The hidden value of Chris Stewart

These may be the last days of longtime Pittsburgh Pirates’ backup catcher Chris Stewart. His contract only has a team option remaining, and his apparent heir, Elias Diaz, is major league ready.

Plenty of Pittsburgh Pirates fans will not be too teary eyed if these are his last days in black and gold. There are plenty of reasons why Stewart is not very popular with John Q. Pirate fan. His .243 OBP and .223 slugging percentage are among the worst in baseball, and his 23 wRC+ is dead last among batters who at least match his plate appearances for the year (143). Mix that in with five throwing errors and a below average caught stealing rate, and he fails most eye tests.

But don’t be so eager to kick him out. A catcher’s most important job is managing a pitching staff. The Pirates have plenty of young pitching, headlined by Jameson Taillon, Chad Kuhl and Trevor Williams. Those three are very different breeds of pitchers, but they all have one thing in common: they all do their best work with Stewart behind the plate.

Taillon, Kuhl and Williams all post their lowest ERA and opponent OPS, their best strikeout-to-walk numbers and average the most innings per appearance in starts where Chris Stewart is catching.

Young Pirates Pitchers by Catcher

Taillon by catcherGIP/SERAOPSSO/W
Williams by catcherGIP/SERAOPSSO/W
Kuhl by catcherGIP/SERAOPSSO/W

Stewart already had a history of pairing well with young Pittsburgh Pirates starters, most notably a 2015 Gerrit Cole. It’s ok if you are surprised he did this well with these three. Stewart was too. “I knew they threw well. I didn’t realize they threw better to me than anyone else,” Stewart said.

So what makes him click with the youngsters?

Pittsburgh Pirates pitchers on Stew

Stewart was surprised when I told him that the first full year starters do best with him. Kuhl was not.

“That’s just a testament to what he’s doing,” Kuhl said. “I think that he’s locked in on every pitch of every at-bat of every game. When he’s back there, you know that he’s done his homework.”

Williams knows about the importance of homework.. “Once you think you have baseball figured out, it kicks your ass,” he said. For him, the best way to avoid that ass kicking is to ask good questions and listen to veterans, including Stewart.

“This is my first time seeing some hitters, most hitters in the league this year,” Williams said. “…[He] knows how to attack hitters better than I do.”

Part of the reason why he knows the best way to attack hitters is the research he does off the field.

“He’s always carrying around a booklet with him on information on hitters,” Taillon said. “He’ll be in the cold tub, looking through splits and through stats. Just for me, noticing that, it gives me confidence every time he puts a signal down.”

Got a Stew going

Stewart says that confidence in his pitchers is the best compliment a catcher can get.

“That’s the goal, to have them trust you and not have to think about calling pitches out there themselves,” Stewart said. “Basically, whatever I put down, they just got to worry about executing that pitch, and it goes to show that they respect what I do.”

Stewart’s impact goes beyond just the rotation. Elias Diaz and Jacob Stallings are also benefiting from Stewart’s tutorship, and they’re quick to absorb whatever he has to offer.

“We want to be a guy like that,” Diaz said. “A guy that can play a lot of years in the big leagues.”

Stewart benefited from the mentorship of Sandy Alomar, jr. when he was a youngster. Even though he could be potentially training his replacements, Stewart is not going to hoard knowledge.

“I remember what that was like and what I learned from him,” Stewart said on Alomar. “I think it’s my duty now to pass the knowledge and whatever knowledge I’ve learned since to the younger guys.”

The case for keeping him

The most obvious reason for exercising Stewart’s club option for 2018 is because he gets the most out of the back half of the rotation. The Pirates are only going to go as far as their pitching takes them these next couple years. Hanging on to the catcher they do the best with makes sense, especially since he is valuable off the field too. Taillon pointed out that Stewart is always in pitchers’ meetings and talking to Diaz and pitchers about game calling and planning. With Stewart, the Pirates are getting a coach along with a player.

The other reason is the Pittsburgh Pirates are likely going to need at least three catchers for 2018. Cervelli has missed significant chunks of the last two seasons. He has been a magnet for foul tips ever since he came to the Pirates, and with the normal physical toll of being a catcher added on top, the safe money says he will land on the disabled list again in 2018.

The Pittsburgh Pirates need an over-qualified third string catcher. If Stewart walks and Diaz takes the backup job, Stallings is the guy waiting in the wings in AAA. Stallings can do in a pinch, but he is not a long term solution. Diaz has an option year remaining. He also has a lot to work on to become a big league catcher, like pitch framing and game calling.

Stewart takes a lot of abuse because of his offense. That is the least important role for a backup catcher. The runs he can prevent the starters from allowing far outweighs what he could possibly produce as a hitter. If the Pirates want their young pitching to lead the franchise back into the playoffs, let them keep a security blanket for another year.

Photo Credit – Steven Yates – Flickr Creative Commons

Alex Stumpf

Alex is a credentialed Pirates beat reporter with The Pittsburgh Sports Report. He writes for a variety of sites, including Pirates Breakdown, The Point of Pittsburgh and Fangraphs. You can follow him @AlexJStumpf.