Kansas City, Mo. — The conversation will almost always come back to defense when the subject is Tigers left fielder Christin Stewart.
Never mind that he’s produced just six home runs and 29 RBIs in 66 games. After hitting three home runs in 64 plate appearances in late March and April, he’s hit three more in 207 plate appearances since. Never mind that his average exit velocity on balls put in play (86 mph) is in the lower 14 percentile, according to Statcast.
“I think he’s doing fine,” manager Ron Gardenhire said, when asked about Stewart’s offensive production. “We still believe he’s going to be a hitter. We still believe this kid can hit.”
Then, just that quick, the talk turns to Stewart’s defense — which was always the concern, always going to be a work in progress. But, playing against the speedy Royals in spacious Kauffman Stadium, Stewart’s below average arm strength and range in left seems magnified.
“It’s hard to judge against this team,” Gardenhire said. “This team puts all kind of pressure on you — going first to third right in front of you. If a ball is hit in the hole and you are moving left to right, they’re going.”
On Friday, for example, Whit Merrifield tagged from third and scored easily on a shallow fly ball to left.
“It’s unfair to say anything about him against this team,” Gardenhire said. “He’s doing pretty good, but there’s a lot of work to be done on shortening his arm motion, getting to the ball quicker, having quicker reactions — there’s work to be done and he knows it.”
Gardenhire, outfield coach Dave Clark and quality control coach Joe Vavra have discussed playing Stewart more straight up in the outfield. Which seems counterintuitive in this age of analytics and shifting players to where the data says they will hit it.
“We’re constantly trying to make adjustments on how we play the shifts,” Gardenhire said. “The shifts aren’t good for him, in my opinion. Trying to play him way off straight-up doesn’t help him. We are trying to get into situations where we play him more straight-up more often and let the center fielder cover more ground.
“We when start moving Stewart around too awful much, those long runs for him don’t help him.”
According to Statcast, Stewart is below the Major League Baseball average in jumps on the ball (minus-2.5 feet), route (minus-0.1), burst (minus-1.9) and reaction (minus-0.5).
“The shift is part of baseball and I am starting to get more comfortable with it,” Stewart said. “We have been shifting a lot in the outfield, some pretty drastic shifts for me in left sometimes. I like playing straight up.
“I mean, I feel like it’s coming along. I’m still working at it every day.”
It was suggested to Gardenhire that Stewart might be a candidate to move to right field if Nick Castellanos is traded. In terms of coverage area at Comerica Park, right field is considered smaller than left.
“I don’t know if right field is smaller,” he said. “Right field is tough. There are a lot of nooks and crannies out there. That right-center gap is a lot of space, with that cutout and everything. No, right field is a hard field. Stewart is a left fielder.”
The Tigers seem certain Stewart will produce at the plate, less certain about his development in the outfield.
“He’s one of the young guys here that’s got to grow,” Gardenhire said. “And the only way to do it is keep putting him out there. He’s not going to get better sitting on the bench or DH-ing. Either he’s going to get better by playing or he’s not going to get better.
“We think that he will get better. There is room for him to get better.”
And for the record, just because we brought it up at the start of this — Stewart is not even remotely worried about his power numbers.
“Not at all,” he said. “I’m just going out there and trying to have quality at-bats. That’s all I can do. The power will come. I can’t worry about it.”