A little more than a week ago, in the third inning of a Saturday evening contest in Pittsburgh, Reds catcher Tyler Stephenson took a foul ball off his face mask. It was a scary moment, with Stephenson sitting on the ground, a bit dazed, taking deep breaths and trying to recover. Ultimately, he stood up and met with manager David Bell and a Reds trainer before slowly exiting the field, replaced in the lineup by Aramis Garcia.
More alarming for the Reds was the fact that Stephenson had only returned to the roster three weeks prior, after suffering another concussion (his third) in a home plate collision with San Diego’s Luke Voit on April 19. Since returning, Stephenson had been perhaps the most indispensable player in the Reds lineup, hitting .322/.344./525 with two homers, six doubles, and 14 RBI in 17 games.
Given Cincinnati’s difficulties in putting runs on the scoreboard—the Reds are 14th out of 15 teams in the National League in runs—the club can’t afford to have Stephenson out of the lineup for another extended period. Fortunately, he didn’t suffer another concussion from the foul ball, but many are questioning whether the Reds should move Stephenson to another position in order to protect him.
For a number of reasons, the answer to that is an unequivocal “no.” First of all, at the risk of sounding like Phil Castellini, where’s he gonna go? The most obvious landing spot would be first base, and Stephenson has appeared in 24 games at that position in his big league career. You may have noticed, however, that the Reds have a pretty good first baseman already. Sure, Joey Votto has struggled so far this season, but during the weekend series in his hometown of Toronto he showed every sign that he’s back to being Votto. He had three extra-base hits in the series, and in Sunday’s game he reached triple digits in exit velocity on two fly outs before calling his shot and hitting a game-winning home run. Don’t doubt Joey Votto.
What are the other options? Stephenson spent some time last year taking pre-game fly balls in the outfield, and he even played an inning in left field last October, but that doesn’t seem like a realistic option. The only other possibility would be designated hitter, but that creates an additional problem: The Reds have no reasonable alternatives to play catcher if Stephenson moves to a new position or becomes the full-time DH.
This is among the strongest arguments against moving Stephenson: There’s no one else who can do the job adequately. The 29-year-old Garcia has played in just 88 games across parts of four seasons with three different franchises, hitting .211/.248/.351 in the process. I’m sure he’s a perfectly acceptable backup catcher, but is this the guy you want to name as the everyday starter? The only other catcher on Cincinnati’s 40-man roster is Mark Kolozsvary, a 26-year-old who made his big league debut earlier this season and hit .091 in six games. Kolozsvary has a good reputation as a defensive catcher, but he’s highly unlikely to be productive with the bat in the big leagues. Over five minor league seasons, he’s posted a slash line of .221/.331/.349.
The best argument, however, for keeping Stephenson in the lineup as the primary catcher is that he’s already among the best catchers in baseball. His wOBA of .377 is the best in all of baseball among catchers with at least 90 plate appearances; his wRC+ of 139 is third-best. For the season, Stephenson is hitting .303/.357/.506 with an OPS+ of 133 (33 percent better than the league average hitter). He’s a stud at the plate, maybe the best hitter on the team, and he’s just 25 years old.
Stephenson is transforming himself into an asset defensively, as well. As Charlie Goldsmith noted in The Enquirer, Stephenson hired a private catching coach in the off-season, and he’s noticeably altered his catching stance when runners are on base. Combine that with his already strong arm, and Stephenson has been a nightmare for opposing runners, gunning down eight would-be base stealers already this season. That matches his total for the entirety of the 2021 season.
The fact of the matter is that it’s much more difficult to find an elite hitter who can capably play catcher than it is to find such a hitter at nearly every other position. The Reds have an advantage over almost every other MLB team behind the plate. As long as Stephenson can play the position, Cincinnati should not surrender that advantage by moving him elsewhere on the diamond.
That’s not to diminish the health concerns, which are legitimate. There’s a reason why catching equipment has traditionally been called “the tools of ignorance.” It’s a hazardous job. But Stephenson is already exploring new equipment, specifically a more protective helmet to replace his traditional face mask that would provide more protection against concussions.
Further, the Reds have more options than ever before to help protect Stephenson’s knees from the abuse inherent in playing catcher. With the NL adding the designated hitter this season, they can keep Stephenson’s bat in the lineup while resting him. Tucker Barnhart caught 138 games in 2018, but he’s the only Reds catcher this century to have caught even 120 games in a single season. The Reds can rest Stephenson even more often than the average catcher, knowing that it won’t necessarily hurt their lineup. (But that, of course, brings us back to the depressing fact that Cincinnati has no other legitimate starting catcher at the moment.)
And that’s the path forward: Stephenson should remain the primary catcher while also getting spot starts at DH. He can even back up Votto, and he’ll almost assuredly perform better at that task than the Colin Morans of the world. Stephenson is arguably the best player on this team right now, and a huge portion of that value comes from the simple fact that he’s a catcher.
At any rate, Stephenson says he’s aware of the risks and wants to continue catching. David Bell also says that his big slugger will remain behind the plate. With that resolved, we can turn to more pressing questions, such as: Is Stephenson the best Reds catcher since Johnny Bench? Stay tuned.
Chad Dotson authors Reds coverage at Cincinnati Magazine and hosts a long-running Reds podcast, The Riverfront. His first book, The Big 50: The Men and Moments That Made the Cincinnati Reds, is available in bookstores and online.