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TD Top Prospects: #8 Kohl Stewart

In June of 2013, the Minnesota Twins made perhaps their most important draft pick of the past decade and beyond. With the No. 4 selection in hand after a dreadful 2012 season that reinforced the organization's desperate need for pitching talent, they gambled on a Texas high school hurler named Kohl Stewart.

Nearly four years later, the jury is still out.
Age: 22 (DOB: 10/7/94)
2016 Stats (A+/AA): 143.2 IP, 2.88 ERA, 91/63 K/BB, 1.34 WHIP
ETA: 2018
2016 Ranking: 9

National Top 100 Rankings
BA: NR | MLB: NR | ESPN: 87 | BP: NR

At St. Pius X High School in Houston, Stewart was a legendary athlete. A star quarterback, he was widely recruited before signing a letter of intent with Texas A&M. Calling signals on Saturday for the Aggies was undoubtedly a dream of his while growing up 90 minutes away from campus, but ultimately he decided to follow his golden right arm in another direction.

When the Twins drafted Stewart fourth overall, the allure of a $4.5 million signing bonus was too much to pass up. It was a major leap of faith for Minnesota's draft department, which had long had its sights set on the prized pitching talent. Much has been made of the fact that Hunter Greene, a teenage phenom out of California, could be the first prep right-hander to ever be selected with the first overall pick this June. There's a reason for that; such players bring a relatively higher level of risk and uncertainty.

But Stewart had all the requisites. A football player's build. A hard-moving fastball to go along with a potentially dominant slider. The prototypical bulldog demeanor on the mound. Ace upside.

What's To Like

Those aforementioned traits remain intact. Stewart has checked one very important box off the list by staying healthy and on the field. That is hardly a given for young kids who throw in mid-90s or above. Tyler Kolek, the fireballing righty selected second overall by the Marlins a year after Stewart's draft, just lost his entire 2016 campaign to Tommy John surgery. It's a major setback in a budding career.

Stewart has avoided such pitfalls and thus has progressed about exactly as one would hope. Since starting full-season ball in 2014 he has ascended to a new level each year, finishing last season as a 21-year-old in the Class-AA Southern League, where the average player was about three years his elder.

From year to year, the right-hander has increased his inning totals from 87 to 129 to 143, prepping his arm to be ready for 200 frames once he reaches the majors. You compare that to a guy like Jose De Leon, who at 24 still hasn't thrown even 120 innings in a season, and it's easy to see the value.

While reliably taking his rotation turns, Stewart has produced. He has a shiny 2.84 ERA as a pro and hasn't finished above 3.20 at any level. Opponents have struggled to square him up, with only 12 home runs in 1,600 plate appearances. Last year he made what many consider the toughest jump in the minors, but hardly looked overmatched in Double-A, picking up wins in nine of his 16 starts while posting a 3.03 ERA.

What's Left To Work On

In the entirety of his minor-league career, Stewart has struck out 15.4 percent of the batters he has faced, and walked 8.4 percent. I couldn't figure out an efficient way to do the definitive research, but I can say with confidence that there are very few, if any, successful starting pitchers in the majors who registered such low rates in both categories as prospects.

For a more manageable exercise, let's compare Stewart's established K and BB rates in the minors with those of each pitcher who made a start for the Twins last year.

Kohl Stewart: 15.4% K / 8.4% BB

Ervin Santana: 23.4% / 8.4% BB
Kyle Gibson: 21.7% K / 6.7% BB
Tyler Duffey: 20.2% K / 5.2% BB
Ricky Nolasco: 23.3% K / 7.0% BB
Tommy Milone: 22.7% K / 4.0% BB
Jose Berrios: 25.3% K / 7.6% BB
Pat Dean: 14.0% K / 4.8% BB
Hector Santiago: 24.3% K / 10.7% BB
Phil Hughes: 28.8% K / 6.4% BB
Andrew Albers: 18.4% K / 5.3% BB
Alex Meyer: 27.3% K / 10.0 % BB

So, on an historically poor starting unit, only three players had minor-league walk rates worse than Stewart has (Santana, Santiago, Meyer) and each made up for it with plenty of missed bats. The only one with a lesser K-rate in the minors was soft-tossing lefty Pat Dean, who balanced the heavy contact with pinpoint control.

Of course, this is an incomplete picture. Stewart is still a 22-year-old with, perhaps, multiple full minor-league seasons ahead of him yet. But up to this point he has logged 380 professional innings with a K/BB ratio below two. You just don't see effective big-league starters with that in their track record. The core tenet of pitching, in modern analysis, is that there are two things a guy can directly control, with no luck or external factors involved: how many he strikes out, and how many he walks. If you can't do either particularly well, it almost always ends up biting you.

What's Next

Stewart will likely start the season in Chattanooga, where he must prove that his sterling ERA was more legit than his underwhelming peripherals. It's not unthinkable he could continue to plow through lineups with pedestrian strikeout and walk numbers, given that his sharp bending pitches always seem to to miss the sweet spot. Perhaps he earns another midseason promotion and reaches Triple-A. But as you climb the ladder, eventually inducing weak contact stops being enough on its own.

What he needs to do is start missing more bats. It isn't a huge stretch to believe he will. ESPN's prospect guru Keith Law suggested that Stewart could easily increase whiffs by leaning more heavily on his four-seamer and slider. The righty has mostly been a pitch-to-contact sinkerballer, and given the results it's hard to complain.

So what if this has all been part of some ingenious plan by the organization to preserve his arm, and Stewart is getting ready to unleash the true extent of his arsenal as he approaches the majors? It sounds far-fetched, and I'll believe it when I see it.

But the fact is this: many analysts – even those who emphasize statistics and recognize the red flag his K/BB ratio represents – still see Stewart as an eventual mid-rotation starter or better. Until someone actually starts hitting him, it's hard to disagree with that notion, in spite of the dubious underlying indicators.




~~~


Read up on our previous installments in the Twins Daily top prospects series:

TD Top Prospects: #20-16
TD Top Prospects: #15-11
TD Top Prospects: #10 Lewin Diaz
TD Top Prospects: #9 Travis Blankenhorn

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40 Comments

I know this is sacrilegious in the age of analytics, but I do think this guy is a stone cold competitor who will do everything he can to make the needed adjustments.

 

That said... THE FO top priority HAS to be getting the minor league pitching instruction RIGHT. We have a handful of high upside pitching prospects that could go either way and our medium and long term success completely depends on the outcome (because we all know that a FA ACE is not in our future...like ever).

 

....Master of the obvious....I know 

 

Nick -- have there been any significant changes in the minor league pitching coaches/instructors since the new FO took over? .... Would be interesting to know

    • glunn, bluechipper, mikelink45 and 3 others like this
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Rhino and Compass
Feb 15 2017 12:24 AM

In the age we live in, in which prospects are monitored from high school, to the draft and through their minor league career, and there is such a cognizance of other teams' prospects and their progress, it's so easy to get impatient with what seems like slow development. The most striking part of this piece for me was that Kohl Stewart is still only 22 years old. 

    • Seth Stohs, glunn, gunnarthor and 3 others like this
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HitInAPinch
Feb 15 2017 02:44 AM

I've very leery of any young pitcher throwing mid-90's and above.Hunter Greene, a high schooler, was reported to have thrown 100 mph.At 17 years old.Sure, it may be possible that both Stewart and Greene have Nolan Ryan-like arms.Stewart seems to have the body for the job. 

 

My hope is that Stewart's less attractive K/BB rates are the results of using less mid-90's fastballs and working more on situational pitching, working counts and a change-up, if he doesn't have one already.

    • glunn and DocBauer like this

To me last season was the year we needed to see Stewart break out. At this point I'd be surprised to see him end up as anything better than a AAAA starter. If they raise the strike zone he wouldn't even be that. Hopefully he turns a corner, but the odds of that are pretty low now.

    • d-mac likes this

I hope he unleashes the full arsenal, stays healthy, and becomes the cover-boy for the story about how to develop highly touted young arms.

 

Serious question, statistically speaking, are inning totals the best way to monitor wear and tear on a pitcher?  

 

Jose Deleon still hasn't hit over 120 innings, does that mean he has been throwing the same amount of pitches per year of development as Stewart, just less efficiently?

 

I know the Stewart story has been talked about before, but I think he is still pretty intriguing.  I'd give him one more year to "break out," and it seems like if there was a master plan, his age 22 season, at AA, would be the crux year.

    • Vanimal46 likes this
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tarheeltwinsfan
Feb 15 2017 07:33 AM

I know this is sacrilegious in the age of analytics, but I do think this guy is a stone cold competitor Don't you mean to say he is a stone Kohl competitor?

    • Oldgoat_MN, d-mac and D.C Twins like this
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tarheeltwinsfan
Feb 15 2017 07:35 AM
Sorry for the above post. The devil made me do it.
What offers me encouragement still is his age, and the uptick in SO the first half of last season in Ft Myers. If his start at AA this season is similar, I will remain encouraged. Despite a need at the ML level for top pitching, I wonder if Stewart would be better off at AA for the entire season, or at least the majority of it.
    • ThejacKmp likes this
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clutterheart
Feb 15 2017 07:47 AM

 

Those aforementioned traits remain intact. Stewart has checked one very important box off the list by staying healthy and on the field.

 

Didn't he have a 2 shoulder injuries and elbow problems?  

    • d-mac likes this

Stewart's biggest issue is mechanical inconsistencies in his delivery that severely effect his command and are responsible for the undesirable BB%. What people do not generally realize is that Stewart was a star QB at High School and received practically zero pitching instruction before he turned pro.  And then the instruction he received has been from the Minnesota Twins Pitching Factory...

 

He is fixable because the raw stuff is there, but he needs fixing and someone should do it.  Every single pitching coach he had, plus the pitching coordinator have proven that they cannot do it....

    • Oldgoat_MN, Bob Sacamento, tellis205 and 3 others like this
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JaleelWhite FanClub
Feb 15 2017 08:19 AM

I've always been on the "overrated" side on the Stewart argument. I guess I bought into the peripherals argument. As the article explains, there aren't really any good comps out there for successful big leaguers who put up such pedestrian numbers in the minors.

 

On this list, though, I think he's slotted right. As the system as a whole, with the promotions of Sano, Buxton, Kepler, and Berrios, has gotten thinner, Stewart has fallen. I agree he's no longer a Top-5 prospect, but he's still young and has been a consistent innings and ERA guy.

 

My blind optimism this season will be that the new regime and an overhaul of the minor league pitching team will unearth the ace potential in Stewart we've been hearing about for so long.

Your 2016 stats don't jive with the article and after a quick look don't jive with baseball reference either which shows 143 innings pitched and a 2.88 ERA in 2016. I am still a believer in the concept of pitching to contact if done well. The home runs given up by Stewart in 1600 batters is that same number given up by Berrios in the majors in 58 innings.  Weak contact by design by putting quality pitches in or very near the edge zone is going to have different outcomes than a lot of swing and misses combined with a lot of mistakes down the middle.

    • jud6312 likes this

I guess Stewart is the one prospect I don't think there's really any reason to argue over.  He's either going to improve his k-rate or bomb out in AA.  There's no way he's getting through AA this year with a 4k/9.  

 

Sickel's write up mentions some of the concerns Thrylos mentions - erratic command.  Hopefully, he puts it all together this year.

    • mikelink45, DocBauer, HitInAPinch and 2 others like this

I guess it is a reflection of the weakness of our current system because so far the top ten to date has looked really poor.  I hope Stewart can turn things around, but until he does he is not a top ten candidate.  At this stage is he really better than the pitchers you had in the 11 - 20 list?  I would not think so.  Only his draft number is better, but for me I would take Gonsalves and Jay above Stewart and a few of our Latin American pitchers far above him.

 

The post that I like the best is the question about coaching.  We have been watching prospects for years not materialize at the MLB level no matter what their potential seems to be.  Why didn't Duffey learn a third pitch in the minors, why wasn't Berrios mentally ready?  Why did it take so long to get Gibson to the majors and why has his career been so pedestrian? We have sought the Vogelsongs and Nolascos of the world instead of creating a miLB conveyor.

    • Oldgoat_MN, Bob Sacamento, DocBauer and 3 others like this

I still see a lot to like in Stewart. Most of it is pointed out in this article. If you go game-by-game with him last year, there are a bunch of strong performances (10 of 16 starts were of the 'quality' variety - only allowed more than 3 runs in 3 of his AA starts). There is an obvious lack of K's and too many walks while in AA, but a drop in K's when moving up to there happens to a lot of guys. Same thing happened to Felix Jorge.

 

With Falvey being the pitching guy, Stewart is the one guy I'm looking forward to seeing if they can turn into something more than what he's shown. The stuff is still there, lets see if they can get him to harness it now.

    • gunnarthor, DocBauer, HitInAPinch and 1 other like this

 

I wonder if Stewart would be better off at AA for the entire season, or at least the majority of it.

 

Yeah, you wonder if it might help to tell him, "You're going to be in AA this entire year and AAA next year, no matter what. We want to work on these three things and we're not as concerned about the results."

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Nick Nelson
Feb 15 2017 09:16 AM

 

Your 2016 stats don't jive with the article and after a quick look don't jive with baseball reference either which shows 143 innings pitched and a 2.88 ERA in 2016.

Oops, those numbers got mixed up somehow. I fixed them, thanks for pointing out. 

 

Stewart's biggest issue is mechanical inconsistencies in his delivery that severely effect his command and are responsible for the undesirable BB%. What people do not generally realize is that Stewart was a star QB at High School and received practically zero pitching instruction before he turned pro.  And then the instruction he received has been from the Minnesota Twins Pitching Factory...

 

He is fixable because the raw stuff is there, but he needs fixing and someone should do it.  Every single pitching coach he had, plus the pitching coordinator have proven that they cannot do it....

I sure hope this is the problem. We keep hearing that his FB has movement and that his slider is good, but who goes anywhere with K/9 and WHIP numbers like those?

It's almost as if the ERA numbers are just a mirage.

 

Hard to get on this bandwagon until we see more Ks and better control.

    • rghrbek and d-mac like this

It feels like a huge waste of Stewart's talents to make him a pitch-to-contact type when he has good stuff. If anything it should be the last resort to make him that kind of pitcher. He could be the new regime's first real significant turnaround candidate under their watch. 

    • Steve Lein and d-mac like this
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birdwatcher
Feb 15 2017 10:56 AM

I wonder if there's another prospect out there where the "problem" that needs to be "fixed" is any clearer and indisputable.  On the surface that is. Everyone who follows him "knows" : that he 1) didn't concentrate solely on baseball until he began his professional career; 2) is working to harness command of his stuff; 3) throws some impressive stuff right now and has progressed at a very young age at an acceptable pace with at least decent results in all categories except BB/K stats.

 

So, the polarity of opinion about his upside is really exclusively about the one thing. Some don't like him much because of what they "saw", while others don't like him much because they forecast that this will not change, and still others, fewer in number this season, believe he will eventually overcome the command issues and become a decent MLB starter.

 

I'm tired of the reiteration of the problem and am looking for signs that point specifically to details about steps in his development process that are being taken to address this singular problem. If in fact it is as singular and clear-cut as people describe it.

    • gunnarthor, Vanimal46, d-mac and 1 other like this

 

I wonder if there's another prospect out there where the "problem" that needs to be "fixed" is any clearer and indisputable.  On the surface that is. Everyone who follows him "knows" : that he 1) didn't concentrate solely on baseball until he began his professional career; 2) is working to harness command of his stuff; 3) throws some impressive stuff right now and has progressed at a very young age at an acceptable pace with at least decent results in all categories except BB/K stats.

 

So, the polarity of opinion about his upside is really exclusively about the one thing. Some don't like him much because of what they "saw", while others don't like him much because they forecast that this will not change, and still others, fewer in number this season, believe he will eventually overcome the command issues and become a decent MLB starter.

 

I'm tired of the reiteration of the problem and am looking for signs that point specifically to details about steps in his development process that are being taken to address this singular problem. If in fact it is as singular and clear-cut as people describe it.

Agreed. This will be a good year to see if a new regime and new philosophy will fix the K/BB stat problem. Frankly I wouldn't mind a step back in overall numbers if his game plan is more focused on inducing more swinging strikes.

 

Maybe he gives up more HRs and he won't have a sexy sub-3 ERA with a different game plan. In the long run, it should help him out more to use more of his power pitches, and not focus entirely on inducing weak ground balls. 

As someone who was down on him because of the low K rate, I'm feeling different about him this year. And I'm excited to see if the new regime can help him realize he can be more than a sinker ball, pitch to contact guy. 

 

To me last season was the year we needed to see Stewart break out. At this point I'd be surprised to see him end up as anything better than a AAAA starter. If they raise the strike zone he wouldn't even be that. Hopefully he turns a corner, but the odds of that are pretty low now.

21.  Years.  Old.  Be patient

    • gunnarthor, bluechipper, twinssouth and 3 others like this
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diehardtwinsfan
Feb 15 2017 11:32 AM

 

To me last season was the year we needed to see Stewart break out. At this point I'd be surprised to see him end up as anything better than a AAAA starter. If they raise the strike zone he wouldn't even be that. Hopefully he turns a corner, but the odds of that are pretty low now.

 

Technically, he did break out in High A.... however, the K rate he notched in A+ did not translate to AA.Hopefully we see numbers along the lines of his A+ numbers in AA.

    • birdwatcher, bluechipper and HitInAPinch like this

 

Technically, he did break out in High A.... however, the K rate he notched in A+ did not translate to AA.Hopefully we see numbers along the lines of his A+ numbers in AA.

While obviously more encouraging than other possible outcomes, I don't think 9 starts of league-average K rate, repeating a level, counts as a "breakout".

    • gil4, Oldgoat_MN and d-mac like this

Also, in regards to Stewart's low HR rates so far in the minors, it's worth noting that he's pitched exclusively in some pretty low HR environments.

 

League HR/9 rates

2014 Midwest League: 0.6 (Stewart 0.4)

2015 Florida State League: 0.4 (Stewart 0.1) (Ft. Myers as a team 0.3)

2016 Florida State League: 0.6 (Stewart 0.3) (Ft. Myers as a team 0.4)

2016 Southern League: 0.6 (Stewart 0.4)

 

Still a bit better than league averages, but by comparison, AL rates have been 0.9, 1.1, and 1.2 the last 3 years.

 

Will Stewart's HR suppression play as a standout skill in MLB?  Even Mike Pelfrey and Kyle Gibson have notched above-average MLB HR suppression recently, but it didn't do much to elevate their overall performance.

    • birdwatcher, Dantes929, markos and 1 other like this