The under-appreciated Chris Stewart
By Tyler Waite
It seems like throughout the remarkable ride that the Pittsburgh Pirates have already shown us fans so far this year, a man you may know by the name of Chris Stewart has gone largely unnoticed. And this is a good thing. For even though he doesn’t receive much playing time as the backup catcher, he always does his job, and he does it well. He makes contact and gets hits in limited at-bats, continues to be a good pitch framer, and catches arguably one of the best pitchers in baseball in Gerrit Cole, all while being overshadowed by one of the best catchers in baseball in Francisco Cervelli. He is the under-appreciated Chris Stewart.
Last year as the backup catcher to Russell Martin, Stewart batted .294 with a .362 OBP and was worth 0.7 wins above replacement. This year, Stewart’s batting .302 with a .337 OBP and is already worth 0.7 wins above replacement. His .302 average leads the entire team. Granted, he doesn’t have nearly as many at-bats as the every day players, but it’s much harder to maintain consistency as a backup, and Stewart does just that. He also has seven RBIs this year, which isn’t a lot, but it’s three away from the ten he had last year. Stewart will never be a power hitter. But he can hit when it matters, and can rack up the singles. Any hitting is a plus from the catcher spot, and Stewart gives you decent hitting.
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Stewart’s also an under-rated pitch framer. Last season, he was worth 4.4 defensive runs saved due to pitch framing. This season, he’s been worth 2.7 defensive runs saved. No, that’s not great, but it is above average. He’s also been better in this category than Russell Martin this year. He’s a compliment to the league-leading pitch framer in Cervelli. We know that General Manager Neal Huntington stresses defense, pitch framing, blocking, and other similar statistics when evaluating a catcher, and he snagged two of the best of the bunch in Cervelli and Stewart.
One factor that is immeasurable that Stewart provides is his connection with Gerrit Cole. Starting off the year, Cole didn’t have a personal catcher or a true preference with who caught him. But as the season has progressed, Stewart has begun to catch Cole more and more often, essentially becoming his personal catcher. Stewart has caught Cole’s last 11 starts and 13 of his 17 starts on the year. Bill West of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review wrote a good piece about their connection, noting that it began last season when Stewart caught nine of Cole’s 22 starts. With Cole ascending to ace status this year, at least a very minor part of that has to be credited to Stewart.
Stewart’s also been overshadowed by Cervelli for just about the entire season. Pirate fans were clamoring for Cervelli to make the all-star game, and he probably deserved to, considering he leads all of baseball in defensive runs saved due to pitch framing and hasn’t been too shabby at the plate either. Maybe this has taken most of the attention off of Stewart, but whatever it is, it’s worked for him.
Chris Stewart has been a great backup catcher for the Pirates this season. He gets hits, catches one of the best pitchers in baseball in Cole, and has done so while being overshadowed by Cervelli for much of the year. He’s gone unnoticed this year and has done his job quietly, yet effectively. This team is blessed to have not one but two good catchers, both offensively and defensively, that catch one of the best pitching staffs in the league. I’ll take Stewart as a backup catcher for this team every day of the week.