The Dodgers have, and have had for a few years, one of the very best farm systems around. That leads to them receiving a certain amount of coverage, so you couldn’t in good conscience consider the Dodgers’ system in any way underrated. Yet so much attention has been focused on the elites — Corey Seager, Joc Pederson, Julio Urias, Cody Bellinger, and so forth. The major story of the system is the top of the system. Which, in turn, can undersell the best of the others.
We spent time last year singing the praises of Jharel Cotton, who has since been traded away. Cotton kind of got lost in the mix. Similarly, we’ve spent time singing the praises of Jose De Leon, who has also since been traded away. The De Leon perception suffered from the nearby presence of Urias. Maybe the fact that those two have been traded means the Dodgers weren’t big fans after all. Maybe it doesn’t mean that. But they’re major-league pitchers, and if the Dodgers just demonstrated anything, it’s that you can need a lot of those in a summer.
Why, then, deplete the depth? Well, Cotton got another starting pitcher. De Leon got a starting second baseman. Those are good reasons. Brock Stewart is another good reason. Fairly quietly, Stewart surged forward in 2016, by pulling off two very fundamental tasks: throwing a bunch of strikes, and missing a bunch of bats.
Stewart, to be clear, isn’t a no-one. The Dodgers gave him some major-league experience. Eric recently ranked him as their seventh-best prospect. Baseball America put him at eighth. Stewart has shown himself to be good, and prospect evaluators are aware of that, but he still isn’t seen as one of the elites, overall or within his own system. So Stewart’s, for now, isn’t a sexy name. But I can show you a sexy plot, if such a thing can exist. I can show you why Stewart is on my own radar.
I got some help from Matthew Carruth, who pulled numbers from high-level minor-leaguers for the past five years. In the plot below, combined Double-A and Triple-A numbers for starters with at least 1,000 pitches thrown in a given year. Shown are two familiar statistics: strike rate and contact rate. Stewart’s 2016 data point is highlighted in blue.
Very clearly, Stewart’s point is exceptional, well removed from the crowd. That point to Stewart’s right belongs to 2016 Cesar Valdez — he’s a 31-year-old changeup artist who spent years playing in Mexico. The A’s picked him up, and he’s interesting, but he comes with a small margin of error. The only other point close to Stewart has partial overlap, and that point belongs to 2016 Joe Musgrove, who the Astros don’t want to trade for Jose Quintana. Between the highest levels of the minors last year, Stewart allowed 75% contact while throwing 71% strikes. That is a silly combination.
I know that scouting types like to scoff at people who scout the stat line, so to speak. And, yeah, stat lines can easily mislead. They provide only some of the necessary information. At the same time, one shouldn’t understate the significance of simply getting the job done in the upper minors. That’s the best way to show you’re ready for a promotion. Last year, out of starters who threw at least 50 innings in Double-A, Stewart ranked fourth in K-BB%, behind major prospects Luke Weaver, David Paulino, and Josh Hader. And then last year, out of starters who threw at least 50 innings in Triple-A, Stewart ranked second in K-BB%, behind only Jose De Leon. In the lower minors, just having one good offspeed pitch can lead to outstanding results. In the upper minors, you need to be more polished, and Stewart did better than almost anyone.
And Stewart isn’t Cesar Valdez. Valdez forever needs his changeup to be on, because he’s defined by his finesse. Stewart’s fastball just averaged 93.2 miles per hour. Yu Darvish’s fastball just averaged 93.3 miles per hour. And by spin rate, Stewart’s four-seamer wound up in the 96th percentile, right by Blake Snell and Dylan Bundy. Stewart doesn’t try to survive by guile — he blends command and above-average arm strength. He has three pitches, and his changeup is ahead of his slider.
Yeah, in Stewart’s brief time in the majors, he allowed seven homers in 28 innings. That’s bad! Four of those came in one game in Colorado. And if you’re going to hold Stewart’s homers against him, you need to also give him credit for generating a better-than-average exit velocity. He was either easy to hit, or not. The small samples are in conflict with one another. I’ll note that over the same small sample, Stewart allowed the same big-league rate of contact as Chris Sale and Jake Arrieta. It wasn’t all lousy. It was even mostly fine, and Stewart’s 2016 was a whirlwind.
There’s one critical bit of information I haven’t mentioned yet. What could be one explanation for Stewart’s rapid rise? He was drafted in the sixth round in 2014. That was also his first year as a pitcher, and he mostly relieved for Illinois State. In 2015, he got in 19 starts. In 2016, he got in 26. This was just his second full year as a pitcher, and as a starting pitcher, and even going back to college, Stewart has just 312 innings of competitive baseball on his arm. In that sense, he’s 25, going on 20, and he’s still figuring things out. The fact that he already has command of a three-pitch big-league repertoire is remarkable.
Whenever we include .gifs, we’re always selective for ones that support the argument. So, yeah, this is a little bit of propaganda, but you should have an idea of how Stewart’s pitches look, visually. Here’s the fastball, which he can move around to either side of the plate:
Here’s the slider, which is sometimes like a cutter. Big-league hitters missed it half the time they swung.
And here’s the changeup, which Stewart is quite fond of, whether he’s facing a lefty or righty. The changeup in the majors was 12.2 ticks slower than the heater. That was the sixth-biggest gap out of 250 pitchers. Interestingly, four of the top six began last year as Dodgers property. Anyway! Look at a whiff.
It should go without saying that Stewart still has work to do. His slider could stand to add more depth, and in no game last year did Stewart exceed 95 pitches. He’s still building up arm strength, and he still has his own drawbacks. But there’s so much here, already, making Stewart far more interesting than the average 25-year-old. To have his stuff, and his command, after so little pitching is incredible, and the Dodgers have to be excited about what could be in store for 2017 ahead. You can’t really fake what Stewart just did, and Stewart just did something terrific. After all, the best indicator of success at the major-league level is great success just below it.
Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.