For all of the Orioles’ efforts to stabilize their rotation this offseason, few of the veteran starting pitchers they signed this winter and spring were expected to provide much long-term upside.
Kohl Stewart was an exception. The fourth overall pick in the 2013 draft never reached the heights associated with such a high pick with the Minnesota Twins and came to the Orioles this offseason representing this progressive pitching program’s first chance at a reclamation project.
The level of enthusiasm surrounding his exhibition start Tuesday against the World Series champion Washington Nationals at Nationals Park, and the way manager Brandon Hyde discusses what Stewart can bring, show that there’s promise in the 25-year-old for the Orioles to unlock.
“We love the arm,” Hyde said. “We just didn’t see him pitch much in spring training 1.0. He’s throwing the ball better and he’s been healthy through this summer camp. I think that we’re continuing to watch, but it’s an arm that we really like.
“I like the shape to his pitches. He’s got major-league starter stuff. It’s about going out there and being able to pound the strike zone with it and be able to work ahead of hitters, especially in this division.”
Stewart allowed three runs on three hits in 3⅓ innings on Tuesday night with three strikeouts and two walks. He ran into trouble in the first inning, issuing a leadoff walk and allowing an RBI double to Howie Kendrick, but settled down after that.
His role with the Orioles is unclear. He wasn’t initially meant to start the exhibition game, but will because left-hander Wade LeBlanc will instead be pitching back at Camden Yards in an intrasquad game. With the Orioles’ rotation possibly in flux because of Opening Day starter John Means’ arm soreness, Stewart might end up with a chance to be part of the rotation earlier than he would have otherwise.
He said that no matter what role, the team’s hope for him was to be able to pitch at least five innings from the beginning of the season. Stewart acknowledged how different starting a season this way is compared to a normal spring training, but said that he felt like he’d be ready to do that and make it through the entire season healthy.
What will matter more to the Orioles than how often he pitches is what he throws when he’s on the mound. The team had ideas about how to improve his pitch mix and keep him around the strike zone to make him more successful than he was in his stints with the Twins, and Stewart was glad to have the chance to learn some of their plan for him and bring it home to work on during the shutdown.
“It really has a lot to do with sequencing and certain pitches that I haven’t really ever in the past played off of one another,” Stewart said. “I think there’s some pitches that I’ve underutilized in the past like my changeup and my slider, and I don’t think that I’ve given those pitches enough of a workload I guess you can say during a start.
“Sometimes, I get a little bit pitch-happy, a little bit cutter/sinker happy. I think those pitches can be more effective when the rest of my arsenal is kind of used in a little bit of a better way.”
According to MLB’s Statcast data at BaseballSavant.com, Stewart threw his changeup just 4% of the time in the majors last season, and 8.4% of the time a season before. The site’s data combines Stewart’s cutters and sliders, but he said the difference is the cutter is in the high-80s or low-90s whereas the slider is a truer breaking ball.
Stewart said in the past, hitters could guess that he was going to rely on his sinker and not offer at those pitches at the bottom half of the zone, limiting where he could get strike calls and pitch them otherwise.
The cutter “gives them less time to kind of make up their mind right away,” he said.
“If a pitch starts in on the inner half and can do both things, it can run back in or come back over the plate, it can obviously give me a little more margin. I’m going to be able to stay on those corners, and then my off-speed will play up as well. That’s kind of a little bit of insight into the plan.”
The main part of the plan, though, is more sliders and changeups and working both sides of the plate to open up different sequences and approaches. Stewart acknowledged that it won’t happen overnight. Judging by an exhibition start won’t tell the full story of Stewart’s progress, nor will it truly determine where he slots into the Orioles’ pitching staff come the regular season.
“I think myself and the staff is confident that if I can do those thigns and apply them the way that I think we all want me to, I think I can have success and I think we can get the results that we want. But that’s a process, and it happens over time. I think with more starts that I get,t he more innings that I get, the more that I can get some feedback from hitters, the better that plan is going to kind of come into scope and I think we’ll be able to execute it a little better and better each time out.”
Friday, 7:30 p.m.
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