Humbled Kohl Stewart credits others for his 2018 breakthrough
DETROIT — Once considered too brash for his own good, a humbled Kohl Stewart arrived at Comerica Park on Saturday, Aug. 11, in preparation for his big-league debut on Sunday afternoon.
Two months from his 24th birthday, the right-hander from Houston credited a greater understanding of his repertoire and how to attack hitters along with tweaked workouts that have enabled him to keep his throwing shoulder and landing knee healthy.
Most of all, however, he thanked his wife.
"I mean, honestly, she's probably been the biggest difference," Stewart said. "She's the X-factor."
Genny Pittman, a former Auburn University swimmer, married Stewart on Jan. 13 in Birmingham, Ala. Her background as an athlete has made her a valuable sounding board for a young pitcher still trying to live up to his lofty draft status as the No. 4 overall pick in 2013 out of high school.
"Last year I used to dwell on things," Stewart said. "She sees life in a little bit of a bigger picture. So sometimes, (when) you can come home to a wife who kind of tells you to get over yourself every now and then, it's probably a good thing."
Despite struggling to a 6.59 earned-run average through his first 10 starts at Double-A Chattanooga this season, Stewart stuck with the plan hatched for him this spring in a lengthy meeting with senior analyst Josh Kalk and a battery of pitching voices: Stu Cliburn (Triple-A), Ivan Arteaga (Double-A) and minor-league coordinators Pete Maki and J.P. Martinez.
"They sat me down and just took a look at my stuff: How can I be better? What can I improve on?" Stewart said.
The determination: Stewart needed to cut back on usage of his sinking fastball, which he'd been throwing as much as 65 percent of the time, and use his curveball and changeup more at the expense of his slider.
He also was encouraged to switch from a two-seam fastball grip to a one-seamer designed to induce weaker contact with later movement.
"I'm not as smart as some of the people that they have looking at those things," Stewart said.
"When they do come to me with something and ask me to make some adjustments, I'm going to trust what they have to say. I think they are in the positions that they are for good reasons."
Eventually, Stewart got the hang of it. A 1.48 ERA in four June starts earned him a promotion to Triple-A Rochester, where he had a 2.43 ERA over his past five outings.
Overall this year, he has pushed his groundball rate back up from 47 percent a year ago to a career-best 57 percent.
That would rank behind only Toronto's Marcus Stroman (62.7 percent) among big-league starters with at least 50 innings this season.
Stewart's nine-inning rates for strikeouts (8.4) and walks (2.7) also improved markedly after cratering at 6.3 and 5.0, respectively, in 2017.
"I felt like I stayed the course," he said, "and things clicked."
Newly minted Hall of Famer Jack Morris will have his number No. 47 retired by the Tigers in a ceremony before Sunday's game.
The right-hander from Highland Park High School will join Ty Cobb, Hank Greenberg, Charlie Gehringer, Al Kaline, Hal Newhouser, Willie Horton and Sparky Anderson in receiving that franchise honor.
Twins manager Paul Molitor, a fellow Hall of Famer and St. Paul product who had his No. 4 retired by the Brewers, knows the feeling.
"There's a difference between going into Cooperstown and having an organization put your number to rest forever — in a good way," he said. "I think it's builds a connectedness, not only to the organization but the fan base that had a chance to be a part of that. For Jack, that's a pretty impressive wall they've got out there. His name's going to look good next to some of those."
Lefty Adalberto Mejia (wrist/biceps) could be sent for a second opinion after undergoing an MRI. The exact nature of his issue remains unclear. ... Right-hander Michael Pineda, nearly 13 months removed from Tommy John surgery, was slated to make his second rehab start on Saturday for Class A Fort Myers. ... Robbie Grossman (hamstring) took grounders in the outfield and continues to progress. He will do more baseball activity on Monday's off day at Target Field and should take batting practice on the field Tuesday. ... Triple-A center fielder Byron Buxton (left wrist) should be activated on Tuesday at Columbus.