After tough pro debut, DJ Stewart is determined to use his new stance to improve

After a high school career in Jacksonville, Fla., where he played on five state championship teams, and a decorated college career at Florida State, DJ Stewart finally played baseball but did not have consistent success last summer.

The Orioles’ first-round draft pick last June, taken 25th overall, Stewart hit just .218 in 62 games at short-season Single-A Aberdeen in 2015 with six homers, 24 RBIs and a .633 OPS.

Stewart, 22, batted .318/.500/.593 with 15 home runs, 59 RBIs and 62 runs scored in 64 games in 2015 as an FSU junior. The 6-foot, 225-lb. left-handed hitting outfielder was the 2014 Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Year and a 2014 All-ACC first team selection after leading the conference in batting average (.351), slugging percentage (.557), and OBP (.472) as a sophomore. He also played in 28 games with the USA Collegiate National Team in the summer of 2014.

DJ Stewart 7-21-2015 (1).jpgHe is not used to seeing a .218 batting average next to his name. Sometimes players that go directly from college to the pros after the draft can run out of gas and hit a bit of a wall late during a long season. But Stewart would see that as misplaced blame.

“I’m not going to make excuses at all,” he said. “It’s not my first time playing that many games. We play summer ball after the college season, so it’s a long season.

“Honestly, it was just a new experience for me. I’m no longer a part of Florida State, I’m now a part of the Baltimore Orioles. You have to learn every day how to go about things and how to be a professional. I have to learn and grow each day.”

So what did he learn last year, a season where he hit just .195 in his last 77 at-bats?

“Just getting into the routine of things,” he said. “Knowing what I need to do each day to prepare to play. Everyone is different and has their own routines. You have to know the schedule and be ready to play each day.”

After that first experience in pro ball, Stewart made a pretty dramatic stance change during Orioles instructional league workouts last fall. While he batted out of a very low crouch at FSU, he now stands much more upright than he did in college.

“I made an adjustment,” he said. “There was a suggestion by the organization that it would be more beneficial for me. I’m standing up a little bit more now. Just trying to make sure I can get to every single pitch and not make it tougher than it needs to be. Just simplify things with my stance and my swing.

DJ-Stewart-new-stance-tall.jpg“It’s about a midpoint (between very low and completely upright). I just made some adjustments during the offseason, just working on going all the way. It’s at the midpoint now. I tried to mess with it during the season last year. It was hard making adjustments during the season. So that was a focus for me this offseason.”

Stewart had hit out of a very low crouch for several seasons, even using that stance a few times as far back as his freshman year of high school. He actually got even lower during his three seasons at Florida State. He said he has taken well to the changes he’s made.

“At instructs, I was working on that, but also hitting the ball to the opposite field,” Stewart said. “My game is hitting the ball over the shortstop’s head, left-center gap. That is when I’m at my best.

“I got a little pull-happy in Aberdeen, trying to hit too many home runs and trying to do too much. At instructs, I kind of backed off the plate a bit and tried to hit the ball to the opposite field. At instructs, I got in a lot of good work and a got a lot of good information from the staff.

“I was more upright like I am now in high school. When I first got to Florida State, I was more upright, too. Through the three years there, I kind of got lower and lower. Where I am hitting now, I’ve hit there before. So I’m comfortable with it.”

In a recent interview at the Buck O’Neil Baseball Complex at Twin Lakes Park, Stewart sounded very determined to have a much better second pro season. He said he was not at all discouraged by his play last summer. But was it mentally tough at times to deal with poor statistics probably for the first time in his life?

“It depends on the person,” Stewart said. “I pride myself on being mentally tough. Baseball is a game of failure. You fail seven out of 10 times, you’re a Hall of Famer. Everyone has their struggles. I’ve been blessed to be where I am right now.

“I’m not going to let one season affect who I am at all. Every day is a blessing out here. It’s different - college and the pro level. Those are two totally different animals. I won’t look at one year as me failing. I’ll work my tail off every single day to get better.”

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