Dave Stewart was in the news recently. As the agent for National League co-home run leader and whiffmeister Chris Carter, he ruminated that his client could play in Japan this season until he wound up signing with the Yankees.
His role as an agent is a return to the business following a two-year gig as general manager of the Diamondbacks, beginning in September 2014 and reporting to chief baseball officer Tony La Russa. His tenure there was … um … well… take it away, Keith Law. (For those of you who aren’t ESPN Insiders, the "Time to end the Diamondbacks' reign of error" headline is a good summary.)
That précis gives Stewart the short shrift on two scores. First, his performance in Arizona notwithstanding, it’s not like he was some crony naïf whose sole qualification for the GM job was knowing La Russa. His on-field/front office resume, in addition to his decade as an agent, is in this age of 30-something GMs, fairly lengthy:
- Assistant to the general manager, Oakland, 1996
- Assistant to the general manager, San Diego, 1997-1998
- Pitching coach, San Diego, 1998 (yes, he held two roles)
- Assistant general manager, Toronto, 1999-2001
- Pitching coach, Toronto, 2000-2001 (another dual role)
- Pitching coach, Milwaukee, 2002
- Pitching coach, US National Baseball Team, 2003-2004
While it’s not relevant to the story here, his departure from the Blue Jays after the 2001 season was controversial, as he was passed over for the GM role in favor of J.P. Ricciardi, who had spent three years as player personnel director for Oakland. Stewart resigned, citing the team’s reluctance to hire non-whites for the GM position, a view that had support.
But I didn’t want to talk about Dave Stewart, pitching coach, agent, and front office executive. I want to talk about Dave Stewart, pitcher. That’s the part of the story that some people may not know.
Stewart was born in Oakland in 1957. He was a star athlete in high school, where he played basketball, football, and baseball, earning All-American honors at the latter two. His alma mater, St. Elizabeth high school, produced four other major leaguers, including two outfielders, Steve Braun and Al Woods, who each compiled more than 2,000 plate appearances in the majors.
Although he was reportedly offered 30 college scholarships to play football (he played linebacker and tight end), he instead signed with the Dodgers, who selected him in the 16th round of the 1975 amateur draft. He was the 384th player chosen. The 16th round of the 1975 draft produced three other major leaguers: Leo Sutherland (-0.3 career WARP), Dan O’Brien (0.1), and Paul Mirabella (1.0), so Stewart (29.9) accounts for 97 percent of the major-league value of his round.
The Dodgers converted the strong-armed right-hander, who was a catcher in high school, to pitching. He struggled in his first two seasons, posting an ERA of 5.51 in 49 innings at Low-A in 1975 and 6.90 in 60 innings at Single-A in 1976. Things clicked the next season, though, as he went 17-4 with a 2.15 ERA in 176 innings for Clinton in the Midwest League, earning a cup of coffee at Triple-A Albuquerque. In 1978, he moved it all up a level, pitching 193 innings at Double-A (at age 21—yes, this was long before pitch counts) and two innings for the Dodgers.
After a challenging season (5.24 ERA in 170 innings) at hitter-friendly Albuquerque of the Pacific Coast League in 1979, he repeated the level in 1980 with much greater success, going 15-10 with a 3.70 ERA (sixth in the league), 1.38 WHIP (seventh), 5.6 K/9 (fifth), and 1.4 K/BB (eighth) in 202 innings (first). From 1977 through 1980, he finished fourth, first, 14th, and first in his league in innings pitched despite being younger than the league average at every stop.
Out of minor-league options, Stewart broke camp with the Dodgers in 1981. During his rookie season, he:
- Pitched effectively in 32 games out of the bullpen (2.49 ERA, 3.20 FIP, 3.47 ERA, 97.6 DRA-).
- Was the losing pitcher in the first two games in the Divisional Series against the Astros, which the Dodgers nonetheless won 3-2.
- Got the last outs, allowing no runs, in the first two games of the World Series against the Yankees, both Dodger losses, after which his team again swept its way to the championship.
- Took a job at a metal fastener company during the strike that year in order to make ends meet.
The Dodgers traded Stewart, plus a player to be named later (Ricky Wright) and $200,000 to the Rangers for Rick Honeycutt in August of 1983. He closed out his Dodgers career with a 3.33 ERA (106 ERA+) in 124 games, all but 15 in relief. He pitched well down the stretch for the Rangers that year (5-2 in eight starts, 2.14 ERA, 3.42 FIP, 4.01 DRA, 99.2 DRA-) but struggled primarily as a starter in 1984 (4.73 ERA, 4.69 FIP, 4.44 DRA, 109.9 DRA- in 192 1/3 innings) and as a reliever in 1985 (5.42 ERA, 4.68 FIP, 4.40 DRA, 106.3 DRA- in 81 1/3 innings).
After calling Rangers fans “idiots” when he was booed for giving up a three-run homer to the Royals in May of 1985, Stewart was fined $500 and ultimately traded, in September that year, to the Phillies for Rich Surhoff (who pitched 8.1 innings for Texas that year and never again in the majors). Stewart appeared in eight games out of the bullpen for the 1986 Phillies and got released in May with a 6.57 ERA. To this point, he was 29 years old and had pitched 604.2 major-league innings, compiling a worse-than-average (adjusted for park and season) 4.01 ERA. The Orioles gave him a tryout but didn’t offer him a contract, so he signed a deal with the hometown A’s.
He pitched 149.1 innings for Oakland in 1986, starting 17 games and relieving 12. He posted a 3.74 ERA, 4.10 FIP, 3.77 DRA, and 97.4 DRA-. The 1986 A’s were 76-86, their fifth straight losing season. They fired manager Jackie Moore in June after a 4-17 skid, replacing him first with interim manager Jeff Newman and then with Tony La Russa, who’d been let go just weeks earlier by the White Sox. La Russa brought his pitching coach, Dave Duncan, to Oakland with him. Working with Duncan under La Russa, Stewart turned his career around.
The triumvirate of LaRussa, Duncan, and Stewart dominated the A’s starting staff from 1987 to 1990. Stewart finished third, fourth, second, and third in the American League Cy Young voting those years, and received MVP votes in the last three seasons. His statistics and ranks within the American League (Rk) during those years tell the story:
As you can see, Stewart was a pitcher whom the metrics at the time favored, though he doesn’t do as well by contemporary standards. During his four-year peak, Stewart led the American League (among 41 pitchers with 500-plus innings pitched) in innings and wins, and he was fourth in winning percentage and ERA. But he was eighth in FIP and ERA+, and 14th in K/BB. He allowed home runs at the fourth-lowest rate in the league but the Coliseum kept balls in park those years—95 park factor for home runs for right-handed batters, 89 for lefties (54 percent of the batters he faced).
This is not to say that Stewart wasn’t a very good pitcher. He was. But the workhorse who compiles a lot of wins with good-but-not-great peripherals … well, we litigated this case during Jack Morris’s Hall of Fame candidacy, right? (Stewart was two-and-done in Hall of Fame voting, getting 7.4 percent of votes in 2001 and falling just below the 5.0 percent threshold with 4.9 percent in 2002.)
After a poor season in 1991 (11-11, 5.18 ERA, 4.53 FIP, 5.47 DRA, -0.6 WARP, but a league-leading 36 games started despite his first-ever stint on the disabled list), Stewart rebounded in 1992 (12-10, 3.66 ERA, 4.43 FIP, 4.44 DRA, 1.3 WARP). The A’s went 96-66, the last year of a five-year run that saw Oakland win the American League four times and advance to the World Series thrice; the franchise didn’t have its next winning record until 2000, eight years later.
Stewart, approaching his age-36 season, signed a two-year deal with Toronto that paid him $7 million plus a $1.5 million signing bonus. (He also earned a $50,000 performance bonus in 1993.) His two seasons in Toronto comprised an injury-marred 1993 and a strike-shortened 1994, totaling a 19-16 record, 5.09 ERA, 5.29 FIP, 4.54 DRA, and 3.6 WARP. He signed a free agent contract with the A’s in April 1995 at age 38. He was Oakland’s Opening Day starter, but retired rather than be demoted to the bullpen in June. In his final season, he started 16 games and had a 3-7 record to go with a 6.89 ERA, 4.99 FIP, 4.87 DRA, and 0.9 WARP.
Stewart may have ended his regular season career on a low note, but he was one of the most successful postseason pitchers in history. Excluding the 2.1 innings he pitched as a rookie in the split-season postseason of 1981, he pitched 130.2 innings in 18 postseason starts (just shy of an average of 7.1 innings per start), compiling a 2.62 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, and a 10-4 record. He was MVP of three postseason series:
- 1989 World Series, A’s over Giants, 4-0. He was 2-0 with a shutout, 1.69 ERA, and 0.75 WHIP in 16 innings.
- 1990 ALCS, A’s over Red Sox, 4-0. He was 2-0 and won the series clincher with a 1.13 ERA and 0.63 WHIP in 16 innings.
- 1993 ALCS, Jays over White Sox, 4-2. He was 2-0 and won the series clincher with a 2.03 ERA and 1.20 WHIP over 13.1 innings.
He holds the record for ALCS wins (eight) and is tied for seventh in postseason wins (10). His 2.62 starter ERA is 11th-lowest among 67 pitchers with at least 10 postseason starts and his 1.07 WHIP is ninth-lowest. Yes, small sample size (though 130.2 innings isn’t that small), though again, Morris’ Cooperstown bid was based, in part, on a postseason record that was markedly inferior (7-4, 3.80 ERA, 1.25 WHIP in 13 starts).
So the final score on Stewart: Good, if overrated during his time, starting pitcher (29.9 career WARP, 151st since 1950). Outstanding postseason pitcher. Decent human qualities. It’d be a shame if he were remembered primarily for his time in Arizona.
Oh, and one final point. A few weeks ago, I wrote about the 1988 season, aka The Year of the Balk, one of Stewart’s peak seasons. I mentioned that I wrote that article because writing about Stewart made me think about that weird, outlier season. Stewart set an all-time record for balks in 1988, with 16, and he broke the previous record on May 18. I’ll leave you with one of the more absurd graphs you’re likely to see today.