BARTOW – Just like that, Justin Stewart got faster.
The Bartow right-handed pitcher took a month off from baseball in December to rest, and when he returned, he found his fastball had made a huge jump in velocity.
The 6-2, 215-pound, junior was throwing his fastball across the plate in the mid-80s this past spring, but it is now hitting the low-90s mark on the radar gun.
“I told him from his freshman year, ‘Just be patient, you’ll be one of the best pitchers in the county in a few years.’ That was just from his body type and mechanics and from the pose he had on the mound. I thought it would happen by his senior year, but it is happening now,” Bartow head coach Daniel Payne said.
Stewart, who takes the hill with both a four- and two-seam fastball, changeup and curveball, said he has topped out at 92 to 93.
“I have been playing a lot of long toss, playing with a good team over the summer and working with my pitching coach Jorge Cordova,” Stewart said.
“When I hit the 90-range, I had a video done in Atlanta and I started getting a lot of interest from college coaches, like West Virginia, Florida and Florida State. I got an offer from West Virginia and Florida Southern so far, and I think it because I hit that 90 mark.”
Cordova, who is a pitching coach in the Detroit Tigers’ farm system, said Stewart has a lot of potential and the talent to play Division-1 baseball and get drafted out of high school or college.
“He has pretty good potential to be a major league pitcher,” Cordova said. “Six months ago, he had the arm speed but he didn’t know how to use his body, and his delivery mechanics to throw the ball appropriately. He is now throwing the ball the right way and that is why his velocity is picking up.
“Sometimes I clock him 90 to 92, but he is still maturing and I think he has a good chance to get to the mid-90s easily if he stays healthy.”
Stewart finished his sophomore season with a 4-2 record and a 2.14 ERA through 21 innings. Which may not seem that staggering on the surface – but he fanned 30 hitters in those 21 innings.
Now with pitchers Riley Trout and Logan Lyle graduated, the new-and-even faster Stewart is the top man in the Yellow Jackets’ rotation and the 21-inning workload should double.
“He has to learn to throw in fast-paced game. He’s been throwing a lot of showcases and bullpens, but he’ll adjust to it and he should have a real-good year,” said Payne, who is marveling more about his changeup than his 90-mph heater.
“He probably has the best changeup I have ever coached at his age. He throws it real hard. It is an 80-mph changeup. It is very deceptive and it is down. He already has two-professional pitches in my opinion.”
Stewart said he works with Cordova, throwing indoor bullpen sessions every Wednesday at Tigertown and the instruction has paid huge dividends.
“Riley Trout was going to him and he was recommended. My leg extension wasn’t getting out there enough and now I am finishing lower. I like throwing my changeup now more because it has a lot of cut on it and it fools hitters,” Stewart said.
Cordova said he just taught him the professional way to throw a circle-changeup and how to grip and manipulate the baseball.
“I taught him how to use more friction on the ball. Now he is using five fingers on the ball and throwing the circle-change just like professionals,” Cordova said. “It puts a lot of friction on the ball while using the same arm-action.”
Payne said Stewart has also worked out making reverse throws with weighted balls, which helps build up the arm and protect it from injury when the arm is recoiling from a 90-mph pitch.
“He can throw a long ways now. He’ll take a ball and say, ‘Hey coach Payne, watch this.’ And then he’ll throw it over the fence trying to hit my scoreboard,” Payne said.
“He would be a starter (at the next level) but I think he will need a fourth pitch for that. But they will teach him that. He doesn’t need it right now.”
Bartow begins the season Tuesday when the Jackets host Sebring at 7 p.m. Stewart will get the opennig day start.
“I just want to be the No. 1 guy and get a lot of strikeouts, get a lot of wins and have a low ERA,” Stewart said.