Most minor league players do not put up much better statistics in Double-A than they posted at lower levels on the farm. But outfielder DJ Stewart is not like most minor league players.
Written off on some message boards as a first-round bust when he hit .218 at short-season Single-A Aberdeen after the 2015 draft, Stewart emerged this season with the best year of his career. It ended with him ranking among the Eastern League leaders in several offensive categories.
It also ended with Stewart as one of 10 players in all of the minors to produce a 20-20 season - with 20 or more homers and steals, where a player shows a nice combination of power and speed. The No. 25 pick in the draft of 2015, Stewart became the first player in the history of the Double-A Bowie Baysox to do it.
In 126 games, the 23-year-old Stewart hit .278/.378/.481 with 26 doubles, two triples, 21 homers, 20 steals, 80 runs, 79 RBIs and with an OPS of .859 for the Baysox. Stewart’s OPS was .633 after that first season in Aberdeen. When that year ended, he fell from No. 9 to No. 19 on Baseball America’s top 30 Orioles prospects list. He also heard the criticism that a first-round pick might get after hitting .218 in short-season ball.
“You hear it with social media, but I’m not the type of person that lets it affect me,” Stewart said of the critics. “I’ve had people doubt me my entire life. In high school, I was a 28th-rounder. I went to school for three years and I become a first-rounder. I knew what I could do. But it takes time developing. It is fun to do things people say you can’t do. But you can’t let that effect you. You have to be who you are and play your game.”
This season, Stewart led the Eastern League in runs scored, and finished fourth in walks, OBP and RBIs, fifth in total bases and tied for eighth in steals.
In this article, Jonathan Mayo of MLBPipeline.com points out that producing 20 or more homers and steals in the same year doesn’t guarantee success in the majors. But players like Alex Rodriguez, Joey Votto, Ian Kinsler and Ryan Braun went 20-20 on the farm.
“It was a goal of mine to be a 20-20 guy,” Stewart told me recently at Bowie’s Prince George’s Stadium. “I didn’t know that no one in Baysox history had ever done that, but it was a goal. In talking with B.G. (Brian Graham, Orioles director of player development) and Brady Anderson, they want our organization to be known as a baserunning organization. In spring training, they talked about letting me run and proving I could do it. The biggest thing is not just running, but being successful a high percentage. Not just being successful 50 percent of the time.”
Stewart stole 20 of 24 bases for a success rate of 83 percent. He got his 20th steal Sept. 3 against Richmond.
“The harder one (to achieve) was stolen bases,” he said. “With the guys that were hitting around me, you don’t want to run in situations where they can get good pitches to hit and take away pitches from them. So that was the hardest one for me. And we also faced some very good catchers. Just picking the right counts to go on and not try to go in fastball counts. That would make it easier to throw me out and also take away a pitch that your hitter could do damage with.”
Stewart produced a big finish to his year and was the Orioles’ minor league Player of the Month for August. He hit .340 with nine doubles, six home runs, 17 runs and 20 RBIs over 27 games in the month. The Florida State product recorded the first multi-home run game of his career on Aug. 22. For the season, the lefty batter hit for a higher average against lefty pitchers (.291 to .272), but his slugging percentage was higher versus right-handers (.503 to .433).
During the Eastern League playoffs, Bowie manager Gary Kendall provided a very favorable report on Stewart’s season.
“He has come up with some big hits and has put the play in play with some strength,” Kendall said. “He brings a lot of ingredients to be a good hitter. He’s very physical and strong and puts the ball in play with authority a lot. He can get on base a lot of different ways. He can walk with good strike zone judgment, can drive the ball in the alleys, can leave the park and he can leg out hits. Offensively, there are a lot of ways for him to get on base.
“Defensively, he has just continued to work. Every day he works on his routes, shags a lot and throws to bases. He listens and he’s had a lot of help from our coach, Butch Davis, and B.J. Surhoff has been around our club a lot. So there are some guys that have a lot of experience that he just feeds off.
“But most importantly, he puts time and effort into his game. He really likes to play. One of the worst days for DJ is when he comes in and has an occasional day off. He never comes in and says he needs a day. He always wants to be in the lineup.”
Kendall and Hays were named Double-A All-Stars by Baseball America. That is a nice honor since they name one All-Star team for all three Double-A leagues. And of the three outfielders on that team, two came from Bowie.
By the way, four others in the organization made Baseball America All-Star teams. Ryan Mountcastle made the high Single-A team as designated hitter. Orioles minor league Pitcher of the Year Alex Wells made the low Single-A team. Two Aberdeen players made the short-season team: pitcher Zac Lowther and DH Ben Breazeale.