The storyline from 2016 that almost no one could have predicted was Brock Stewart jumping three levels and several highly touted prospects to take a few turns in the Los Angeles rotation in the season’s second half. Hardly a circumstantial call-up, Stewart moved from arm strength intrigue to bona fide prospect, and 2017 could be the year he cements himself in the Dodgers starting staff. With Jose De Leon traded to Tampa Bay, the decks are cleared for Stewart to claim the mantle as top right-handed rookie battling for one of the open rotation slots.
Primarily a third baseman in college, Stewart came to the Dodgers in the 2014 draft as an older prospect but young in pitching terms. He has proven a quick study and continues to make tangible gains in both stuff and command. At 25 on opening day, Stewart has also proven himself ready to carry a major league workload, having pitched 146 innings across four levels (High-A to the major leagues) last season and showing no decline in stuff.
Stewart “looks the part” of a durable starting pitcher. Listed at 6’3 and 210 lbs., Stewart is a well proportioned and sturdily built. He shows a consistent and clean delivery, employing a longer looking arm action but one that employs the en-vogue elbow spiral. While I don’t want to suggest that such arm action helps generate spin, Stewart nonetheless is one of the better spin rate guys on the roster. HHis three-quarters slot helps add sink/fade to his fastball and changeup, and gives his slider its hard downer shape.
Stewart’s fastball is his primary pitch, and as mentioned, his spin and arm angle give the pitch good sink for his mid-90s velocity. He exhibited better command of the pitch in the minor leagues, but it should be an overall plus pitch for him as he settles into the rotation.
At the minor league level, Stewart’s best pitch looked to be his changeup. He throws it from the same arm angle and arm speed as his fastball, and the pitch had a real “pull-the-string” effect in terms of velocity separation and fade. The pitch wasn’t quite the swing-and-miss offering at the big league level, but I believe that will come with more confidence and a better understanding of big league hitters.
Statistically, Stewart’s slider is his go-to strikeout pitch, generating the most swings and misses, and grading out as plus to double-plus on paper. Visually, I did not grade the pitch quite as high, and felt it looked like a cross between a slider and a cutter, but obviously results are what matters. Like his fastball, Stewart exhibited better command of his off-speed pitches at the minor league level and should eventually settle into above average to possible plus control and command.
Though he’s only spent a handful of seasons as a starting pitcher, Stewart is close to being a finished product, and merely needs the major league innings to increase his comfortability and confidence. Stewart attacked hitters more aggressively at the minor league level and was quite pitch efficient. His walk rate doubled once he reached the majors but I expect that to settle back closer to his minor league rates.
The difference between Stewart being a durable innings-eating starter to an elite number three arms likely lies in the advancement of his changeup as a second swing-and-miss offering. His fastball has above average velocity but lacks deception at the major league level, but both the slider (already there) and changeup (potentially) can be plus strikeout offerings. Should his strikeout percentage nudge back up near his minor league levels (around 27% last season) Stewart will be a real force in 2017.
With Julio Urias possibly being held back to start the season, the the door has opened wider for Stewart to claim a rotation spot on the opening day roster. Of the pitchers likely in competition for the remaining rotation slots, only Alex Wood might rival Stewart on stuff, and Stewart’s potential upside exceeds all challengers.
The main issue facing Stewart in spring training might be the contractual obligations to other starting hopefuls, which could push him temporarily to Triple-A Oklahoma City to start the year. However, the Dodgers have shown a willingness to field the best roster possible, and it’s hard to argue that their are better talents ahead of Stewart in the rotation competition.