The New York Mets have a plethora of pitching prospects but only a few exciting hitting prospects. Fans know about guys like Brandon Nimmo and Kevin Plawecki, but there is one name that they might not know yet but will soon: Champ Stuart.
I scheduled a trip to see the Low-A Savannah Sand Gnats play in June with the hopes of seeing their talent-laden roster, but the day prior to my arrival, the New York Mets promoted prospects like Gavin Cecchini and L.J. Mazzilli.
I was disappointed, to say the least, but I was still excited to see 2013 first-round pick Dominic Smith, who was impressive in his own right. However, it was Champ Stuart who stood out the most relative to my expectations, impressing in all aspects of the game.
The Mets drafted Stuart in 2013 in the sixth round out of Brevard College. He is a Bahamas native who was very raw when he was drafted but an incredible athlete worth taking a chance on in the sixth round. Since he has entered the Mets system, he has refined his tools immensely, and he has the potential to become an impact major leaguer if he continues to improve at such a rate.
Stuart’s speed is undeniable—according to Baseball America, he ran a 60-yard dash in a blazing 6.3 seconds prior to being drafted—but he’s a great all-around athlete as well, boasting a lean, strong frame.
In batting practice, he displayed a clean stroke with above-average bat speed. The ball jumped off his bat as he banged balls off the fence consistently while occasionally turning on pitches and sending them out of the ballpark.
There isn’t much to dislike about Stuart’s swing. He is a little long to the ball—which explains his high strikeout rate—but his hands travel through the zone quickly. He drove the ball to all fields throughout his batting-practice sessions, and while it was hard to evaluate his hit tool based on what he did during games, he exhibited very impressive plate discipline (more on that later).
Stuart doesn’t have a wild stroke like many raw hitters, but he still lunges and ends up out in front of the ball far too often. MetsMinorLeagueBlog.com’s Toby Hyde looked at this in the below video from last season, in which Stuart stayed back during batting practice but was caught off-balance during games.
The below chart indicates that this is a trend for Stuart rather than a small sample. It displays how he naturally uses the whole field well—as I saw during his batting-practice session—but that a large portion of his outs on batted balls come from grounders to the left side.
From this we can see that pitchers still get him lunging out in front on off-speed pitches. This is notable while trying to evaluate his hitting ability, but considering his lack of experience, it is an understandable and fixable issue.
Stuart doesn’t project as a power hitter at the major league level, but he has some pop. If he continues to progress, I would project 12 to 15 home runs per year optimistically with the potential for more, but more likely around eight to 10.
While the pop in his bat was a nice surprise, it is Stuart’s speed that gives him the opportunity to become an impact prospect in the future.
Billy Hamilton, now with the Cincinnati Reds, has comparable speed and was a top prospect because of his ability to change the game with his legs. The difference between the two is that Hamilton was able to utilize his speed much more, breaking stolen base records in the minors, while Stuart still needs to develop the aggressiveness and baserunning acumen necessary to become an elite base stealer.
Stuart has begun to use his speed in games, however, as evidenced by the below video.
In the video, he lays down a bunt and reaches base in 3.67 seconds. That kind of speed translates to the highest level, as not even David Wright could get somebody out running that fast as long as the bunt is halfway decent.
Stuart’s speed also puts pressure on the defense and forces it into mistakes. In the video below at the 7:17-8:21 mark, you can see the kind of pressure he puts on the defense. The shortstop is rushed into making a poor throw because of how fast Stuart gets down the line.
Stuart needs to improve his ability to create havoc on the basepaths, but he is no slouch as a base stealer. He stole two bases on June 21, which you can see in the below video.
His speed also gives him the potential to become a defensive force in the outfield.
His lack of experience was evident at moments, like when he dove for a ball that he had no chance at that ended up becoming a triple, but that same speed and aggressiveness also allowed him to make a sensational diving catch. Along with his speed, he has plus arm strength.
With his athletic package, he has the gifts to become an exciting defensive outfielder. His athleticism also gives him a high floor defensively, as his speed will allow him to make up for poor routes to the ball.
Stuart is an intriguing prospect because of everything I’ve discussed above, but the aspect of his game that impressed me the most was his plate discipline.
In the two games I attended, he had just one hit, but he walked five times in 10 plate appearances.
Of those five walks, two were especially impressive, which you can see for yourself below.
In the first at-bat, Stuart fell behind 0-2 against 2013 first-round pick Trey Ball but battled and ended up drawing a walk. In the second at-bat, he fell behind 1-2 and did the same.
Throughout the weekend, he refused to chase out of the zone and demonstrated a very advanced knowledge of the strike zone. This approach at the plate is supported by his numbers throughout his brief minor league career. He walked 18.1 percent of the time in 43 games for the Kingsport Mets last season and is walking 15.8 percent of the time through 37 games this year with a .414 on-base percentage.
In my conversations with scouts, many believe that the most important trait to look for beyond bat speed is plate discipline. It’s something that is hard to teach to advanced hitters, and players who have a better understanding of the strike zone attack better pitches to hit, letting their hit tool play up.
Stuart has the athletic ability to make him a noteworthy prospect even if he didn't have a clue at the plate, but he already has impressive plate discipline, which changes him from a moderately interesting prospect to a potential impact player.
The only thing holding him back is whether or not he develops a playable hit tool. It appears that is starting to happen in Savannah since I saw him in June.
When I saw Stuart on June 21, he was hitting .247 for the season with just one extra-base hit despite his plate discipline. Since then, he has a slash line of .400/.500/.560 with two doubles, a triple and a home run in 12 games. I was planning on writing about my trip to see Stuart prior to his recent performance, but his numbers only reinforce my belief that he has what it takes to become a major prospect.
He hasn’t played since being pulled in the middle of the game on Saturday, but no injury has been reported. Hopefully, he is just getting rest or is being taught a lesson for not running out a pop-out.
Stuart has an intriguing set of tools, and if he starts hitting consistently in games and cutting down on his strikeout rate, he should shoot up prospect lists.
Based on what I saw, he has the ability to be an elite table-setter at the major league level, with the speed and on-base ability to ignite an offense and create havoc at the top of a lineup. He is still raw, and there is a good chance he never develops the hitting ability to reach the major leagues, but he is definitely a player whom Mets fans should keep tabs on as he rises through the minors.
Follow Sean on Twitter: @SCunninghamPG.