Letters of Intent
By Alexis Brudnicki
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Ethan Stewart is a completely different pitcher than he was to start the most recent season.
The Philadelphia Phillies’ left-hander changed his game this year, moving from the rotation to the bullpen and adding a slider to his repertoire that has become a very successful secondary pitch for him.
“I had a lot of ups and downs,” Stewart said. “Switching from starting to the bullpen was a big change for me and learning a slider was probably the best thing I’ve done. That’s been a strong point for me. But overall I feel like the summer went pretty well – more ups than downs – and I felt good with that.”
After moving into a relief role in Clearwater, the 23-year-old began working on his slider with Threshers pitching coach Bob Milacki. Positive results came pretty much immediately, so they ran with it.
“My velocity was up a little bit from going to the bullpen and players were sitting on my curveball a little bit so they could hit it easy, so the slider came in,” Stewart said. “Coming off of the fastball – it’s meant to look like a fastball until the last little bit – it works. The coaches asked me if I would want to throw a slider because it’s not that bad on your arm and it was the best pitch…
“It took me about five days to develop. I threw it almost every day, so it was a speedy process. When I started throwing it, it was almost an instant success, and I was using it in games the next week. I thought, ‘why haven’t I done this before?’”
When Stewart settled in to his new role and became comfortable with his additional pitch, success followed. Over his last five Florida State League games out of the bullpen, he allowed just one earned run in 6 2/3 innings, walking none and striking out 11. The lefty allowed only one base on balls in his final 17 innings.
“I tweaked my windup a little bit, and from the stretch I tried to shorten it up a little bit,” he said of his late-season success. “I didn’t try to do too much. I was walking a lot of people during the year and going to the bullpen I know that I’m only going to throw one or two innings, so that’s where the walks slimmed down substantially, and having lots of confidence went with it.”
On the season, Stewart was 5-7 with a 4.82 ERA through 28 games with 16 starts. He threw 102 2/3 innings and allowed 58 walks with 70 strikeouts. After a decent start to the year, a rough patch called for the transition to relief.
“I had a couple starts in a row that were just terrible,” the native of Campbell River, B.C. said. “I was on the brink of not knowing what to do because I was continually having no success in the starting role. I was asked to go to the bullpen by our pitching coordinator and I was all for it. I didn’t know what to really expect at first but as I got comfortable in the bullpen role I got a lot more confident.”
The biggest adjustment for Stewart was in his head.
“The mental mindset,” he said. “As a starter, you’re kind of in a set role of being comfortable the entire day with the morning to relax and you go to the field and you know when you’re pitching.
“The bullpen role you don’t know when you’re going to pitch. You know that if you do throw it’s going to be two or three days, but if you only throw an inning it could be tomorrow. Then the adrenaline just takes over. When your name gets called you get up and you’re all fired up.”
He also had to alter his pre-pitching routine.
“I asked a bunch of teammates how they do it, but I got an idea watching them in the bullpen beforehand,” Stewart said. “Getting ready was the biggest difference. Just going out there and getting your name called, you know you have maybe five pitches to get ready and if there’s another base hit on the field you’re probably going to go in really soon.”
With a strong finish to the season, Stewart earned a spot in the prestigious Arizona Fall League, though at first his invitation caused a little bit of confusion.
“That was exciting,” he said. “People can get the [Arizona] Fall League and [fall instructional league] mixed up a little bit, so when I was told I thought, ‘alright, I kind of know I’m going to instructs because of how the year went.’ Then I got a knock on my door the next day and they said, ‘You’re going to Arizona for the Fall League,’ and I said, ‘What? Alright. Thank you very much [and shook their hand].’”
So far, the 6-foot-7, 235-pound southpaw has enjoyed his time with the Scottsdale Scorpions, getting into three games and throwing 4 1/3 innings so far, despite missing a few days with bicep inflammation.
“It’s awesome,” Stewart said. “Most of these guys are Double-A, Triple-A guys, and one of the guys from the [New York] Mets was in the majors already, so it’s an honour to be with these guys. Even pitching against them, it gives me a nice little head start on the next year.”
His goals for the rest of the fall circuit are simple.
“Pitch well; throw up zeros,” Stewart said. “I’ve been striking out a couple guys, but that’s not really a big thing, so just pitching well and trying to keep the walks down and showing my stuff. There are almost equal amounts of fans to scouts here, so you want to be confident and show your stuff off.”
And after not reaching Double-A this season, the goal he set for himself during spring training, the left-handed hurler has new aspirations for next year.
“Next season, ideally, I would like to end up in Triple-A at some point,” Stewart said. “From other success, and in our organization in the bullpen role they move up a little quicker, so next year I would like to start out in Double-A for a little bit and hopefully end up in Lehigh [Valley].”
– Follow Alexis Brudnicki on Twitter @baseballexis