Champ Stuart might well be the fastest player in the New York Mets system right now. However, it takes more than speed to reach the big leagues. Stuart is still learning how to use the gift that Sand Gnats’ manager Luis Rojas termed “game-breaking” to impact games and help his chances of making the Mets.
We broke down a play where the 21-year-old used his speed, with the help of Rojas — who was coaching third — to score from second on a sacrifice fly to deep center field. Baserunning cannot take a young player from Single-A to the big leagues. As Tim Raines famously said, “you can’t steal first base.” Speedsters like Raines or Stuart must learn to apply their speed on offense and defense, as baserunning contributes a much smaller percentage to overall value than hitting or defense.
For example, Jacoby Ellsbury, the best baserunner in baseball in 2013, was worth 11.4 Baseruns, or roughly a little over one win. (The point here is not to compare Stuart and Ellsbury.) Baserunning is certainly an important piece of the value that Ellsburty and Eric Young Jr., Elvis Andrus, Mike Trout and others contribute to their teams, but the magnitude is much smaller than the additions of batting and defense. There were 40 players who contributed 11.4 runs or more in 2013, according to Fangraphs’ “Offense” stat. So the magnitude of the contribution of the best base runner in the league wasn’t reserved for him alone. National League MVP Andrew McCutchen for example, picked up 8.2 fWAR in 2013, and of that, about 1/16th, or 5.1 runs, rougly half a win, came from his ability on the base paths.
Defensively, Stuart uses his speed to in centerfield. “Our major focus has been on centerfield. He’s been better and better as the season progresses,” Rojas said on Stuart’s work defensively. Stuart complements his blazing speed with an arm that is better than average in center. All he needs is more experience in center to become an above average defender at one of the majors’ most difficult positions.
And on the other side of the ball, when Stuart has a bat in his hands, the early returns from his time in the South Atlantic League are promising.
Compare his performance in the first three weeks in the SAL before the All-Star Break to his last three weeks after the break.
|2014 First Half||21||68||18||0||0||1||7||20||.265||.333||.309|
|2014 Second Half||20||68||21||2||1||1||19||23||.309||.455||.412|
|2014 First Half||1.3||26.3||9.2||1.3||.362||.044|
|2014 Second Half||4.5||26.1||21.6||1.1||.444||.103|
Stuart is a patient hitter by nature, as his walk rate of 22% in the last three weeks and 16% overall suggest. But he might be too patient. In fact, in extended spring training, his coaches worked with him on becoming more willling to “pull the trigger” to start his swing, and to become “more aggressive in the zone.”
Gnats hitting coach Valentino Pascucci points out two major areas where he has worked with Stuart since the speedster joined the Gnats’ roster on May 16th: timing and staying tall in his swing. The timing was a continuation of something that Stuart worked on in extended when his focus was on “getting his foot down” on time to start his swing.
Pascucci has continued the process. “When he first got here, he was a little late on fastballs. These guys are trying to light up a radar gun too, so you gotta be ready for fastballs to hit,” Pascucci said. “That’s one of the big things for young hitters, they start thinking too much, instead of looking for a fastball and letting your eyes tell you to make an adjustment on an offspeed pitch that’s up.”
The other issue is more nuanced and mechanical, about Stuart’s bat path. Stuart had a tendency to follow the pitch’s path towards him home with his head, which led to his back shoulder dropping. Pascucci explained why this gets Stuart in trouble, “As he’s following the ball in, instead of creating the leverage down with [his hands], he creates a litle bit of an arc[by dropping his hands as the ball is arriving], instead of using his hands going straight to the ball…. Sometimes that has him fouling balls straight back. He ends up saying, “Why am I missing it?””
The solution was to “stay tall.” Pascucci again explained the mechanics, “Keeping his shoulders level keeps his leverage so his top hand gets on top of the ball. Middle away pitches, that’s where your power’s going to come. If you stay tall through the ball, that’s where your power is going to come from – you’ve seen some of his triples to right-center, that’s a backspin line drive instead of that fading line drive.”
It’s taken over a month, and remains a work in progress at the plate, but Pascucci likes the work Stuart has put in, “He kept working at it, and working at it. He always comes in [asking] “what’d you see, what’d you see here?” He’s starting to get the feel of that swing, driving the ball and getting a little more powerful,” he said. For what it’s worth, Stuart had one extra-base hit in his first 21 games and that was was yanked to left. He had four extra-base hits in his next 20 games, two of which came to the gaps in center.
Rojas is effusive in his praise for Stuart’s rapid development, “It’s huge what we’re seeing from this player. He’s developing into a monster with the abilities that he has.”
Stuart brings speed. He’s becoming a better defender in center, as his routes have improved dramatically over 2013. Sliders still give him problems, but he’s becoming a more complete hitter. Even if he never becomes a great hitter, it’s easy to see where he fits on a big leaguer roster as a speed merchant/fourth outfielder. If he hits, watch out.