Blue Jays right-hander Zach Stewart was the organization’s number one prospect entering the 2010 season. He slipped to number six in 2011 (third among pitching prospects behind Kyle Drabek and Deck McGuire) and returned to Double-A New Hampshire for the second consecutive season.
Zach and I previously spoke last August, making this the first follow-up interview from The Bus Leagues Experience. We sat down last week prior to the Fisher Cats game against the Binghamton Mets and talked about the advantages of knowing your role on the pitching staff, the mental aspect of developing his changeup, and the importance of a good pitcher-catcher relationship.
You’ve started every game that you’ve appeared in since the start of last season, whereas before they were kinda moving you around, limiting your innings a little bit. Is it good for you to settle into that role, as opposed to moving back and forth between the bullpen and the rotation?
Yeah, I think it’s good for anybody, in any situation, for them to get into a certain role and go with it. I think sometimes it gets to be hectic. And like in my case, I had success with both, but I think sometimes it can be mentally draining having to go back and forth, just with the different routines and things of that nature. It’s still pitching, but there is a lot of difference in relief pitching and starting. So I think it does help because it lets you get into a rhythm, you get more used to it, so as far as that goes, anything when you get into it and you get going you get more of a rhythm, you get used to it, it helps more.
It’s like you always hear about bullpen guys in the major leagues, they always say a guy likes to know if he’s a sixth inning guy or an eighth inning guy.
Right, it kinda gives you a job description, almost, like, “This is what you gotta do.” It’s not like, “Well, one day…” And I know that some guys have made careers out of it, and some guys you see back and forth and do well, but some guys, on the other hand, you can tell it takes a toll on them and they struggle with it. So yeah, I think with me it helps just getting settled in and having a clear-cut idea of what it is I’m supposed to be doing.
Now, two years in a row you’ve been a starter, but you’ve also gotten off to kind of a rough start in the league. Are some of the same factors you dealt with last season affecting you this season? The weather…?
No, I think the weather’s affecting everybody right now. Seems like every couple days we’re playing a doubleheader or something. I mean, it’s not bad, it’s just been really wet up here. But other than that nothing really stands out.
A lot of the hitters I’ve talked to, they say…like Anthony [Gose]. I talked to Anthony when his numbers showed that he wasn’t really hitting well, and he was like, “Man, I feel great, it’s just clicking for me. It’s gonna come.” Do you feel kind of the same way, like your numbers may not reflect how you’re feeling?
Yeah, I definitely feel that way. I feel like overall my arm feels good, all my stuff seems to be working the way it should. I just think it’s one of those things. I had a start similar to this last year and then got into a rhythm, and then put together eight, ten good starts, and that pretty much made my season. So I’m thinking I feel good. I don’t have any reason to worry. It’s not like I’m looking at my numbers and sitting there thinking, “Oh man, this is a disaster.” I feel good. I’m really not a big numbers guy anyway, so mostly I’m just going on how I feel. My last two starts [ed: five runs on ten hits in five innings on May 7 and five runs on nine hits in six innings on May 12] haven’t been great, but they weren’t terrible. I still felt like we were in the game when I got pulled and I ended up going, I think the last two games, if I remember, both of them were five or six innings apiece. So I’m getting my innings. Of course when you get out there every time you wanna go out there and throw zeroes, but these guys we’re playing against, it’s tough to do that, day in and day out.
What pitches are you throwing now? What types of pitches?
I’m still a sinkerball guy. I throw my two-seamer a lot and try to get ground ball outs. I haven’t really changed my approach as far as that goes, but I’ve always been a sinker-slider guy and that’s pretty much what I’m still going with, and still working on the changeup. I think it’s coming along a lot. I feel like it’s a good pitch and I can use it. The more and more I throw it the more comfortable I get with it and the better it gets.
How does the development of a pitch like that – like, you picked up a change in the last few years?
How does the development of a pitch like that compare to the development of a pitch like your sinker, like your slider? Did those other two come naturally, did you have a feel for them?
Yeah, those were pitches I threw forever. A changeup, to me, has been a harder pitch to mentally grasp, because you’re throwing a ball up there slow, and basically saying, “Here it is.” You know, you’re deceiving the hitter in a way, but in my mind, everything else I throw is hard or it breaks or it’s moving down, and so it’s like, “Okay, it has movement on it, this guy, if he puts the bat on it, he can get out.” To me, the hardest part about getting used to throwing the changeup is, I’m basically throwing a cookie up there. Even though it is deceiving, if they do sit on it, it’s an easy pitch to hit. That’s how I looked at it. But from the hitter’s point of view, it’s actually probably the hardest pitch to adjust to in baseball. But as a pitcher, for me, it was hard to see it that way.
It kinda goes against your mentality.
Right. I’m throwing that ball up there to get crushed, is what I was thinking. But I’ve gotten used to it and thrown it in a lot of situations, and I’ve finally gotten to see that this isn’t as easy for them to hit as it feels like. It’s actually a tough pitch for them to get a grasp on and get a look at.
So when did you start working on the change as a third option?
I started working on it in college. It was just one of those things where, to me and my game plan, I never really had to use it as much because I had a good slider and I threw the ball pretty hard, and I could just blow the ball by people or get people swinging at a slider in the dirt, where in pro ball I kinda needed a third pitch, especially after I got out of the bullpen. In the bullpen it wasn’t a big deal – fastball, slider, you’re fine – but once I got out of the bullpen and realized, I gotta start throwing five, six, seven, eight innings, you kinda need a third pitch, just something else for them to have to worry about.
What was it about the change? What was it that led you in that direction as opposed to a different third pitch?
I guess it’s just that’s the pitch. Pretty much if you talk to anyone, that’s the starter pitch, that’s the pitch that separates starters from relievers, or good starters from mediocre starters. That’s just one more pitch for them to look at. It resembles a fastball so much that it IS hard for the hitter to have an idea of what’s coming. They see fastball out of your hand cause it’s hard for them to tell within that sixty feet six inches that it’s gonna be an offspeed pitch. It just looks like a fastball coming out of your hand, so it’s tough for them to do anything with.
And you said as a starter versus a reliever, coming out of the bullpen you’re going with just those two pitches.
Yeah, oh yeah, out of the bullpen I was just a slider-fastball guy. I throw a four-seam fastball as well, so I guess that’s a different pitch in a way, but I was pretty much fastball-slider all the time. I didn’t really mess with my changeup.
Is there a difference in the effort level between the two, where you’re coming out to maybe throw an inning or two, how much you’re putting into every pitch?
Oh yeah, yeah. To me, it’s totally different. It’s a totally different mindset. As a starter I’m trying to keep myself contained, keep myself within myself, just go out there, make my pitches, hit my spots. As a reliever, I would get more amped up and adrenaline would take over and I FELT more of like a max-effort guy. I don’t think I was technically a max-effort – I’m not gonna go up there and throw a hundred miles an hour – but I felt like I threw harder and there was more effort being put into each single pitch, where as a starter you can’t just go out there and – I mean, I can’t, I guess – some guys can go out there and throw a hundred miles an hour for seven innings, but I feel like if I go out in the first inning I can’t just cash out and throw as hard as I can for the first few innings. I gotta pace myself throughout the game.
On a day where you’re starting, what’s the routine like for you?
Just get to the field and do my normal stuff. I usually get in the hot tub, warm up a little bit, go get ready. About an hour before the game I go in and get a stretch from [Bob] Tarpey, the trainer, get stretched out, go back to the clubhouse, get my stuff, go out to the field and do my warmup. I don’t really have a lot of crazy things I do. I don’t eat any certain thing or do anything other than that. Really, my routine just starts about two hours before the game, two or three hours before the game, just get up here and do my normal thing, try to get my arm and my body stretched out and ready for the game, go out, do my long toss, and then get on the mound and warm up, go sit in the dugout and wait for my turn. That’s pretty much it.
I know some guys, you don’t talk to them, you don’t look at them, you don’t breathe near them when they’re starting. Are you that intense?
No, I’m pretty laid back. I usually play around in the clubhouse on the stereo. I’ll put my iPod on, play some music, and I talk and watch TV. It’s not like I’m some zombie or somebody that you can’t talk to or have to be scared of. I’m not like that. I don’t take it that seriously. I mean, I take it serious, but I’m not that intense about it, I guess.
This year, you’re throwing to a guy who is one of the top catching prospects in all of baseball, in Travis d’Arnaud. From a pitcher’s perspective, what is it that makes Travis so good to throw to?
He’s got really strong hands, or wrists. Especially for me, being a sinker ball guy, my ball’s running down all the time, and a lot of times, with some catchers – not naming any names or anything – just some catchers, in receiving, have a tendency to go with the pitch, or they’ll bring the ball down a little bit and you don’t get a lot of low strikes. But he’s got strong, strong hands and stays with the pitch and you get a lot of calls like that. He’s a big guy, so he’s an easy target to throw to. Calls a really good game, you know, he seems to know the ins and outs of each hitter, he reads the hitter and where they’re standing in the box and as the game goes on he does a really good job of just having a game plan. The good thing about both of our catchers, him and Yan Gomes both, are very good about – I feel like when I’m throwing to them I feel like I don’t have to think a whole lot, which is good for me. I don’t need to be thinking too much [laughs]. They’re a lot smarter than me, so it’s good to throw to those guys. You know that they know what they’re doing, they know what they’re calling, so I trust when they put the fingers down that whatever they’re thinking in their head, I’m like, “Okay, I trust you. I can throw that.” So that’s for sure a good thing to throw to. They both swing the bat pretty well too, so all-around, they’re both great players.
So it sounds like there’s a lot of respect that you have for them.
Oh yeah, for sure. The thing is, it’s a team game, and we’re all a team. But out there, a lot of times, it feels like it’s me and whoever I’m throwing to that day, whether it be Yan or Travis. We’re a team against the other guys, trying to get these guys out. So yeah, there is a lot of respect, especially for they’re both young guys and they seem like they’re way ahead of where they should be at this point in their careers.
When we had talked last year, you mentioned that you and Kyle Drabek were friends. Do you guys still keep in touch now that he’s up in Toronto?
Oh yeah. We’ve been texting back and forth some and just keeping in touch with how he’s doing and telling him, “Good job,” here and there after his starts. Yeah, we still keep in touch.
I saw last night as I was putting these questions together that Eric Thames was just called up to Toronto. And obviously, that’s a call that you want to get yourself, but how good does it feel when you hear about a former teammate getting that call?
It’s awesome. Especially guys that you went to battle with the year before and guys that you get close to and you learn to love. This organization to me feels like a really close-knit group, and especially last year and this team this year, we’ve all gotten to be pretty close, not only as players but as friends off the field, and it’s cool to see guys like him and [David] Cooper go to the big leagues, get up there and get their shot at it. That’s really cool because it’s what we all started playing this game to do and they get to realize their dream and it’s pretty awesome.
Seems like a lot of the guys that I’ve talked to just this year are, like you said you are, like laid back, kinda relaxed. You take it seriously, but you’re not killing yourself every day you’re going out there.
Yeah, and I think that’s the thing. I guess everybody’s different, but it’s not like any other sport where your season’s sixteen games, like football or anything. It’s a long year. You’re here every single day from the beginning of February until the end of September, depending on playoffs. It’s a long season, it’s a grind, and I think if you went out there and you were 100% effort every single day, I just feel like it’ll lead to injuries or a mental institution, one of the two.
Thanks to New Hampshire Fisher Cats Media Relations Manager Matt Leite for coordinating this interview.