Four years after he blazed a trail as American baseball's first marquee amateur to turn pro in Japan, SoftBank Hawks pitcher Carter Stewart Jr. appears to have emerged from the wilderness.
Stewart's signing with SoftBank in 2019 looked like the ideal match of elite-level talent and a deep-pocket team with Japan's strongest track record for developing talent, but that big payoff has yet to arrive.
"There are a lot of steps to the process. Coming over here, there were a lot of expectations, and I let that weigh on me a little bit. The entire adjusting to the culture, learning the language, learning minor league baseball over here, there are a lot of steps that I tried to skip, and you can't do that," he told Kyodo News recently.
In his first four seasons, the 198-centimeter right-hander appeared in 41 games on the Hawks' Western League farm club, with 11 games in the majors. Although Stewart did not make his 2023 debut until June 18, his pitching, other than his command, has been electric.
"I didn't know how to handle the mental side of the game. I was learning the physical side of the game, but that's not the only thing to it. I tried to be too good, too quick and that set me back a little bit, but I think now I understand the process and I understand the work that I need to put in," he said.
Stewart appeared to be putting it all together in 2021 when he went 6-1 with a 1.84 ERA in the minors, but that success did not at first translate into results in Japan's Pacific League, where he was 0-2 with a 6.08 ERA in 11 games.
Still, it was a step forward, until, wanting to be further along than his body permitted, Stewart said he overdid his training and tore an abdominal muscle early in the spring of 2022.
"You use your core for everyday life, sitting up in bed, walking down the street. It's a weird kind of feeling. So learning to manage that was the hardest part," Stewart said.
"It was a long process I had to learn. So that was another kind of setback on top of everything. I had to learn how to train differently, I had to learn how to breathe differently. It definitely helps me now in the long run, but back then, I was kind of like, 'I just want to be healthy.'"
And while he is still searching for his first win in the majors, Stewart has been making steady improvement on the mound, challenging hitters with quality pitches, and adjusting better and better to situations as they come. His poise is improving with each game.
"This year I think my command has improved significantly. I'm finally getting comfortable off the mound," said Stewart, who is giving hitters on both sides of the plate more different looks.
"Instead of being focused on if it's a righty only throw him a curveball and if it's a lefty only throw him a changeup. I put that out of my head and now throw everything to everybody."
On July 17, Stewart got into a pitchers' duel with another hard-throwing right-hander who also qualifies as a rookie this year, Orix's Shumpeita Yamashita, and came out on the losing end.
Throwing mostly fastballs with a few curves mixed in, the Buffaloes had a hard time making good contact until the sixth inning, when he gave up a hard-hit double and a walk.
First-year Buffaloes import Leandro Cedeno was unable to handle Stewart's first fastball, but put a good swing on the next one, down the middle, and drove it out for a home run that plated all three runs in a 3-0 Orix win.
The important thing, Stewart said, is to remain aggressive, throw strikes and not shy away from using pitches, like his splitter, that he is not used to throwing at this level.
"You want to be perfect," he said of the splitter he previously used in the minors. "If they get a hit off it they get a hit off it and throw it again. And throw it again until you feel comfortable with it."
"Every year there's something new. There have been struggles and those have helped me get better. That's the most important thing."