DJ Stewart’s surge is a reminder of David Stearns’ strengths and why the Mets targeted him

Whether he continues to produce or suddenly reverts to irrelevance, Mets outfielder DJ Stewart’s late-season surge serves as a reminder of why building out a deft front office matters so much.

After the Mets acknowledged their failure of a season and sold their accomplished veterans for prospects at the trade deadline, Stewart, who turns 30 in November, emerged from obscurity to at least be part of the conversation about next season’s roster.

Stewart entered Saturday’s game with a .955 OPS and 11 home runs (one shy of his career-best) in 144 plate appearances. Since Aug. 1, Stewart has a 1.001 OPS with 10 home runs. Mets GM Billy Eppler and his group identified Stewart as someone with intriguing exit velocity and power with the pedigree of being a first-round pick several years ago. Stewart signed a minor-league pact with the Mets in February, he said, in part because of his shared history in Baltimore with manager Buck Showalter. Seven months later, Stewart has become an example of the Mets hitting on a marginal pickup, with the one drawback being his success held no meaning toward the standings.

You know who has a strong track record of accumulating these kinds of wins — and picking them up when it matters most?

That’d be David Stearns, who last week agreed to become the Mets’ president of baseball operations.

With the Milwaukee Brewers, Stearns developed a reputation for finding quality depth for his major-league roster in unlikely places and ways. He accessed undervalued players in trades, acquired help on the waiver wire and added depth with under-the-radar free-agent pickups. An incomplete list of such success stories: Jordan Lyles, Jhoulys Chacin, Brad Boxberger, Wade Miley, Junior Guerra, J.P. Feyereisen, Justin Topa, Chase Anderson, Jake Cousins, Jesús Aguilar, Jace Peterson. Not exactly household names, right? Immaterial; they all helped at various times for various amounts of time.

Stearns didn’t rack up these winning acquisitions alone; he listened to his leaders in scouting, pro evaluations, data analysis, player development and more. With its evaluation models, Milwaukee continues to be well-positioned to flag such players; even when players don’t necessarily “pop” in projections or seem like an obvious roster fit, the Brewers dig further before making an informed decision.

Notice that the above list contained more pitchers than position players. Stearns utilized a renowned pitching lab in Milwaukee — the Mets now have one of those — along with a crew of smart coaches to get the most out of unheralded hurlers whether they come from the draft, independent ball or the fringes of someone else’s roster. In comparison, the Brewers’ hitting development — similar to some other teams like the Cleveland Guardians — actually lagged behind when it came to maximizing young position players with as many resources. Despite that, the front office often succeeded in making the right calls on the margins, whether it be for a short period of time with someone like Billy McKinney or a longer duration like Peterson. Other times, they struck gold like with Aguilar.

For as much success as they had plucking talent from other areas, under Stearns, one of the Brewers’ biggest priorities was always being the best evaluators of their own players (of course, this helped them make informed trades with others, know when to cut ties with a player and understand why to keep someone). For that initiative, they relied heavily on their minor-league coaches.

So, what do the Mets have in Stewart, who entered this season with a career .213 batting average and .728 OPS with 26 home runs in 622 plate appearances?

One day while working in the batting cage with Triple-A Syracuse hitting coach Collin Hetzler, Stewart stumbled into using a toe tap at the plate that has helped him unlock more power. The idea stemmed from Hetzler — who in 2022 the Mets named as their organization’s minor-league staff member of the year — wanting Stewart to get the ball more in the air. Stewart’s bat path had become steep; a lot of his most hard-hit balls were sliced with excessive spin. Data in April and May confirmed the high ground-ball rate. Thus, Hetzler and Stewart wanted the burly outfielder to get behind the ball longer. Instead of always thinking about left-center field, the left-handed batter changed his target to right-center. It all stemmed from a posture and point-of-contact adjustment. Hetzler actually suggested taking a step back with his front foot, but Stewart found the toe tap and ran with it. Ever since, his results have improved.

Now, Stewart has gone from a minor-league free-agent pickup ahead of 2023 to a potential bench piece in 2024.

The Mets could’ve used more of these stories. Perhaps it wouldn’t have made much of a difference in 2023, given the depth of struggles for more accomplished players earlier in the season. But it would’ve at least helped in theory. Instead, a group of optionable relievers found on the waiver wire or in trades never really panned out — generally, teams need at least a couple a year to pop in a significant way.

In Milwaukee with Stearns, such wins were plentiful.

Milwaukee’s tighter budget forced Stearns to shop in these aisles more frequently than many of his peers. And some unheralded free agents were more inclined to sign with the Brewers because of a perceived bigger opportunity with them than a team featuring more stars or a high amount of regulars. Some luck always helps, too. But the lessons he gleaned from the experience should carry over in a helpful way in New York. Under owner Steve Cohen, the Mets operate differently and loom as the sport’s biggest spender. Regardless of the financial situation, pro evaluations, understanding how to maximize a roster and putting players in position to develop all still matter.

Much like in 2023, the Mets next year will go as far as their nucleus and rebuilt pitching staff takes them. But no matter how much the Mets spend, injuries and poor performance may again happen. Thus, they’re also again going to need help on the margins from lesser-known players whether it becomes Stewart or some others like him.

(Photo of DJ Stewart: John Jones / USA Today)

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