Baseball America rated Zach Stewart the number one prospect in the Blue Jays organization over the winter. In his first full season as a starter, he has an 8-2 record and 4.01 ERA in nineteen games.
Zach sat down with me before tonight's game against the Harrisburg Senators to talk about his rough start to the season, his preference between starting and relieving, and his approach on the mound.
At the beginning of this year, you struggled in April and May. It looks like you numbers have improved since then. Were there adjustments that you made or was it just a matter of settling in to a new league and a new team?
There were adjustments. Just first of the year, got into a little funk, it just happens. I guess it’s a just a thing that happens with baseball, happens with pitchers, hitters, and just made some adjustments, adapted, and just overcame what was going on and pushed through. I’ve made a turnaround and everything’s felt better since then.
You’ve been giving up more homeruns this year than you had in your first couple years as a pro. Again, was that just something where you had some adjustments you had to make, something wasn’t quite right, or was it just something that’s gonna happen?
It happens. I mean, I’ve still had games where I’ll give up a couple. My last outing against the Mets I gave up two. It’s just, this is a good league, there’s a lot of good hitters, and it’s just gonna happen. It’s part of the game, you know, when it does happen you’ve gotta bounce back and make the best of it.
Has it been disappointing to spend, so far, the entire season in AA after you spent a lot of time in AAA last year? And did management sit you down and talk to you, say, "You’ll probably be there most of the season," or did they give you steps to work on?
They talked to us in spring training, individually, and they told me that I would be starting here. They didn’t really give me a timeframe or anything, but it was just like, they told me straight up that this is where I was gonna start from the very beginning. I thought that was cool of them to give me an insight on what their thoughts were.
So yeah, they told me, and to me it’s not a big deal. It’s one of those things, no matter what level you’re at, you’ve gotta pitch good to get where you wanna be. I mean, wherever I’m put, I’ll just play the best that I can, and whatever happens, happens.
This is the furthest you’ve gone into a season as a full-time starter. Has it been an adjustment for you and how difficult has it been?
Actually, I got fourteen starts last year, and I was actually getting into a groove and felt pretty comfortable with it in the middle of last season and they switched me and put me in the bullpen, which was fine because I’m fine with pitching out of the bullpen as well. I felt like taking from what I had last year and bringing it to this season, it’s pretty much the same. Once you get to this point in the season, you’ve done it all year, and it’s just routine, so it’s not that big of an adjustment.
One of the websites I read on prospects, in December he said that you could probably end up being a number two starter in the majors or you could be a closer in the majors. You could go either way. Which one of those roles do you think you would prefer to do?
[pauses, sighs] It’s tough to say. [pause] Honestly, I guess I’d say I’d rather start. You have more impact on the game that you do pitch in because you can go longer, 6-7-8-9 innings, hopefully. On the other hand I wouldn’t have any problem being a closer. I’ve done both, in college and professional ball, and I like both sides of it. I guess if I had to pick I’d say a starter, but either way it’s fine with me.
Earlier this season when I talked to Kyle Drabek I asked him what it was like to be traded for somebody like Roy Halladay. So now I have to ask you: what’s it like when you hear about a deal where you’ve been dealt and you hear that the player that’s coming back the other way is Scott Rolen?
Oh, it’s definitely pretty cool, because I grew up watching Scott Rolen play and he’s a helluva player. To be mixed in with a guy like that is definitely an honor. You’ve just got a lot to live up to with a guy like that.
When you’re coming over from another organization, how long does it take you to develop a relationship with the catchers?
With these guys not very long. We’ve got a good group of guys. I’ve picked up on their tendencies and they’ve picked up on mine, so it hasn’t been that big of a transition.
Over the winter, you were Baseball America’s number one prospect for the Blue Jays. Does something like that factor into what you do or how you approach the game, or does it not really matter at all?
Not really. I mean, it’s definitely something I’ve heard. I’m not completely oblivious to it, just from people telling me about it, but you can’t really weigh too much on it just because you’ve still gotta go out and do your job. That’s the main goal. So it’s cool that I was named that, but it doesn’t matter if I don’t make anything out of it, so I’ve still gotta go out and do my job.
Sort of along those lines, when Drabek came over, it was almost like you guys were classified 1A and 1B, either way. Is that something you guys talk about? Do you give each other a hard time or anything?
No, not really. [laughs] We’re pretty good buddies, and it’s one of those things, if one of us is doing good, the other one’s happy for him. So it’s not really that big of a deal.
I’ve read that you idolized Nolan Ryan when you were a kid. What pitcher either past or present would you compare yourself to, the way you are out there on the mound?
I would compare myself, not in ability, to Nolan Ryan, but in the mindset of always – I don’t know, I guess I grew up watching those older guys, the old-school type, demand respect on the mound. You want to control the game, and I think that’s how I pitch. As far as comparing ability or stuff, I don’t know, but mindset, I definitely compare myself to those guys just because that’s who I grew up watching, and I just took that from them to go out and establish that it’s your game and you’re the one that’s in control. So I’d compare myself to that, I guess.
Is there any batter that you could face in the major leagues that you’d be nervous to stand out there against?
I wouldn’t say nervous because honestly, you can’t be nervous because it’d be fun just to pitch against him, but Pujols would be one. You’ve gotta look at him and see the numbers that he’s put up and the great pitchers that he’s had success against. You’d definitely at least have to think about it when he stepped into the box.
Is there anybody that just owns you and you can’t figure out why?
Uhh, owns me…Nieuwenhuis, with the Mets, has had pretty good success against me. Sometimes we’ll go back and forth, sometimes he’ll – I think he’s hit two homeruns and a triple off of me, so he gets me pretty well. Sometimes I’ll throw good pitches and he hits them and it’s just one of those things I guess he’s locked in. But yeah, I would say Nieuwenhuis would probably be the guy.