When asked what young outfielder DJ Stewart has been doing differently over the past week than he did during the lengthy hitless stretch that got him sent to the team’s alternate training site in Bowie, Orioles manager Brandon Hyde first listed a change in confidence.
But in answering whether that demotion earlier this season inspired Stewart to return with six home runs in six games, Stewart sounded plenty confident.
“Obviously, you don’t want to get sent down, but I’m a motivated person every single day,” Stewart said Friday. “I feel like I have something to prove every time I step on that field. I guess you could say it was a little bit more of a push, but I push myself pretty hard.”
With a solo shot off Masahiro Tanaka, Stewart provided the Orioles' only run Friday as they were swept, 10-1 and 6-0, in a doubleheader against the New York Yankees. After returning from the Orioles' secondary site hitless, the former first-round pick is now batting .278/.469/.806, quickly rising to the three-spot of Hyde’s lineup.
Stewart was sent to Bowie with an on-base percentage of .300 as the result of six walks, but he was also hitless in 14 at-bats. He returned Sept. 4 for a doubleheader with the Yankees at Camden Yards and went 0-for-2 with three walks and hit-by-pitch across the two games, leaving his OBP at .385.
His first hit of 2020 was a tiebreaking home run of New York ace Gerrit Cole, and since then, he’s taken off. In his past six games, Stewart is slashing .520/.565/1.450.
“I was able to clear my head [in Bowie],” Stewart said. “I’m just mentally in a better place, not trying to do too much and just staying within myself and trusting that the work that I’ve put in during the offseason and while I was down there in Bowie. It was kind of just a reset for me and just getting the opportunity now and going out there and trying to do the best I can.”
What’s fueling Stewart’s hot streak that wasn’t happening before his demotion?
He’s getting consistent playing time.
Stewart’s opportunity came as a direct result of Anthony Santander’s oblique injury, one that is likely season-ending. Since, Hyde has had Stewart in the lineup every day.
Before his demotion, Stewart, despite being the Orioles' Opening Day left field, had started back-to-back games only once, and even those contests had an off day between them.
In Bowie, he was able to get regular at-bats and, as a result of Santander’s absence, has continued to be able to do so in the majors.
“When you get in the box and you’re not worried about outside things and you’re just relaxed and seeing the ball and trying to put a good swing on it, I think that comes from that, just trusting that the work I’ve put in is good enough and just going out there and performing,” Stewart said.. “Preparing every single day, going through my routine and being able to play every single day, it’s a blessing.”
He’s pulling the ball more.
All six of the left-handed-hitting Stewart’s home runs have gone to right field. Of the 13 balls he’s put in play since being promoted, eight have gone to his pull side.
Likewise, before his demotion, only three of the eight balls Stewart put in play were pulled. In his career, Stewart has traditionally hit pulled balls harder, with an average exit velocity of 89.9 mph before Friday’s home run, than those to the opposite field, with an average exit velocity of 82.2 mph.
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But even Friday, Stewart had success going opposite field. His sixth-inning double into left field broke up a string of 14 straight Orioles outs late in the game, coming on a changeup away and beneath the zone. Still, its exit velocity was 76.2 mph, more than 30 mph softer than his home run earlier.
“Just going back to who I was, trying to use the whole field,” Stewart said. “The last at-bat, they’re going to shift me, and if they throw it out there, just using that part of the field. I know a lot of my hits have been pull side, but that’s just where the pitches have been. Just trying to stay up the middle, stay in the big parts of the field, not being jumpy to the ball and kind of just reacting to it, letting my hands do the work and trusting myself.”
He’s crushing fastballs.
Stewart’s home run Friday came on a Tanaka slider, but four of his first five homers were off fastballs.
Entering Friday’s doubleheader, he had seen 58.3% fastball since his promotion, compared to 55.4% in the first stint. It’s a marginal increase, but it’s what he’s doing with them that stands out.
Of the five fastballs he’s put in play since rejoining the Orioles, four have been home runs. Excluding one sacrifice bunt, the four fastballs he put in play before his demotion featured two groundballs and a popup. And of course, no hits.
“He’s more on time with his fastball than I’ve ever seen him,” Hyde said. “I’ve always liked the length in his swing and how he stays through the ball in BP, and now, he’s doing it in the game.”