Pirates right fit for catcher Stewart

Rob Biertempfel
| Friday, Feb. 26, 2016, 6:21 p.m.

BRADENTON, Fla. — When Gerrit Cole climbed onto the mound for his first bullpen session a few days ago, he smiled when he saw Chris Stewart squatting behind the plate.

“I thought, ‘Well, if somebody is going to give me the best feedback, it's going to be Stew,' ” Cole said. “He's probably caught a few thousand of my pitches at this point.”

Over the past two seasons, Stewart has caught 29 of Cole's 55 starts and has become the right-hander's favorite receiver. When the Pirates gave Stewart a two-year extension in January, Cole was one of the first to send congratulations.

It's unusual for a backup player to be rewarded with a multi-year contract. Stewart's $3 million deal, which includes a $1.5 million option for 2018, underscores his importance to the team.

“He's proven to us that dependability is his greatest ability,” manager Clint Hurdle said. “It's not easy to not play (for a while), then play well, handle the defensive part of the game and handle the (pitching) staff. He's done it very well.”

Before he was traded to the Pirates in December 2013, Stewart, 34, played for six teams over seven seasons. Almost right away, he felt he had found the right fit in Pittsburgh.

“My family and I fell in love with the place,” Stewart said. “Everything about Pittsburgh baseball is something we cherish.”

Each offseason, Stewart's agent nudged the Pirates for a multi-year contract.

“It took a little beating into their brains to make it happen,” Stewart said with a grin. “It's something I've looked forward to for a long time.”

Finally able to put down roots, Stewart is focused and more at ease this year in spring training.

“I don't think that's so much (because) of the two-year deal,” Cole said. “To me, he's the same old Stew — a really good teammate, a fantastic catcher. I think he's the best backup catcher in the major leagues.”

When it's Cole's turn to pitch, Stewart seems more like a regular than a bench player. In 2014, Stewart caught nine of Cole's 22 starts. Last season, Stewart was behind the plate for 20 of Cole's 33 outings, including 16 in a row from May 11 to Aug. 7.

“It's a good relationship,” Stewart said. “We kind of reach each other's minds. I know what he needs to do to be successful out there; he knows my game plan for him.”

In 13 games last season caught by Francisco Cervelli, Cole went 7-5 with a 3.49 ERA. When he worked with Stewart, Cole was 12-4 with a 2.24 ERA.

“With the brand of baseball (the Pirates) play, things like that matter significantly,” Cole said. “We don't have three or four $20 million sluggers in the middle of the lineup, so we've got to out-baseball other teams. We try to really be connected and move together as a unit on the field. Stew plays a big part in that. It all starts with that pitcher-catcher dynamic.”

Rob Biertempfel is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at rbiertempfel@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BiertempfelTrib.

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