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With eye on majors, Orioles first-rounder DJ Stewart changes stance on his low crouch

DJ Stewart swings at a pitch, good for a double during the Aberdeen IronBirds game against the Tri-City Valley Cats at Ripken Stadium in Aberdeen on Saturday, Aug. 8, 2015.
DJ Stewart swings at a pitch, good for a double during the Aberdeen IronBirds game against the Tri-City Valley Cats at Ripken Stadium in Aberdeen on Saturday, Aug. 8, 2015. (Brian Krista / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

DJ Stewart rode the bus from Sarasota to Fort Myers devoid of much fanfare, just one in a large group of minor leaguers carried as extra players for the first half of a split-squad road game Thursday.

He relishes the exposure to the major league players on the trips as he prepares to begin his first full professional season. But Stewart, a near-consensus All-American outfielder at Florida State before the Orioles made him their 2015 first-round draft pick, knows that all his accolades have been stripped away.

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In a quest for the only true accomplishment that matters at this stage — major league success — he's also stripped himself of the most distinguishable trait he carried from a decorated amateur career. Stewart's low, crouched batting stance is no more.

Stewart toyed with changes after signing for a $2.06 million signing bonus, and has come into spring training this year much more upright, a change he and the organization say puts him in a position to thrive when he hits full-season ball next month.

"That was a big focus for me this offseason, finding what works best for me," Stewart said. "I went to [fall] instructional league and coaches there said, 'Do what you want, just pick one.' The best way to succeed in this game at the professional level is where I'm at right now. It's a happy medium between the crouch and upright. That was a big focus for me this offseason, and it's working right now."

Stewart's squatting, left-handed stance, which saw him place much of his weight on his back leg and almost straighten his right leg in front of him, was plenty productive in a three-year Atlantic Coast Conference career at Florida State. He hit .344/.481/.570 in his career, with three straight years with at least 50 RBIs. In 2015, he hit 15 home runs.

Orioles farm director Brian Graham said the organization is typically hands off with first-year players during their draft years. Instead, Graham said, the Orioles let them "show the tools that they got drafted with." Shortly after Stewart was selected, Orioles scouting director Gary Rajsich said the team had no plans to change his unique stance.

But Stewart spent his debut season in Short-A Aberdeen last year trying to tinker with his eye level and how low he crouched as the season was going on. The result was a .218/.293/.345 batting line with six home runs in 62 games.

"He experimented a lot last summer with different stances, and basically different eye levels when he was hitting. He came up with something that he feels comfortable with, and the good thing is we're 100 percent in agreement with the decision. If you ask us from a player development standpoint, how would you like to see him, it would be exactly the way he is right now."

Graham stressed that the decision wasn't made too quickly, or lightly.

"It's absolutely a long enough period of time," Graham said. "He understands things. He's a smart kid. He watches good hitters, and he understands the mechanics of hitting. And he realizes that with his strength and his bat speed, what position he needs to put himself in to put a good swing on the baseball."

The new stance features quieter hands and a higher eye level for Stewart, who showed the same power potential in his batting practice session before Thursday's game in Fort Myers as he had when the team selected him. He showed power to his pull-side and the center of the field, an extension of what Graham said has been a big leap this spring.

That a player who is amid his first professional spring training struck out and grounded out in his two at-bats as a substitute Thursday against the Boston Red Sox barely matters when taking the longer view on what his new stance has done for his career prospects.

"He's just been a lot better this spring than he was all last year, during the Aberdeen season and instructional league," Graham said. "He's been significantly better this spring. You see a guy that's putting a charge in the baseball, that's hitting the ball to all fields, staying on pitchers and having quality at-bats. We're very pleased with where he is right now."

For Stewart, the swing change represents a clean break from the rest of his career. Had the adjustments been incremental, or not been made until he reached a level of competition where the game forced him to, he would've had time in the Orioles' hitting program and created habits with his old swing in his new settings.

He has learned quickly that the hours before the games, and hours spent stretching, hitting and prepping for opponents are some of the most important times in professional baseball. He took the opportunity of traveling with the big league club to learn about the preparation habits of those who have reached the highest level.

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The time in Aberdeen and a stint in the instructional league in Sarasota aside, Stewart said creating new routines with his new swing has been one of the biggest benefits of changing so soon in his career.

"It's a new start," Stewart said. "What I've done in the past, that's the past. I'm at a different level now. I'm part of the Baltimore Orioles. What I did in college and high school, that means nothing anymore. I'm just another guy out here trying to work and do my best to get to the top level."

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