Notes: Stewart homers; prospects get work

March 1st, 2021

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- On the physical side of things,  focused this winter on improving his defense by utilizing a personal chef and cardio-centric workouts to slim down with an eye toward increasing his mobility in the outfield. But on the mental side, the Orioles outfielder sought ways to reimagine his two-strike approach, searching for more consistency after posting a lopsided .193/.355/.455 slash line in small 31-game sample last season.

Doing so, Stewart concluded, required striking a balance to better blend aggression with plate discipline to avoid being too passive, without sacrificing his considerable on-base skills. It’s an ongoing process, but Stewart believes strides were evident Monday, when he enjoyed a productive spring debut in the Orioles’ 4-4 tie with the Phillies at BayCare Ballpark.

“The biggest takeaway from today was my first two at-bats,” Stewart said. “They both came with two strikes.”

Stewart squared up the ball both times, lining a two-run homer off Phillies ace Aaron Nola in the first before getting robbed of a potential extra-base hit by right fielder Matt Joyce in the third. Stewart also reached on an error that scored a run in the fourth, and he made a tumbling catch in right to help Jorge López limit damage in the first.

The two-strike results, especially against a strikeout artist like Nola, were important after Stewart performed like a true three-outcome hitter in 2020. He walked a lot (18 percent walk rate), but he also struck out at a career-high rate (34 percent).

“I know I have a good eye, but there's also sometimes early in the count that I'm a little bit too selective. I feel like, and I know that, I can do damage with those pitches,” Stewart said. "But I'm also comfortable hitting with two strikes. But sometimes you get the nastier stuff with two strikes. So it's a balance thing that I'm kind of trying to work on, to be aggressive early, but also shorten it up and put it in play trying to do the job.”

In 112 plate appearances in 2020, Stewart put the ball in play 54 times. When he did, on in-zone pitches, the results were often loud: just a .224 average, but a .552 slugging percentage. If he can optimize those results more going forward, it would help Stewart separate himself in a crowded Orioles outfield mix or at least secure regular at-bats as the designated hitter in '21.

“I like guys to be aggressive on balls they can handle -- hittable strikes early in the count,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “I think DJ -- because he can do so much damage -- can be too patient at times. I was really happy with his approach today.”

More from this game
The O’s got their first in-game spring looks at several prospects Monday, including first baseman Tyler Nevin, left-hander Zac Lowther and Rule 5 Draft picks Mac Sceroler and Tyler Wells.

Nevin, who was part of the return package in the Mychal Givens trade, went hitless in two at-bats, but he made two difficult defensive plays at first base.

Sceroler walked two, struck out one and allowed a hit over a scoreless inning, hitting 93-95 mph on the stadium radar gun. Wells struck out one and walked another during a scoreless seventh.

The biggest prospect, name-wise, to debut was Lowther, one of several highly touted hurlers who could reach the Majors in 2021. The burly lefty walked one and allowed a hit over a scoreless frame, aided by an excellent defensive play by Rio Ruiz behind him. Lowther is more than likely ticketed for Triple-A to begin the year, but he could arrive in Baltimore by late summer.

“We’re going to give Lowther a long look,” Hyde said. “He’s a guy who's had a really nice Minor League career to this point, and put up some great numbers. We want to see how that translates up here.”

New year, new faces
The Orioles announced an important off-field hire Monday, tabbing Katie Krause as their new public relations director. Krause, who was previously the D-backs' senior manager of corporate communications, will oversee the day-to-day operations of the O’s PR department. She replaces Kristen Hudak, who held the position from 2014-2020.

Up next
Orioles ace John Means (2-4, 4.53 ERA in 2020) makes his Grapefruit League debut when the club returns home to play the Yankees at Ed Smith Stadium on Tuesday. Trey Mancini is also expected to return to the lineup after his emotional spring debut, likely at designated hitter. First pitch is scheduled for 1:05 p.m. ET.