A couple of weeks ago, right here in the digital pages of Cincinnati Magazine, I suggested that the Cincinnati Reds try sending Homer Bailey to the bullpen. This week, they actually took my advice, so let’s hope they’re still paying attention. I have another idea.
Once upon a time, Robert Stephenson was the Next Big Thing for the Reds. California’s high school Player of the Year in 2011—he threw back-to-back no-hitters at the beginning of his senior season—Stephenson was selected by the Reds in the first round, and he’s been among the club’s top prospects ever since. For four consecutive seasons beginning in 2013, he was a consensus top-100 prospect in all of baseball, with every major outlet ranking him among the top 20 youngsters in all of baseball at one point or another.
In other words, Stephenson was the very definition of a highly-touted young pitcher. During the second half of last season, he appeared to be on the verge of delivering on all that promise. He went 5-2 with a dazzling 2.50 ERA in the final two months, holding opposing hitters to a .205 batting average in the process.
And then … nothing. Stephenson pitched poorly this spring (7.71 ERA) and was sent to Triple-A Louisville, never to be heard from again.
Well, not quite. But doesn’t it seem like the Reds have cooled on a guy who was perennially their top pitching prospect? After all, when the club’s brass talked about the pitchers in competition for the 2018 starting rotation, Stephenson was barely more than an afterthought, despite his pedigree and the progress he evidenced late last season.
Of course, it’s hard to blame the Reds for asking Stephenson to show them a little more before they depended on him. Everyone knows what his issue is: He needs to throw more strikes. The Reds have been trying to beat that into his head; after all, it’s difficult—well nigh impossible—to be an effective pitcher if you can’t throw strikes consistently. And after reading Stephenson’s recent comments to a Louisville paper, one has to wonder whether he’s listening to what the Reds tell him:
“Teams that are more aggressive, I’m able to get quicker outs because they swing a lot more,” Stephenson said. “It’s the guys that like to take pitches that I have a problem with, and being able to pound the zone and get them to swing the bat is the biggest challenge for me, especially with some of those teams that are really patient. …
“Everyone always talks about the fastball command. And I agree with that to an extent. Obviously, I’d like to limit the walk numbers, but at the same time, I don’t think that they are the most important things ever. If you can get guys out without them getting hits, then I don’t think that walks should be as big of a deal. But I know that’s definitely one of the biggest things that they want me to work on is being able to limit the walks and limiting baserunners.”
The problem with that approach, of course, is that you can’t “get guys out without them getting hits” in the big leagues. Minor league hitters aren’t as patient as the MLB guys, and a lot of guys will go out of the strike zone to chase Stephenson’s stuff. That won’t happen as often in the majors, and the Reds are correct to advise him that he needs to limit baserunners in order to be effective at the highest level.
But here’s the thing: Despite those comments, Stephenson is actually doing a better job of limiting baserunners this season at Triple-A. And while no one has been paying attention, he’s probably earned another shot at the big leagues. And soon.
Stephenson is 4-4 with a 3.59 ERA at Louisville, with 56 strikeouts and 27 walks in 47.2 innings pitched. Those numbers look good on the surface, and that strikeout rate is approaching 11 per 9 innings, which is simply gorgeous. The walk rate, well, isn’t so good. Stephenson has a BB/9 of 5.1. No pitcher can be consistent in the big leagues over time when he’s walking that many hitters.
Just looking a bit beneath the surface, however, gives reason to hope that he’s actually made real progress. Over his last five starts, as noted by C. Trent Rosecrans in The Athletic, Stephenson has struck out 36 and walked just 10 in 26.1 innings, while holding opposing hitters to a .202/.295/.394 slash line. If you take out one disastrous eight-walk game on April 25, Stephenson has a walk rate under four.
That’s still too high, and you can’t just eliminate that one bad start from his statistical record, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that Stephenson has, at the very least, begun to address his biggest issue. And the fact of the matter is that, if he can throw strikes, he’s still in possession of the brilliant stuff that made him such an enticing prospect from day one.
His changeup is an above-average pitch. Stephenson’s slider, which he just learned last spring, is legitimately an elite pitch, generating more swings and misses in 2017 than any individual pitch of all but 12 other pitchers in the entire major leagues. Seriously, check out the chart here: Stephenson’s slider ranked up there with the sliders of Corey Kluber, Max Scherzer, Clayton Kershaw, and Zack Greinke. (Note: Those pitchers are all very good.)
The velocity on Stephenson’s four-seam fastball has increased this season too, but an inability to command it with any consistency remains the bugaboo. And though we’re in small sample size territory, there are indications that he’s making progress.
So why isn’t he in the big leagues right now? He pitched well in the second half of 2017, and he’s largely tried to do what the Reds have asked of him. Plus, the Reds have the worst starting rotation in baseball, so it’s not like there isn’t room to give him another shot.
His recent comments indicate that Stephenson isn’t entirely on the same page with management, and it’s certainly possible—and reasonable—that the Reds would be frustrated with that. Jeff Fassero, Louisville’s pitching coach, has mentioned that Stephenson occasionally struggles with the mental aspect of the game, so that may be in the mix as well.
But the fact of the matter is that, last season, he finally gave us a glimpse of the pitcher who was considered one of the best prospects in all of baseball. So far, he’s followed that by pitching fairly well at Louisville. And, after all the ups and downs, Stephenson still has the best pure stuff of anyone in the Reds organization not named Raisel Iglesias or Hunter Greene.
Isn’t it time to give him a real shot at winning a spot in the big league rotation? I say it is.
These days, Stephenson is no longer the Next Big Thing. But maybe he should be the next man up.
Chad Dotson is a contributor to Nuxhall Way, and the founder of Redleg Nation. His first book, The Big 50: The Men and Moments That Made the Cincinnati Reds, is available now in bookstores and online. He’ll be signing copies of the book at 2 p.m. June 30 at the Reds Hall of Fame.