SARASOTA, FL — There are 69 stories in the Orioles spring clubhouse, and right-hander Kohl Stewart’s is a pretty familiar one.
There are a couple of ways you can go when you’re the fourth overall pick in one of the annual amateur drafts: There’s the fast track that gets you to the major leagues in two or three years, and there’s the voyage of self-discovery that determines whether you will ever spend any significant time there.
Stewart is in the second category, which is why he was available this offseason when the Orioles were looking for free-agent bargains to populate what was becoming a huge training camp pitching roster.
Where he differs from everyone else on that roster is that he’s the only pitcher who signed a major league deal over the winter, which is an indication that the Orioles think he’s got a real chance to win a spot on the Opening Day roster.
“We believe in his stuff,” manager Brandon Hyde said recently. “That’s why he was such a high pick, and we’re hoping that it’s a good story about a guy that got a second chance and is taking advantage of it. He’s going to have a lot of opportunities in camp to show that he belongs on the club.”
Of course, if that is true, it’s fair to ask why Stewart knocked around the Minnesota Twins minor league system for parts of seven seasons and could never get that team’s full attention. He reached the majors for the final two months of the 2018 season — with good results — and then spent 2019 on the Twins’ equivalent of the “Norfolk Shuttle.”
Stewart obviously is a pretty self-aware guy, since he didn’t waste any time during a recent interview bashing anybody for not giving him enough of a chance. He knows why he didn’t stick and says it’s not all that complicated.
It’s all about command and control. The difference between success and failure can be as simple as getting to strike two before you get to ball two. When Stewart gets ahead of hitters, he’s effective. When he doesn’t, well, that’s why this is a familiar story.
“That’s obviously a huge thing," Stewart said. “If you’re putting guys on base for free ... when you’re not putting guys away when you have the chance, obviously you’re not going to have a whole lot of success.”
His stat record bears that out. There have been seasons when he walked too many batters and still had an acceptable WHIP. There have been others when he had a solid strikeout/walk ratio but found too many barrels and ended up with a higher WHIP and a four-plus ERA.
On one side of that pendulum is control, the ability to throw the ball in the strike zone. On the other is command, the ability to locate pitches both in and out of the zone to maximum effect.
Orioles executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias and his staff obviously knew all this when Stewart was signed and saw the potential in him to overcome that inconsistency and develop into a valuable piece of the team’s rebuilding program.
“They think there are some things they can help me with," Stewart said when he reported to camp two weeks ago. "They feel pretty strongly about that, so I’m looking forward to trying to implement that plan and try to execute it.”
He was scheduled to make his spring debut Tuesday, but has been pushed back a few days after experiencing what Hyde described as some minor biceps soreness. Stewart said Monday that the delay was purely precautionary and that he can’t wait to get on the mound for the first time in an Orioles uniform.
“I’m excited to get it going," he said. “I’ve put a lot of work in. Every offseason you put a lot of work in, so you’re excited to see if it’s all going to pan out … if things are going to be working as well as it seems like it’s working. I’m just excited trying to apply some of the new things that we’ve been doing and go from there and see what the hitters tell me.”
What they told him at the upper levels of the Twins minor league system was that he was not being aggressive enough early in the count, an assessment that Stewart and the Orioles wholeheartedly endorse.
“I think a lot of it is mental," he said. “I think a lot of it’s just going out there in attack mode and forcing the action. That’s a big part of what I’m trying to do here while I’m here. I’m trying to go out and get ahead. In the first three pitches, I’m trying to force the action and not let at-bats go too long.”
It’s a hurdle a lot of young pitchers have to clear to be consistently effective against quality professional hitters. Coaches can help with mechanical issues and pitch sequencing, but how do you coach that part of the game, when command and confidence are so tightly intertwined?
The Orioles will be trying to answer that question throughout the developmental phase of the rebuild, and not just with Stewart. There were several young O’s pitchers who dealt with the same problems last year at the big league level and a lot of them are still trying to harness their potential.
“It’s a little bit of everything," Hyde said. “It’s making sure that their mechanics are sound, it’s trying to take anxiety away from the moment. There’s all kinds of different factors of why guys [struggle] and we talked about it a lot throughout the year last year, being able to pitch ahead in the count in this league is vital.”
For Stewart, this spring is not a last stand. He still has one minor league option left, but obviously would prefer to take full advantage of the opportunity to break camp with the major league club.
“This year, I’m just trying to take it one pitch at a time,’’ Stewart said. “I really like Doug [pitching coach Doug Brocail] and I really like the staff. I think the plans that they have for me and the things that they’ve given me so far, I think are going to really help me and I’m really looking forward to proving them right.”