Top 50 Jays Prospects, Jays Journal Edition: #3 Zach Stewart

Everyone has an opinion about whether or not our next prospect will start or close, and both sides have valid arguments. Here he is amongst the top 3….

#3: Zachary R. Stewart

image courtesy of 1BlueJaysway.blogspot.com

Right-Handed Pitcher / 24 years old / 6’2″ 205 lbs

Born: September 28th, 1986 in Wichita Falls, Texas

Bats: Right   Throws: Right

High School Team: Holliday HS, in Holliday Texas

College: Texas Tech

Drafted: by the Reds in the 3rd round of the 2008 draft

Signed: for $450,000 by Jerry Flowers (Reds)

Quick Facts:

  • Stewart grew up a Rangers fan and Nolan Ryan is his favorite pitcher.
  • The hitter he’d most like to face is Alex Rodriguez.
  • Majored in Psychology in College.
  • Enjoys fishing and hunting.
  • A true athlete, Zach was lettered in baseball, basketball, football, track and tennis coming out of high school.
  • He lead his HS team to state tournament 4 years in a row. They were state finalists 3 of those years.
  • Pitched one semester for Angelo State before transferring to North Central College in 2006, and finally to Texas Tech to end his 3 years of college.
  • Made the First Team All-Conference and Second-Team All Region while at North Central.
  • Made the mid-season FSL All-Star team.

Jersey: #25 for the New Hampshire Fishercats

Stats:

Yr Tm W L ERA G GS SV IP H R ER HR BB SO GO/AO AVG
08 DAY 1 2 0.55 11 0 3 16.1 10 2 1 0 3 13 2.30 .175
08 SAR 0 2 1.62 13 0 2 16.2 16 5 3 0 11 23 0.86 .262
08 Minors 1 4 1.09 24 0 5 33.0 26 7 4 0 14 36 1.46 .220
09 SAR 1 1 2.13 7 7 0 42.1 47 17 10 1 8 32 2.42 .283
09 CAR 3 0 1.46 7 7 0 37.0 29 7 6 1 10 31 1.96 .218
09 LOU 0 0 0.73 9 0 2 12.1 11 2 1 0 8 16 1.22 .234
09 LAS 0 0 3.38 11 0 0 13.1 18 8 5 1 6 14 2.13 .327
09 Minors 4 1 1.89 34 14 2 105.0 105 34 22 3 32 93 2.06 .262
10 NH 8 3 3.63 26 26 0 136.1 131 59 55 13 54 106 1.27 .255
10 Minors 8 3 3.63 26 26 0 136.1 131 59 55 13 54 106 1.27 .255

Interviews/Videos:
Stewart Striking out Marvin Lowrance

Stewart Striking out Tim Pahuta

Stewart Striking out Danny Espinosa

Zach Stewart Faces the Reds

A question and answer session is available here.

An interview with 1BJW guys available here.

Ranking amongst the Fishercats pitchers:

  • 2nd lowest ERA and 2nd most IP and wins amongst starters, with a 3.63, 136.1 IP, and 8 wins (beaten only by Kyle Drabek in all 3 categories)
  • Allowed the most hits (131) and had the 2nd worst whip amongst starters (1.36) (will be explained later)

Zach has always had questions surrounding whether or not he should be a starter or a reliever. As far back as when he was a junior in college, his role was altered to being a reliever and he did very well from that point forward. As a reliever, Zach used his 2 plus offerings that he throws from a 3/4 arm slot – a 92-96 MPH fastball that has consistent sink to it and a flat out “buckle your knees” plus-plus slider – to go right after hitters and dare them to get good wood on the ball.

The change to the pen came simultaneously with his move from North Central Texas to Texas Tech (moved up to a Big 12 school), and the result was a change from throwing in the high 80s to 92-96 MPH, a huge jump in velocity as he worked more consistently at the top of his range. He also spent some time as the closer in Texas Tech. However, as his time in Texas Tech came to an end, injuries took their tole on his team and his role was once again altered to a starter. He failed miserably over his 2 starts, getting knocked around to the tune of 16 hits in only 9 innings of work.

Once he got to Cincinnati, he was used as a reliever for the 2008 season, but was moved once again to the starting role in 2009 despite cruising through LoA and HiA as a reliever in 2008 (1.08 ERA and 5 saves in 33 IP). There always seemed to be hope that his change up would come around and that he’d be a very effective starter as a result.

So, with yet another challenge in the works, Zach returns to starting and does extremely well this time around,cooking through HiA (2.13 ERA) and AA (1.46 ERA) with ease over 14 starts and 79.1 IP combined. In fact, during his time starting for the Carolina Mudcats that season, hitters only managed a .218 average against him (29 hits in 37 innings). But, for some reason the Reds decided to put Zach back into the pen and moved him up to AAA Louisville, where he only threw 12.1 innings of work (9 games) before being dealt to the Jays along with Edwin Encarnacion, and Josh Roenicke in return for Scott Rolen (the parting gift of JP Ricciardi).

The Jays, not wanting to throw him off-stride too badly, kept him in the pen and in AAA Las Vegas for the remainder of the 2009 season. He struggled some, allowing a .327 average against with a 3.38 ERA over 13 innings of work. So, here he was, wondering what would happen to him in 2010 in the midst of a regime change in Toronto, a new GM at the helm, an ace on his way out of Toronto (Halladay), and many questions about what his role may be within Toronto’s system which was then ranked as one of the 4 worst in MLB and with him being ranked by most experts as the best of the bunch (ranked #1 by Baseball America for the Jays prospects following that season).

The Jays decided from the onset of the new era, under the guidance of Alex Anthopoulos, that expectations and roles would be clearly defined for all of their players and pitchers. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that when asked about what direction management gave him going into the 2010 season, which meant a demotion to AA New Hampshire,  Zach responded as follows in an interview posted on BusLeagueBaseball:

“They talked to us in spring training, individually, and they told me that I would be starting here. They didn’t really give me a time-frame or anything, but it was just like, they told me straight up that this is where I was gonna start from the very beginning. I thought that was cool of them to give me an insight on what their thoughts were. So yeah, they told me, and to me it’s not a big deal. It’s one of those things, no matter what level you’re at, you’ve gotta pitch good to get where you wanna be. I mean, wherever I’m put, I’ll just play the best that I can, and whatever happens, happens.”

From the same interview, Zach’s thoughts on whether he’d rather close or start are as follows:
“[pauses, sighs] It’s tough to say. [pause] Honestly, I guess I’d say I’d rather start. You have more impact on the game that you do pitch in because you can go longer, 6-7-8-9 innings, hopefully. On the other hand I wouldn’t have any problem being a closer. I’ve done both, in college and professional ball, and I like both sides of it. I guess if I had to pick I’d say a starter, but either way it’s fine with me.”

He began the 2010 season as the #1 rated Jays prospect, starting once again after being shifted to the pen often over his entire career, and with a new organization in New Hampshire. Thankfully for his development, Zach started during the entire season, making 26 starts and throwing 136.1 innings. However, it wasn’t an easy road to success for Zach during that season, as he started the year horribly.

Here are Zach’s stats through May in 2010:

W L ERA G GS IP H R ER HR BB SO AVG
April 1 1 5.02 3 3 14.1 14 8 8 3 5 12 0.250
May 1 0 6.52 6 6 29 34 21 21 5 14 20 0.298

It takes a lot of patience for an organization like Toronto to continue to throw him out there as a starter after that start to the season at a level he should have easily dominated. He was allowing more than 1 hit per inning overall and was walking way too many batters. But, the Jays had made a commitment to him at the beginning of the season, stating that he’d be in AA and that he’d be a starter, and that’s where he stayed. From that point forward, Zach was simply dominant, although he did tire some at the end of the season, as he put up the following stats:

W L ERA G GS IP H R ER HR BB SO AVG
June 4 1 2.84 6 6 38 31 15 12 1 16 32 0.225
July 2 0 1.55 5 5 29 27 6 5 3 13 22 0.255
August 0 1 3.52 5 5 23 22 9 9 1 6 19 0.256
September 0 0 0 1 1 3 3 0 0 0 0 1 0.231

And here begins the battle of the opinions. Will Zach be able to replicate his 2nd half of 2010 efforts in AAA or in The Show? Or, will he eventually be moved to the pen and become what could be one of the most dominant closers in all of MLB? Well, now that we know Zach’s preference, and we do know that most organizations value top-flight starters more than relievers, we have to assume that he’ll at the very least get a chance to prove himself at the highest levels before any further move to the pen is made. With no durability issues, no health issues, a plus offering and one plus-plus offering, he should get every chance to start. His change up now grades as average after a ton of work was done with it in 2010. He trusts it more than he ever has now that he’s had the time to throw it more often, and it’s been said to have some cut to it.

The one portion of Zach’s stuff that worries me is the fact that he was switched back and forth from the pen. Any time that you ask a pitcher to go back-and-forth between an all-out effort delivery to a long winded starting role, you’re having an impact on his mechanics. I’m not saying that it will result in an injury without a doubt, but there could be some complications down the road as the Jays increase his work load past the 150-170 inning marks. Will he be able to keep working at 94-96 MPH during that long of a stretch? And if he can’t, will he “pitch” more effectively, or will the loss in velocity render him ineffective? These are important questions to ask, because if the Jays don’t believe he can keep pitching effectively with a drop in velocity, they need to switch him to a relief role now. If not, he’ll only be placed back in the role when it’s too late and his arm has been taxed as a starter to the point of diminishing his velocity for the long term.

That’s what makes the 2011 season the turning point in Zach Stewart’s career. He’ll be pitching at levels, as a starter, that will allow for a more thorough look at whether he’ll be able to remain a starter or not. The quality of the competition is not the only thing that will get higher this season for Zach, it’s the pitch counts, length of games (assuming he goes deeper into games), and his overall innings totals. How he responds to all of those changes will undoubtedly set the course for the remainder of his career, whether it be in the rotation or in the pen.

It’s likely that many other organizations would have given up on Zach and kept him on in a relief role instead of starting him in AA all of 2010. However, the Jays remained true to their word and gave him a shot to improve and are now benefiting from more depth in the rotation as a result of their patience. The 2011 rotation is already young and fairly slim on experience, so this fact, combined with other options that no longer have options and would have to clear waivers to make it back to AAA, leads me to believe that he may begin the year in AAA. However, don’t be surprised if he is one of the first pitchers recalled when the season gets going, as he’s earned a lot of respect as a starter and his time to prove himself as an MLB starter has come after a long and flip-flop filled amateur career.

Expected 2011 Team: AAA Las Vegas or Toronto Blue Jays

Ultimate ceiling IF he puts it all together: #2 starter or closer

Everyone has an opinion when it comes to Zach’s landing spot when he gets to The Show, but nobody doubts the fact that he’ll get there and will find a role. His demeanor and stuff both allow him to start or pitch in relief effectively, but my bet still remains on starting until such time as he either proves ineffective against MLB hitters, or proves to be effective. Only at that time should the Jays be amenable to either keeping him in the rotation or switching him back to a relief role for the final time.

- MG

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Tags: Danny Espinosa Edwin Encarnacion Josh Roenicke Marvin Lowrance Scott Rolen Tim Pahuta Zach Stewart

  • Shockey12

    I’ve seen Zach pitch and to be completely honest I’m not that sold on him. He has a good fastball and his slider is AMAZING but that’s just it…he has only 2 pitches and of the times i’ve seen him that’s all he really threw. I have yet to see him use his new changeup but if he doesn’t develope anything else then I think he will make a good closer. Nothing would make me happier than to see him become a dominant starter but from what I have seen personally it looks like he’s more suited for a bullpen role.

  • Stump

    I agree with Shockey that Zach is probably better suited as a reliever.

    However his “stuff” at this time doesn’t seem to be that of a closer.
    His SO/BB ratio is not overly impressive and Opp BA is quite high against him, which tends to indicate that batters can quite easily put the bat on the ball against him.

    However, if he can be eased into a middle relief spot with the Jays this season, where there is not a lot of undue pressure, he might develop into a good reiever in a year or two.

    I don’t see where pitching in AAA Las Vegas is going to do be of any benefit to Zach.

    I hope he breaks Spring Training with the Jays.

  • mylegacy

    I’m with KLaw – he saw Zach pitch late in 2010 and said all three pitches were working – he looked great – and he saw no reason he couldn’t be a frontline starter.

    Stewart – will be a BIG part of our future. Bank on it!

  • Gribble

    Roy Halladay became a front line starter throwing mainly a sinker and curveball. It was only in the following years that he developed his cutter and the very occasional changeup to give hitters a different look.

    To me it’s not the quantity of the pitches but the quality and the command and the stamina. I think Stewart has enough of those things to become a pretty good starter. Could he be a dominant closer? Maybe. But why would you take a guy who could give you 180+ innings of quality work and turn him into a short reliever?

    Short relievers are important, but good starters are harder to find and are generally more expensive for a reason.

  • http://thesouthpawbaseball.blogspot.com/ TammyBeth

    I agree with Gribble that a pitcher with two really good pitches can do ok breaking into the majors. He’d need a third to max out his potential, but there’ve been pitchers that had above average careers without it.

    I do wonder if he won’t end up closing not because he CAN’T be a quality starter but because we have so many we can afford the luxury. If Drabek and Zep both turned out to be above-average 9or better) starters then who do you kick aside for Stewart?

    By the way, I’m pretty sure that the Reds shifted him back to the ‘pen in 2009 as a means of controlling his IP year-over-year, not because of any doubts about his ability to start.

  • Mat Germain

    It could be, but he had only thrown 79 innings, so it doesn’t seem to be the case. He threw 47 innings in College in 2008 and then added 33 in the minors, so there was no increase in innings to worry about in 2009.

    I do agree that a space would have to open up for Stewart, but I remember sitting down to write a piece about how great the rotation looked behind Doc Halladay once because we thought both Dustin McGowan and Shaun Marcum were going to take a step forward. Things change quickly in spring, and you don’t need to look any further than St-Louis to see that.

    I do think he’ll continue to start in AA or AAA (most likely AAA). Even if they wanted to put him in the Jays pen, that’s also loaded with competition, so it doesn’t fix anything. Doing so allows them to bring him up in whatever role they need filled during the 2011 season and to take it from there. If it’s long relief with spot starts, so be it. If it’s starting, that’s great to. I just don’t believe that they’ll box themselves into making a decision now by putting him in the pen from the get-go. That would limit their options.

    • John Havok

      Something that alot of people don’t take into consideration about minor league pitching is that these guys are constantly working on the pitches that they don’t have at an average or above average level in order to improve them. They are basically not worrying about overall results, they are worried about developing pitches and improving command, location, etc.

      It’s well known in the Jays system that you are expected to throw X number of changeups/cutters/whatever pitches you need to work on every time you are out there, regardless of results.

      When you see a guy like Stewart who has a higher walk rate than youd expect from a guy with a plus fastball and a plus plus slider, it’s because he’s working on that change and throwing it when he would normally throw the slider or the fastball that he can control and command much better.

      Always have to take pitching stats with a slight grain of salt in the minors(just like spring training for roster pitchers).

    • http://thesouthpawbaseball.blogspot.com/ TammyBeth

      I agree with the overall thrust of your remarks.
      But to clarify, While Stewart only had 79 IP when they made the shift, he would end up 2009 with a total of 105. that +26 IP was about all that either team would have wanted to do anyway, and if he’d stayed in the rotation it would certainly have been considerably higher. So the shift was not in light of innings already logged, but the total that would have been anticipated had he continued in the rotation.

      And I also would suggest that the happy noise about him maybe making the rotation that we have heard this spring is misguided. He still hasn’t gotten his inning total up to where it needs to be. if he broke camp in the rotation they would still have to shut him down early like they did Morrow last year.

      They stretched him by 31 more IP in 2010, and would likely be looking at dding another ~30 in 2011. That takes you to the 165-170 range. Which as we all know is not really considered a full season’s work at the major league level. given that there are easily six quality options in front of him, and three more stop-gap types – I’m reasonably certain Stewart won’t start a game in the majors before September, and if then only a couple of token starts.

  • Gribble

    I really don’t think the Jays would be that concerned about shutting down Stewart if it came to that. They shut down Morrow who is older and more experienced. They did so with Cecil (I think) the year before too. If Stewart is ready in a couple of months to start contributing to the big league rotation, I think he’ll get a chance.

    170 innings is almost a full season for a young, back of the rotation starter anyway, unless he turns out to be really efficient in pitches per inning. Stewart would have to have a very special season to surpass that in the majors. I don’t dispute the possibility of that, but usually the rookie year for a pitcher is fairly up and down with a few short exits.

  • Schrandt

    Hope to see you starting with the Jays this year Zach!

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