Lakeland, Fla. — Braves left-hander Sean Newcomb, with his heavy 94-mph fastball and sweeping secondary pitches, is no party for left-handed hitters. He limited them to a .194 batting average last season. Against his fastball, a pitch he throws 64 percent of the time, lefties only managed a .214 average.
Which is why the Tigers were very encouraged to see Christin Stewart, their left-handed hitting left fielder, step into the box against Newcomb Saturday with two on and two out in the third inning and slash a first-pitch fastball off the right-field foul line for a two-run double.
“I have no fear,” manager Ron Gardenhire said. “No fear with him in the box.”
Against a right-hander or left-hander, Stewart seems unfazed.
“I always try to hunt the fastball,” Stewart said. “That what I like to do, doesn’t matter lefty or righty. I don’t like fastballs getting by me.”
At some point in his development, Stewart either saw a video of Ted Williams talking about hitting, or he read his book. Because he brings Williams’ philosophy of hitting to the plate in every at-bat. You get one pitch to hit every at bat, don’t take it, don’t miss it, don’t foul it off.
“I only got a little taste last year,” he said. “Big-league pitchers were still trying to figure me out and I was still trying to figure them out. For me, one of the big things is to stay calm in the box and hit my pitch. Everyone throws a lot of stuff up here, but you have to have an approach and hit your pitch.
“You may not always get it. But if you do get it, you can’t miss it. That’s one of the biggest things. They don’t make nearly as many mistakes up here. When you get that one pitch, be ready to go.”
Throughout the spring, Gardenhire has flipped Stewart between hitting second ahead of run producers Nick Castellanos, Miguel Cabrera and Jeimer Candelario, and hitting sixth, after Candelario, Castellanos and Cabrera.
Stewart made it clear, his approach will not change, regardless.
“For me, when I get a fastball, I’m swinging,” he said. “Even if it’s early in the count. That’s my thing. That’s what I do. I do take pitches in certain situations. I know those guys are behind me. But my big thing is just getting on base and trying to score.”
Stewart wasn’t overwhelmed by big-league pitching in his 17-game, 72 plate-appearance debut last September (.267/.375/.417 with two home runs), and he seems even more comfortable this spring. He went into the game Sunday hitting .320 with a .370 on-base percentage, slugging .640 with two home runs.
“I probably look more relaxed that what’s actually going on,” he said. “But I always try to be relaxed in the box. Not calm, cool and collected because you need to have that energy. But you can’t get yourself too amped up in there. That’s when I tend to get myself out.”
It’s easy to forget this is Stewart’s first big-league camp. Mostly because he was such a storyline the last two years for not being here. Seemed odd for the club’s minor-league player of the year two years running wasn’t invited to camp.
But now that he has made his big-league debut and essentially been handed the everyday left field job in his age 25 season, being in his first camp seems a tad anti-climactic.
“It just feels like spring training again to me,” he said. “I got called up last year, so this isn’t really a huge shock. Not like it was last year when I got called up. But it is awesome to be over here, just getting better with my teammates.
“We all have the same goal, to win baseball games. We’re all just trying to come together as a team trying to do that.”
Although the fan base has been clamoring to see him for a couple of years, it truly hasn’t been a slow climb for Stewart. The Tigers took him in the first round out of the University of Tennessee in 2015 and, despite being completely raw defensively, he got to Triple-A in three years.
“For us, how you progress is based on what we think you can do at the next level,” general manager Al Avila said. “The last thing you want to do is push him to the next level and set him up for failure. Sometimes it might appear that we are rushing a guy or trying to hold a guy back, but that’s not the case.
“We need to make sure that player is ready to succeed at whatever level we move him to.”
It was the defensive part of his game that slowed his ascent. But he’s come miles the last two years especially, working diligently with minor-league outfield coordinator Gene Roof, and now with Tigers outfield coach Dave Clark.
“You’ve seen him play, he’s actually playing pretty good out there right now,” Gardenhire said. “He’s moving along. He’s going to have his moments like every outfielder does. But he’s working really hard on his throwing, getting the ball down, throwing to the right base, working on his angles to the ball.
“He’s doing a lot better. He’s more confident out there, I can guarantee you that.”
Playing left field in Grapefruit League stadiums is a far different task than playing it at what has sarcastically been referred to Comerica National Park for its spacious dimensions. The Tigers are fortunate to have speedy JaCoby Jones in center, taking some of the gap coverage away from Stewart.
“It’s still early in spring, but I feel a lot more comfortable out there,” Stewart said. “There were a few adjustments I had to make when I got to Comerica, such a big park. But I feel good out there.”
The extra coaching he’s getting this spring has been the biggest advantage for Stewart being at big-league camp. Before every game, you can find Stewart alone in left field and Castellanos alone in right field, tracking balls in batting practice. Hours before that on Sunday, with the dew still wet on the outfield grass, Stewart and all the outfielders were put through a series of drills by Clark.
“All we can do, and all he can do, is continue to work and get better,” Gardenhire said. “You see us, we clear everybody out of there and let him catch the balls. It’s better to do it in BP rather than just hitting him fungos.
“You get better by seeing the ball off the bat and taking that first step.”
Stewart is fully aware of the opportunity the Tigers are presenting him this season. But he’s also conscious of not getting too far ahead of himself.
“I just take each day as it comes, each game as it comes, each at-bat as it comes,” he said. “You can’t look too far forward until you aren’t in the moment. I love to be in the moment with everything. I am blessed to do what I do, being out here with these guys.
“I just try to take it day by day.”