Name: Chris Stewart
Bats: Right Throws: Right
Age as of Opening Day 2013: 31 (born 2/19/1982)
Height: 6'4" Weight: 210 lbs.
Remaining Contract: One year, $515,100 (Pre-arbitration, under team control through end of 2016)
2012 Statistics: (MLB) 55 games, .241/.292/.319, 8 2B, 1 HR, .272 wOBA, 65 wRC+
When Chris Stewart turned 29, he had 26 career games in the pros to his credit, and it didn't appear that this number would be rising anytime soon. Stewart was one month into a new contract with the World Series champion San Francisco Giants, who had a Rookie of the Year as their starting catcher in Buster Posey and a backup already in place in Eli Whiteside. Yet here we are just a couple years later, and Stewart is starting every other day for the team with the richest catching legacy in baseball history. You win, universe.
Stewart certainly did his share of years in the minors. A 12th round pick out of Riverside Community College in California by the Chicago White Sox in 2001, Stewart worked his way up through Chicago's system, developing a reputation as a defensive specialist by throwing out nearly half the baserunners that tried to steal against him. Aside from one .800 OPS season in Double-A , he (unsurprisingly) never showed much offensive prowess at the plate.
Teams seem to love storing these defensive-minded catchers in Triple-A though, so Stewart stuck around various organizations doing exactly that from 2006-11. He occasionally received a random call-up, but it never lasted for very long. His major-league debut season was six games in September for the '06 White Sox, followed by a brief 17-game stint with the Texas Rangers backing up Gerald Laird until they traded for veteran Adam Melhuse.
Stewart spent his next two years in the Yankees' organization as Scranton's primary catcher, keeping the seat warm for Jesus Montero. His first stint as a Yankee involved exactly one game in the pros: April 29, 2008, an appearance necessitated by a shoulder injury to Jorge Posada. It was two and a half years before Stewart would make it to the pros again; when he did, it was with the San Diego Padres for a pair of games at the end of the 2010 season.
We might have never heard from Stewart again had Marlins outfielder Scott Cousins not destroyed Buster Posey's ankle in May 2011. Posey was gone for the season, and the Giants called Stewart up to share catching duties with Whiteside. It was the first time that Stewart received an extended opportunity to stick in the majors, but while he remained as puny as ever with the bat (.204/.283/.309 with a 69 OPS+, though he somehow homered off Clayton Kershaw [?!?]), he impressed on defense.
Stewart gunned down 39% of baserunners stealing against him, FanGraphs writer Matt Klaassen's catcher defense ranks had him 15th among all 115 big-league catchers, and Baseball Prospectus writer Mike Fast's pitch framing study revealed that despite limited playing time in 2011, he stole more strikes than all but 10 other catchers. It can be notoriously difficult to evaluate catcher defense, but these studies seemed to demonstrate that Stewart had something to offer. Combined with teams' internal statistical studies unavailable to the public, there was evidence that perhaps the average fan undervalued Stewart. Desiring a better backup to Russell Martin than the then-defensively woeful Francisco Cervelli, the Yankees traded reliever George Kontos to the Giants for Stewart at the end of Spring Training last year.
So how did the deal work out for the Yankees? Stewart caught about 395 innings last year, a sample size not far off from the 460 he handled for the Giants in 2011. Well, his caught stealing percentage dropped to 23%, he committed six more passed balls, and he also precipitously fell in Klaassen's catcher ratings to 72nd out of 116. So... yeah. The man advertised by management as a catching savant did not appear to be all that special.
However, there has not been pitch-framing information from 2012 revealed to the public since Fast was hired by the Houston Astros in February 2012, so perhaps Stewart's supposed greatest value is indeed something difficult to quantify. Here's a small sample of how Stewart stole some strikes for CC Sabathia last year in a game against the Twins:
Those were some generous strike threes for pitches on opposite extremes of the strike zone to the same hitter (Ben Revere). A quick check of PITCH F/X agrees:
The best study of last year's pitch-framing catchers I can seem to find is FanGraphs writer Matthew Carruth's examination of pitch framing last November back in his Lookout Landing days. Carruth was mostly looking at Mariners catchers, but he also attempted to determine baseball's best pitch stealers last year as well:
I recorded 78 different catchers that caught at least 1,000 called pitches in 2012. My top five came out as Jose Molina (+2.47 per game), David Ross, Chris Stewart, Jonathan Lucroy and Erik Kratz. Ross ranked 14th by Fast's measure and while neither Stewart nor Kratz had enough playing time to qualify back in 2011, both ranked well in their small samples then.
Huh. Carruth is a very astute writer (Damn those crappy Mariners teams produce good bloggers, don't they?), so his study shouldn't be overlooked. Pitch framing is only part of a catcher's game, but Stewart seems to be quite good at the craft. Those stolen strikes can turn into numerous free outs over the course of a 162-game season, as the Sabathia strikeouts above help indicate.
Although Girardi suggested going with a somewhat-even tandem with Cervelli and Stewart this year to replace the probably-not-worth-$17-million Martin, the split has been skewed in Cervelli's favor early on. He's started twelve games to Stewart's five, and the latter seems to be assigned to negotiating strikes out of Ivan Nova (good luck.) That's probably a good idea since Cervelli's been hot at the plate (Stewart's surprising homer yesterday aside) with improvements on defense since his demotion last year as well.
Given the dearth of legitimate catching options out there and the possible benefits of Stewart's pitch framing, the Yankees could do a lot worse than keeping Stewart as their backup catcher. That being said, if Austin Romine continues to make strides at Triple-A Scranton this year, it would not be the end of the world to cut ties with Stewart or trade Cervelli while his value is possibly high and start the catching prospect promotion carousel (J.R. Murphy to Scranton, Gary Sanchez to Trenton, Peter O'Brien to Tampa, with 17-year-old Luis Torrens somewhere low in the mix as well.) In the meantime though, we'll have to keep rolling with the resident pitch framing Picasso here.