Detroit Tigers Roster Preview: Christin Stewart needs to rebound quickly

Jul 9, 2020; Detroit Tigers left fielder Christin Stewart stands on first base: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports
Jul 9, 2020; Detroit Tigers left fielder Christin Stewart stands on first base: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports /

It was a difficult year for Detroit Tigers outfielder Christin Stewart in 2020. His numbers took a step back across the board and now there are significant questions about his future. The upcoming season is a pivotal one for Stewart and will go a long way in determining his future with the organization.

Contract Status with the Detroit Tigers

Per Baseball-Reference, Stewart has accrued 1.164 years of service time and is not yet eligible for salary arbitration (2022). He will reach free agency in 2025.

2020 Performance Evaluation

Before we start any discussion on Stewart in 2020, it needs to be said. Stewart played in 36 games and made only 99 trips to the plate, so we do have a minimal sample size.  But what we did see can only be described as bad, really bad.  None of this is to say that his 2019 performance was a revelation leading everyone to believe he was the real deal. But, it was clearly better than 2020 and at least offered some hope for progress. Pick any offensive metric and Stewart saw the number trend in the wrong direction in the pandemic shortened season. His OPS (.524), wOBA (.230), and wRC+ (39) were bad (really bad) and his walk rate declined, while his strikeout rate increased. When coupled with his defense (never considered his standout tool), his overall production generated a bWAR of -0.6 which of course is bad (did I used that yet).

It’s hard to find a silver lining for Stewart in 2020 outside of perhaps believing he could have improved over a longer season. Given this is a preview article for the upcoming season let’s not continue to dwell on the “bad”. However, let’s attempt to figure out why he was so bad and what he could do to improve.

A few areas stand out as contributing to the downfall of Christin Stewart but it seems to primarily come down to getting fewer fastballs and his overall contact ability. The pitch mixed Stewart faced in 2020 changed significantly. The percentage of fastballs he was thrown was down 8%, which of course means, he faced more breaking/off-speed pitches (which have a lower expected wOBA so getting fastballs is good for Stewart and, almost every hitter for that matter). Some of the shift is naturally from pitchers’ better understanding of how to approach Stewart and making a choice to throw fewer fastballs. It is likely though, Stewart’s performance is also partly to blame for the change in the pitch mix. The other major issue appears to be a severe change in Stewart’s ability to make contact. His whiff rate increased dramatically which led to an increase in Stewart’s strikeout rate. Addressing these items is critical for Stewart moving forward and the factors below are ways to accomplish this in 2021.

Plate Discipline – Stewart has always been considered a patient hitter, regularly generating walk rates in excess of 10% during his time in the minors. In 2020 however, his walk rate cratered to 5.1% which is well below even his 2019 performance of 8.2% and a far cry from his double-digit percentages from the minors (and where he needs to be productive). Outside of the obvious benefit of making up for his below-average hit tool by allowing him to post above average on-base percentages. It also puts him in a better position to use his raw power in games by improving his count leverage (being in advantageous count situations). Many pitchers increase their fastball usage when behind in the count so a return to the plate discipline we saw from Stewart in the past would certainly help. What happened last season that caused this massive drop in walk rate? Part of the overall issue may be attributed to the rise in his first pitch swing percentage. The uptick from 28.8% in 2019 to 34.3% in 2020 is pretty significant and something Stewart and the Tigers have hopefully evaluated closely this off-season.

Improve against non-fastballs – This one is easier said than done but even if Stewart is able to regain his ability to work the count it still seems likely pitchers will be throwing fewer fastballs if he continues to struggle against others pitches. In 2019 Stewart was respectable against breaking/off-speed stuff however in 2020, he was absolutely awful against them (bad maybe). Looking at pitch tracking data he was a combined 4 for 48 against anything that wasn’t a fastball, with only one extra-base hit. Hopefully part of that is a small sample size issue and he would regress to his 2019 performance given time. In any event, making sure he isn’t a guaranteed out when thrown certain pitches will clearly help with the pitch mix he faces in the future.

Launch Angle – Reviewing Statcast data shows evidence he was perhaps attempting to join the launch angle revolution last season. In 2021, his launch angle increased from19.1 to 24.5 degrees which is a pretty sizeable increase. Was this a conscious choice in an attempt to hit more home runs or was it a small sample size mirage? If it was intended, then perhaps, a swing/approach change was partly to blame for Stewart’s poor offensive performance. Since a change of this magnitude could impact everything discussed above.

ZIPS Projection

Zips sees a return to his 2019 levels in 2021 which would, at least, be a step in the right direction. They have Stewart playing in 130 games and getting 500 at-bats (I think I may bet the under on these though) with an 84 wRC+.

MCB Take

As we mentioned yesterday in our look at Akil Baddoo the Tiger’s outfield situation is actually pretty settled as we enter spring training games. Given that Stewart has a minor league option available, he seems destined to begin the season with Toledo. If he performs to his past triple-A levels he would be one of the first names (along with Daz Cameron) that would get the call to Detroit if a need arose in the outfield. From there, it is on him to make the necessary changes to improve his performance which would allow fans to describe his game with words other than “bad”.