In the seventh inning of Sunday’s showdown—where the hometown nine took a 10-3 tumble against the Blue Jays—Tyler Stephenson cranked out a pinch-hit home run, his ninth of the year. Fast forward to the last gasp of the game, when we saw him swing and miss at three straight pitches to seal the Reds’ fate. These polar opposite moments were a crystal-clear snapshot of the rollercoaster of anticipation and reality we’ve ridden with Stephenson this season.
As we opened the door to the 2023 season, Tyler Stephenson was seen as one of the cornerstones of Cincinnati’s up-and-coming ensemble. His numbers included a career slash line of .296/.369/.454 and a 116 OPS+. Last season, as a 25-year-old, the guy was nothing short of dazzling. With a line of .319/.372/.482 (133 OPS+), Stephenson wasn’t just knocking on the door of stardom; he seemed poised to kick it down.
But there’s a caveat to those brilliant 2022 numbers. A series of body blows—a concussion, a broken thumb, and a broken clavicle—limited Stephenson to only 50 games. He trotted out healthy for Opening Day this year, even batting cleanup, but his 0-for-4 performance was a harbinger of woes to come. Where’s the All-Star-in-waiting we were all anticipating? His dismal .245/.329/.360 line speaks volumes, and the news only gets grimmer. Since the clock struck July, he’s batting a woeful .200 with a .286 slugging percentage. It’s enough to make even the most steadfast Reds fan reach for the antacids.
Among National League catchers this season, there are 14 who’ve stepped up to the plate for at least 250 at-bats. Our man Stephenson is chilling at the very bottom of the list with an fWAR of -0.6 and not faring much better when you glance at his wOBA (.305) and wRC+ (83), where he ranks 12th. This isn’t just a slump, it’s a season-long race to the bottom that seemingly came out of nowhere for the former first-round draft pick (11th overall in 2015).
And I don’t want to pile on the guy, but if we’re being honest—and my editorial overlords here at Cincinnati Magazine insist upon it—Stephenson’s glove game has been making his bat look good. If you’ve been tuning in, you’ve surely caught the difficulties with blocking pitches and those “not quite there” throws to second. And for those who get a kick out of the nerd stats: He’s lounging at a comfortable 70th spot among 72 big league catchers in Fielding Run Value, seven runs below average. Not the numbers we were hoping to crunch. [Note: My eyes are glazing over even as I type this, but Fielding Run Value is “Statcast’s metric for capturing a player’s measurable defensive performance by converting all of Statcast’s individual defensive metrics from different scales onto the same run-based scale, which can then be read as a player being worth X runs above or Y runs below average.”]
Stephenson has also struggled mightily with framing pitches, always an important job for a catcher and even more so now that the computers have figured out how to capture the framing data. Among those same 72 catchers who have caught at least 100 innings this season, Stephenson ranks 64th in FanGraphs pitch framing metric. He’s estimated to have cost the Reds six full runs just in terms of the cumulative impact of his poor framing.
All of this begs the question: Did we overrate Stephenson prior to this season based on his first-round pedigree and some pretty good results in his first 605 plate appearances in the big leagues? Almost certainly. His minor league numbers, while good, were never quite as good as what he demonstrated over the last couple of seasons at the big league level. And his defense, which most expected would improve over time, has seemingly regressed.
That brings me to a second question: Is Stephenson a better player than we’re seeing right now? I think it’s the same answer: Almost certainly. The first thing to remember is that he’s in his age-26 season, and he has missed time with injury. There is still room to grow. Further, one analysis indicates that his results this year are much more closely in line with his 2021 performance, with one exception: His whiff rate has gone through the roof on cutters, sinkers, and changeups. But his walk rate remains good, and if he cuts down on those swings-and-misses he’s a somewhat above average hitter.
For his part, Stephenson (and his manager) claim that he’s working hard to fix the issues. He’s reportedly working on “swinging at pitches in certain parts of the strike zone” while attempting to hit the ball to the opposite field more often. On the defensive side of the ledger, he’s tried adjusting his stance with runners on base, without noticeable results.
My hot take is that the Reds never should have let two-time Gold Glover and future Reds Hall of Famer Tucker Barnhart leave town. (Remember when they traded him to save $500,000?) He would have been the perfect veteran to back up Stephenson and teach him the tricks of the trade. Maybe it’s not too late! The Cubs just designated Barnhart for assignment, so Cincinnati could pick him up for a song. Maybe he can help Stephenson improve defensively, or maybe I’m just being a sentimental Reds fan who wants to see Tucker in a Reds uniform one more time.
Either way, it will be interesting to see how Stephenson progresses over the next season or two. He’s been overshadowed by the wave of talented rookies, as has second baseman Jonathan India. Stephenson’s situation, however, is different than India’s. Now that heralded prospect Noelvi Marte has been promoted to the big leagues, India is starting to look like the odd man out of a talented young infield.
The Reds don’t have any catchers in the organization ready to take Stephenson’s spot, though, and he’ll get every opportunity to demonstrate that we weren’t wrong to expect big things. I don’t like being wrong, so I’ll be rooting for him.
Chad Dotson helms Reds coverage at Cincinnati Magazine and hosts a long-running Reds podcast, The Riverfront. His newsletter about Cincinnati sports can be found at chaddotson.com. He’s @dotsonc on Twitter.