On May 26, I was very concerned for DJ Stewart’s sake that he would be sent down to the minor leagues and would possibly never be seen again in the orange and black, after reading this article. That was until the tables turned later that day when Austin Hays went to the Injured List (IL).
Although I have a soft spot for both players, Stewart has always been the underdog in his competition with Hays for the LF starting spot. And no, I don’t consider Ryan Mountcastle to be a legitimate candidate, due to his negative four defensive runs (DRS) saved in LF during 2021 and some defensive plays that he has executed poorly. While Hays and Stewart were both in the minor leagues, MLB scouts determined Austin’s future value to be 45+, while DJ’s was only 40, according to Fangraphs. Hays has a 1.6 career WAR, while Stewart’s only sums to 1.1. Hays was the stronger prospect, has the more obvious athleticism, and is more well-known within the Orioles’ fanbase. Even this year, Hays has been more valuable than Stewart, because of his fantastic defensive ability.
Still, the key question in major league baseball always seems to be: “What have you done for me lately?”
Brandon Hyde started Hays in all three games against the Rays after he came off the IL, but Austin did not register a hit the entire series. Meanwhile, Stewart has a .907 OPS in June, according to Baseball Savant, and managed to register a hit in his only start against the Rays on Sunday. So now, both players have an identical OPS of .722 this year, according to MLB.com, but Stewart’s career OPS is now .751, which is .015 higher than Hays’s mark of .736.
Although it is somewhat unlikely that DJ will stay as hot offensively in the long-term as he has been this month, he has improved vastly in one offensive area: Hitting against average to above-average velocity fastballs. According to Baseball Savant, before 2021, Stewart had a .226 wOBA, an average exit velocity (EV) of 84.4 MPH, and a 40.3 K% against pitches thrown 94+ MPH. On the other hand, in 2021, DJ has a wOBA of .350, an EV of 87.3 MPH, and a 33.3 K% against the same set of pitch velocities. This is an enormous achievement for Stewart, and it has empowered him to become an overall average MLB hitter this year. If he can continue this overall trend, then his great eye at the plate and ability to hit heaters could allow him to grow into a very valuable batter for the O’s throughout his prime performance ages, until he becomes a free agent in 2026 as a 32-year-old.
Still, if Stewart does not continue to hit the high-velocity fastball well and goes into any sort of slump compared to his June OPS of .907, then he will need to watch out for Hays. Austin is certainly right there with DJ and has started quite often in his O’s career. So stay tuned for my next article, where I will determine whether Hays should start over Stewart, in order to help the long-term rebuild.