he has power. We believe he will hit at this level.
Especially now that clean-up hitter C.J. Cron is out for the year (knee surgery), the Tigers need Stewart to heat up. He is hitting .200, with just three extra base hits (one home run) and three RBIs. He’s striking out 33 percent of the time.
“It’s just, when my name is called, I’m ready to go,” he said. “I was getting pulled out against left-handed pitchers or not playing – it’s all good. At the end of the day, we want the win. If my name is called, I’m going to do my job.”