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‘I Feel Like A Trailblazer’: Carter Stewart Adapts To Life In Japan

Image credit: Carter Stewart (Photo by Alex Trautwig/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

Fukuoka, Japan, is about 7,723 miles away from Carter Stewart’s hometown of Melbourne, Fla. The longest distance between any two points on earth is 7,926 miles, so he’s about as far away as he could get.

It’s a long way to go for a job, but Stewart had at least seven million reasons to sign a six-year deal last May with the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks, one of the top teams in the Pacific League of the Japanese major leagues.

Stewart, a 6-foot-6 righthander with a wicked curveball, was the Braves’ first-round draft pick in 2018. He declined to sign with Atlanta after it offered him a bonus of roughly $2 million, which was not even half the slot value ($4.98 million) for the No. 8 overall pick. The Braves cited a wrist injury that Stewart suffered skateboarding when he was 9 for their bonus offer.

Instead, he played a season of junior college baseball at Eastern Florida State and was named the Southern Conference pitcher of the year with a 1.70 ERA and 104 strikeouts in 74.1 innings.

“There would be between 20 to 70 pro scouts, scouting directors and general managers at every one of his outings,” Eastern Florida State coach Jason Arnold said. “He was without question 100 percent healthy. There was zero concern with his wrist while he was here. It was a nonfactor.”

Those numbers should have allayed concerns other major league organizations might have about Stewart, but because he lost his first three starts, his draft status plummeted.

“I don’t think he was completely in game shape,” said Bob Collins, his coach at Eau Gallie High. “He had to wait to enroll in late December or January because he was waiting to see what would happen with his lawsuit with the Braves. If it went our way, he could have been a free agent, so he wasn’t going to enroll early. He was in shape, but not real pitching shape, and I think his velocity was down at first.”

It didn’t matter that, after his early struggles, Stewart dominated, including a school-record 15 strikeouts in one game. Scouts still projected him as a second-round talent in the 2019 draft. So Stewart said “sayonara” to Major League Baseball and its draft.

It’s not unusual for U.S. players to sign with Japanese clubs, but most do so to extend their careers, not to begin them. Stewart is the first U.S.-born first-round draft pick to sign his first pro contract in Japan.

“I feel like a trailblazer a little bit,” Stewart said. “I hope someone else tries to take this opportunity. I’ve been loving it over here so far and I tell all my friends how much I like it and how grateful I am for the opportunity.”

While Stewart’s agent, Scott Boras, touted the idea as one that will have a huge impact on MLB, it was a decision that Boras wasn’t on board with initially, according to Matt Skrmetta, the scout who brought Stewart to SoftBank’s attention.

“He wanted Carter to stay in the States until he saw which way the winds were going,” Skrmetta said.

Stewart hasn’t had much time to be homesick. In the four months he had been in Fukuoka, he was playing host to visitors about half the time. His parents stayed with him several weeks when he first arrived in June, and his girlfriend and a buddy from high school visited, along with Shawn Novak from Boras’ office. He’s on his own now, though he keeps up with his family regularly and schedules “Call of Duty” video game sessions with his buddies back home, despite the 12-hour time difference. He’s not a big sushi guy, so he cooks a lot, though he also had developed a fondness for eating out and having Japanese style curry and rice.

His biggest adjustment is the same one many 19-year-olds deal with—getting used to a real job.

“So far, the toughest thing is the daily routine, getting your body into shape for each start, learning how it is in (pro) baseball,” Stewart said. “At the same time, the best part is meeting every day with coaches who are working with me, and players who have taken me in. It’s just so different from anything I’ve ever done before. My job is my life. I don’t have school to worry about. I don’t have my friends on my back. I only get to talk with my parents so much, so I’m in my own mindset, doing my own work every day.”

Skrmetta, a former major league pitcher, played for 25 pro teams, including a stint with Fukuoka. The biggest adaption Stewart must make, he said, is not the language or the food, but the different style of baseball.

“The Japanese hitters are more contact hitters,” Skrmetta said. “He’s learning how to compete with that. It’s more difficult to strike out guys in Japan. In the United States, with the emphasis on hitting homers, it’s getting easier.”

Stewart played for SoftBank’s lowest-level farm team in 2019. He closed the season with probably his best outing, going five innings while allowing two hits with seven strikeouts with no walks. This fall he moves up a step against better competition.

“I’ve been walking guys a bit,” Stewart said. “The guys over here, if you miss a pitch, they’re going to put it in play hard somewhere. Here, they rely on singles, doubles and old-school baseball.”

Stewart said his basic repertoire hasn’t changed. He still relies on his curveball, his two-seam and four-seam fastballs, changeup and slider. The biggest adjustment his coaches have made to his pitching style is getting him to use his legs more in his delivery.

“With workouts and more running, they’ve helped me throw a little longer in my outings,” he said. “I’m still throwing five pitches, but my changeup has gotten a lot better recently. It’s breaking away from lefties and dropping. Sometimes you need a pitch like that to get a double play.”

While his catchers don’t speak English, and Stewart’s Japanese is limited, it hasn’t been a big problem so far.

“I’ve been lucky so far on the field in that one of my infielders that I’ve become good friends with (Richard Sunagawa), is part-American and speaks pretty good English,” Stewart said. “As we move forward, that will become more of an issue, but at the same time, we use very select words. With my catchers, we’re talking with signs and most of the time when they come to the mound, you know what they’re going to say: ‘Do you best and keep pitching.’ ”

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