SAL notes: O's Stewart making adjustments
D.J. Stewart held no delusions that making the move from one of the most prominent college baseball programs and conferences in the nation to the professional ranks would be a walk in the park. The outfielder, in fact, realized the challenges he would face and was willing to hit them the only way he knows how -- with every ounce of energy his 230-pound frame can generate.
For a player with less determination than Stewart, his early experiences would have created their fair share of frustration. Selected by the Orioles with the 25th overall pick in the 2015 Draft, the Florida State product batted .218/.288/.345 in 62 games at Aberdeen in the New York-Penn League last summer. Through his first 34 games this season at Class A Delmarva in the South Atlantic League, the left-handed hitter owned a slash line of .198/.377/.321 with seven doubles, two homers and 14 RBIs.
"Baseball is a game of adjustments, and I've been making adjustments every single day," Stewart said. "I'm getting pitched here a little bit different than I was in college baseball, but I'm facing different guys that we don't really have a scouting report on. You have to make adjustments and pick it up as you're going. It's been a constant adjustment. but I've felt more comfortable as the season has gone along."
A standout running back who led the Bolles School in Jacksonville, Florida, to three state championships on the gridiron and two more in baseball, Stewart was drafted by the Yankees in the 28th round in 2012 before joining the Seminoles. In Tallahassee, he blossomed into one of the best hitters in the college ranks, earning Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Year honors as a sophomore when he paced the league in all three slash categories by batting .351/.472/.557.
Throughout his tenure at Florida State, Stewart worked constantly on honing his skills, both in the outfield as well as at the plate. By the time his junior campaign came to a close, the Gainesville native was considered one of the top offensive players available in the 2015 Draft.
"There's a lot of small things that I worked on with my coaches that made me a better player while I was there," Stewart said. "One of the big things we stressed during my final year was trying to drive the ball out of the park to the opposite field. Once I showed I had the power to the opposite field, it actually made the game a lot easier for me. But you combine that with the working out and the film studies and so many other things we did, that's what made me a better player while I was at Florida State."
Despite Stewart's quick swing and excellent plate discipline, some scouts wondered if his unorthodox stance at the plate would be effective in pro ball. While in college, Stewart crouched very low, so much so that it made Pete Rose in his heyday appear to be standing straight up. Since signing with Baltimore, the outfielder has tried to alter his stance, which remains a work in progress.
"I've come up a little bit, but that has been an adjustment as well throughout this season," Stewart said. "I tried to start higher, but lately I've gone down a little bit more, just trying to find that happy medium where I feel comfortable in the box. Early on I wasn't feeling too comfortable standing as high as I was."
Stewart is confident about the slow but steady progress he is making in all aspects of his game. He continues to display patience, as evidenced by his 27 walks versus 31 strikeouts in his first 106 official at-bats. He is also driving the ball with consistency and running the bases well, resulting in eight steals. Add in his solid defense in left field and Stewart feels everything is coming together better than some of the numbers might otherwise suggest.
"I just need to keep making the adjustments that I need to make," Stewart said. "It's a constant process. Sometimes it can get a little tough, but I love my job."
Keller in complete control: West Virginia right-hander Mitch Keller leads the SAL with a 0.61 WHIP and has allowed only 22 hits and three walks in 41 innings this season. He is also tied for first on the circuit with teammate Jonathan Brubaker with 48 strikeouts and ranks third with an opponents' batting average of .156. The Pirates' second-round pick in 2014 out of an Iowa high school has not allowed more than two runs in any of his seven starts and has held his opponent scoreless in four outings.
Crafty Conlon on a roll: Columbia's P.J. Conlon won his sixth straight start May 17 when he shut out Rome on two hits over 6 2/3 innings. The southpaw from the University of San Diego is now tied with Kannapolis' Tanner Banks for the league lead in victories while ranking second with a 1.04 ERA. The Mets' 13th-round pick in 2015, Conlon has issued only six walks while striking out 36 batters in 43 1/3 innings.
Mundell mashing: Asheville first baseman Brian Mundell had his nine-game hitting streak end May 17 when he walked once in five trips to the plate at Augusta. The Cal Poly product, who was drafted by the Rockies in the seventh round in 2015, was 18-for-39 (.462) with four three-hit games during the streak. Mundell leads the SAL with a .367 batting average, 54 hits, 18 doubles, 22 extra-base hits and 83 total bases. He is also third on the circuit with a .565 slugging percentage and fifth with a .421 on-base percentage.
Big league bound: Rome coach Jose Yepez was named Atlanta's new bullpen catcher after manager Fredi Gonzalez was fired May 17. Yepez, who was in his first season on the R-Braves' staff, is a 14-year veteran of professional baseball who played in the Toronto, Seattle and Atlanta organizations. Yepez joined the Major League team in Pittsburgh.
Bill Ballew is a contributor to MiLB.com.