Watching outfielder DJ Stewart get on a roll the last six games and go 7-for-14 for the Orioles with five extra-base hits, it can be easy to forget that Stewart struggled at times this year and at times during his career since the Orioles selected him No. 25 overall in round one of the 2015 draft.
He joined the organization amid the hype and with the high expectations that any first round draft pick faces. But in 2015 at short season Single-A Aberdeen, Stewart hit .218/.288/.345. He started the next year with Single-A Delmarva. He struggled again batting .230/.366/.352 in 62 games.
But at that point, mid-summer in 2016, despite his stats with Delmarva, the Orioles did something interesting. They promoted Stewart to Single-A Frederick.
Back at the time, Orioles director of player development Brian Graham explained the reasons for the move.
“He’s a first-round pick out of a major college,” Graham said. “And it’s an opportunity to start fresh with a brand new batting average. He has the tools and the ability, it just has to translate.
“I think he needs to find some consistency with his swing. DJ has a great work ethic. He’s got bat speed. He’s got strength and he understands the strikezone. He’s got to find that consistency with this swing and when that happens he has a chance to be a good hitter,” Graham said in June of 2016.
And Stewart quickly made that aggressive move look good, when he hit .279./389/.448 at Frederick in 2016 and then in 2017 he hit .278/.376/.481 at Double-A Bowie and his OPS of .859 was a career-high. He became the first player in Bowie Baysox history to produce a season with at least 20 homers and 20 stolen bases. Only 10 players did that in the minors in 2017.
In an interview late last year at Bowie, I reminded Stewart that when he struggled at both Aberdeen and Delmarva, some O’s fans labeled him a first-round bust.
“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 (at Florida State) 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.”
Stewart has shown maturity all along the way. He didn’t let his early struggles in 2015 and 2016 spiral on him. This year he didn’t let an 0-for-13 MLB start with the Orioles snowball on him and he has been raking since getting his first hit.
Even this year at Triple-A Norfolk, Stewart had his struggles. He got off to a decent start for the Tides and was hitting .271 at the end of May. But second-half struggles dropped his final numbers to .235/.329/.387 in 116 games with 24 doubles, two triples, 12 homers, 11 steals and 55 RBIs. In the second half, the 24-year-old Stewart hit .212/.283/.342.
On his first day in the majors, two weeks ago yesterday, Stewart talked about his 2018 year.
“For me, it was a tale of two seasons,” he said. “Started off relatively hot and kind of carried that into from last year in Bowie. To me, I think, this is not making excuses at all, but after I got injured a little bit (hamstring in late May) I feel like when I got back, I was kind of trying to get back to where I was hitting before I got hurt. Instead of just playing. Early in the season, I was just playing the game, having fun and getting hits. When I got back it was like, ‘All right, you have to get back to where you were.’ Kind of put too much pressure on myself, just trying to do too much.”
Stewart’s second half numbers at Norfolk and slow start with Baltimore hasn’t stopped him from hitting now. Center fielder Cedric Mullins knows Stewart well, they’ve played together at four different Orioles affiliates.
“From the all the years that I’ve played with him, he’s just a high-energy guy ready to get after it,” Mullins said of Stewart. “We have a lot of background with each other, so it will be a pretty comfortable situation with both of us being in the outfield. We kind of know each other’s range and how we get to balls. Just knowing each other, I think, is going to bring a solid energy.
“He’s a very confident dude that has been trying to reach this goal since he got drafted. Even before that. He fires on all cylinders and he can run well and steal bases, and he finds a way to get stuff done. So it’s just a matter of him going out there and staying within himself.”
It seems that no matter the level, you can’t keep Stewart down. Now the rookie that struggled at times at Aberdeen, Delmarva, Norfolk and Baltimore, is hitting again and showing some of that confidence that Mullins noted.