|Will Stewart (right), image- Jay Floyd|
It's not a hot-tempered, get-out-of-my-face chip. Instead it's one that lies underneath, behind a calm demeanor and a steadily approachable mug and he unleashes it only on his opposition.
The left-handed pitcher was taken by the Phillies in the 20th round of the 2015 amateur draft out of Hazel Green High School in Alabama. Getting selected after 693 other guys gave the six-foot-two 175-pounder something to prove.
"I think guys in the higher rounds, we have more to prove because we weren’t the guys that we going to come out of high school and get all the love," Stewart shared at Lakewood's FirstEnergy Park last week. "There’s nothing wrong with that. If you deserve it, you deserve it. But the later round guys I feel like we’re hungrier. We need it more. We don’t have things, like a big signing bonus, to fall back on."
Well, Stewart is doing a lot of proving and he is starting to get the love because of it.
Through six starts with the Class A Lakewood BlueClaws the 20-year-old has tallied a 4-0 record with a 1.46 ERA and a 0.92 WHIP while striking out 31 and walking five in 37 innings pitched.
Equipped with a two-seam fastball that usually ranges from 92 to 93 MPH and can clock higher, a solid change up, a slider and a curve ball, Stewart has been able to get the best of the South Atlantic League in the early going this season.
"He's just doing a really good job with his mix, keeping hitters off balance, changing speeds when he needs to," Lakewood manager Marty Malloy said. "Making pitches when he needs to is the most important thing. I mean, he's got command of his pitches, he's got command of his fastball and he's able to work off of that."
The gleaming production isn't something that the humble hurler will accept acclaim for. He gives credit to the defense behind him in each outing.
Stewart also values the organization's focus on pitching to contact, compared to other teams that may have a large focus on velocity for their pitchers. It's an approach that took some time to get used to.
Initially, upon debuting as a pro, Stewart pitched as a reliever with the Rookie level Gulf Coast League Phillies. Returning to that same club in 2016, he was part of the starting rotation and has stuck as a starter since then, pitching in short-season A level Williamsport last season. He compiled a 7-5 record and a 4.24 ERA through he first three seasons in the minors.
If he stays on his current path, this would be his first professional season with an ERA under 4.
The comfort level in Lakewood has helped Stewart improve and shine. BlueClaws pitching coach Brad Bergesen gives freedom to his pitching staff. The flexibility has improved Stewart's mindset and has given him independence that he has used to take strides.
"(Bergesen) trusts in everything we do," explained Stewart. "He tells us to play to our strengths and he gives us the freedom to know, yeah, we’re gonna fail, but the thing is just learning from the failure and not having your hand held."
With significant autonomy and an ideal attitude, Stewart is anxious to really prove his worth as he targets an ascension up the developmental ladder.