Unconventional Stewart a reliable catching option
Bucs backstop provides excellent defense despite tall, slender frame
The words "tall" and "slender" aren't used to describe many catchers, but both are appropriate in Chris Stewart's case. The Pirates backstop is listed at 6-foot-4 and 210 pounds, and he looks more like a pitcher or a first baseman.
"It used to be the short, pudgy guys were the ones that got put behind the plate," said Stewart, who was acquired from the New York Yankees last December. "I'm not the traditional type of catcher, but for some reason, it's worked out well for me."
Pittsburgh's other two catchers -- Russell Martin at 5-foot-10, 215 pounds and Tony Sanchez at 5-foot-11, 225 pounds -- are physically fit and certainly not pudgy, but they are built more like traditional catchers. So was Michael McKenry, who backed up Martin last year before being injured.
"Shorter guys are usually seen more as catchers because they're able to get down lower, but I'm pretty limber, which allows me to make a low target for my pitchers, too," Stewart said. "I think I'm able to get down just as low as shorter guys. That definitely helps, and fortunately I'm able to do what I do behind the plate. I know it's not traditional, but it's the way I do it, and it works."
The 32-year-old Stewart, who is considered an excellent defensive catcher, started a career-high 98 games for the Yankees in 2013. He has also seen action with the White Sox, Rangers, Padres and Giants since making his big league debut in '06. But during Stewart's days at Canyon Springs High School in Moreno Valley, Calif., he started out as a shortstop and only moved behind the plate out of necessity.
"I always had good hands at shortstop. If I was able to get to the ball, I was able to get the out," Stewart said. "I didn't have much range, but my hands were really good -- fielding the ball and getting rid of it. But one of our catchers quit the team and another guy got appendicitis, so I was pretty much the last resort to go back there. I was the only one left who had a chance [and the ability] to catch our pitchers.
"So I got put back there, I wouldn't say kicking and screaming, but I definitely wasn't throwing my arms up and volunteering for the job. But it's obviously got me where I'm at today. I don't think I would be a big league shortstop, so it's worked out well."
Initially, Stewart wasn't a fan of strapping on the catcher's gear, nor did he like getting drilled with foul tips or having pitches in the dirt ricochet off various parts of his body. He still doesn't like those last two. But it wasn't long before Stewart found a reason to enjoy his new position.
"I was able to get rid of the ball really quick and throw a lot of runners out and pick a lot of runners off, and that happened pretty early," Stewart said. "Once I started doing that, I got a little more comfortable behind the plate. Whenever I threw out a runner, it made all the other things you go through back there seem more worthwhile."
Baseball America rated Stewart the best defensive catcher in the White Sox farm system three years in a row, and during his first Major League start on Sept. 27, 2006, Stewart twice threw out the Indians' Grady Sizemore attempting to steal.
Stewart has been better than average in that department ever since. In his first 13 games with the Bucs, he nailed four of the 10 runners who tried to steal against him, and he also picked off two runners -- one at first base and one at third.
"I don't necessarily throw laser beams down to second base, but I'm able to get rid of the ball quick, and that makes up for, I wouldn't say my lack of arm strength, but my lack of having a cannon like some guys have back there," Stewart said.
As a bigger guy who can deliver the ball smoothly and without wasted motion, Stewart also resembles a quarterback. But there's no football in his background.
"No. My mom wouldn't sign the permission slip for me to play football when I was younger," Stewart said. "I had a chance to go out my senior year and play football, but I thought better of it. By then, I knew baseball was going to take me a little further, even though it would have been fun to play football. So I stuck with baseball, and fortunately it's worked out all right."