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November 22, 2013

Raising Aces

Bush League: Robert Stephenson

by Doug Thorburn

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Robert Stephenson was drafted by the Cincinnati Reds in the first round (no. 27 overall) of the 2011 draft. Selected out of a northern California high school, Stephenson was the first prep pitcher to be popped in the first round by Cincy since Homer Bailey was taken with the seventh-overall pick in 2004. Stephenson began the 2012 season in extended spring training and did not make his professional debut until June of that year, but he cruised through rookie ball and spent two months with Dayton of the Midwest League. He returned to Dayton to begin the 2013 season, where Stephenson stepped on the accelerator and quickly rose up through the system.

GS

IP

ERA

K %

BB %

H %

HR %

A

14

77.0

2.57

31.3%

6.5%

18.2%

1.6%

A+

4

20.7

3.05

26.5%

2.4%

22.9%

3.6%

AA

4

16.7

4.86

24.0%

17.3%

22.7%

2.7%

The right-hander earned each of his promotions with his performance on the field. He had a rocky start to the season, with a 5.77 ERA through his first six starts of the year, but Stephenson rebounded to steamroll through the Midwest League over his next eight turns. The tally: 49.3 innings of 0.87 ERA baseball, including 61 strikeouts against just eight walks and a mere 23 hits allowed. He suffered a strained hamstring in mid-June that derailed the train mid-steam, causing him to miss a month before resuming his ownership of A-ball.

Stephenson was promoted to the California League and kept shoving it, convincing the Reds to give him another jump after just four starts for Bakersfield. The Double-A outings was far less impressive, and the walk rate in particular jumps out in spite of the paltry sample size; he walked more batters in each of his first three Double-A starts than he had free-passed in his entire High-A stint (two), including a five-walk fiasco in his final home start of the regular season.

Stephenson ran out of steam at the end of the line, and he also took some time to gain speed out of the station, but the player on display at peak was worth the ticket price. Luckily, MiLB.tv was there for several of his starts throughout the season, including those on the bookends, allowing us to sit in the passenger car and evaluate the trip.

April 4th @ West Michigan (A)
Stephenson made his debut on a cold day in Michigan, where the fans were all bundled up in their parkas and beanies. The game-feed lacked announcers or radar-gun readings, so any evaluations of velocity are left to the error-bars of subjectivity, but hitters were mostly behind on the heat throughout the ballgame. The more glaring trend was Stephenson's tendency to leave the fastball up and to the arm-side of his targets, an issue of timing that was due to late rotation.

Pitchers at all levels will struggle with timing in their first few games of the season, so the debut wrinkles were nothing more than a minor concern. The curveball was sharp though inconsistent, and mistimed deliveries caused his release point to drift between too early and too late for the right-hander to achieve full extension. Batters laid off the hammer for the most part, though the strategy backfired on those rare occasions when Stephenson was able to line up the gears, as West Michigan cleanup hitter Adolfo Reina learned in the second inning.

Stephenson threw very few change-ups in the contest, but the pitch was very effective when it made an appearance. The element of surprise resulted in some ugly swings, the nastiest of which caused Reina to swing out of his shoes on a first-pitch cambio in the third frame, upping the wind-chill factor at the stadium with his empty hack.

The above change set-up the strikeout from the first-GIF fastball, as Reina provided the most entertaining moments at the plate. Stephenson gave up three runs in the ballgame, all of which scored in the third inning. For the most part, he was the victim of bleeders and A-ball quality defense, as very few of his offerings were hit hard. The lone exception came on one of his best pitches of the day, a fastball that stayed low in the zone yet was lined to the right-center field gap for an RBI triple, leading to most of the damage that he endured on the day.

August 10th @ San Jose (A+)
Stephenson's performance in his final High-A start was his best of the season. Playing just an hour's drive from his hometown of Martinez, California, he allowed just one hit and one walk while shutting out San Jose for six innings, striking out nine Gigantes in the process. His fastball was deadly, sitting 94-96 mph and touching 97, and his ability to locate the heat was vastly improved over his early-season showing. The fastball was his bread-and-butter for the first couple of innings, painting targets down in the zone on either side of the plate, and he used a very quick pace that upped the intensity.

The breaking ball was not as sharp as it had been earlier in the season, at least for the first couple of innings. The curve flashed depth as the game progressed, and though Stephenson's command of the pitch was better than in his debut, the inconsistency continued as he battled to find reliable break on the pitch. That said, his breaker was devastating at times, with some of the hammers located on the inner-half looking like they had crazy arm-side movement, though that may have been an illusion caused by the skewed camera angle.

Stephenson went to the change-up much more often in the San Jose game, particularly in the later innings versus a lineup that leaned more toward the left side of the plate. The change was not especially heavy, but the velocity differential and arm-side run was enough to invoke weak contact and empty swings.

He was remarkably efficient with his pitch-count throughout the game, and he threw just 55 pitches through the first five innings despite punching out eight hitters in that span. Once again, he had the most fun with the opposing team's cleanup hitter, with Ricky Oropesa playing the victim of multiple strikeouts this time. Stephenson maintained fastball velocity throughout the game, though his reliance on the pitch took a back-seat to his secondary offerings; he wnet as many as nine pitches to begin the fifth frame before reaching for heat.

One additional note of interest: Stephenson had 10 days of rest coming into the game versus San Jose, as he had skipped his previous start due to some arm fatigue. What was a sidebar in this game would turn out to be a warning flare which may have played a role in his upcoming collapse.

August 27th vs Birmingham (AA)
Stephenson's home start against the Birmingham Barons was arguably his shakiest game of the season. He threw 110 pitches while registering just 14 outs, giving up four runs on seven hits and a season-high five walks, whiffing just four hitters. The camera feed provided a different angle for analysis, but the pitcher was clearly a shell of his peak self that had appeared just 17 days prior.

The trouble started in the opening frame, as Stephenson fell behind the first batter 2-0 and used six pitches to get his first out. The second at bat was over much more quickly, as Cody Puckett ripped the second pitch that he saw way out to left-field for a solo homer.

It was a bad sign when Stephenson's fastball could be turned around so quickly and easily, and in fact the dial on his heater was turned down throughout the ball game, rarely hitting 93mph on the gun – what was his velocity floor two weeks prior was suddenly his velo ceiling. He was constantly behind in the count, starting several hitters 2-0 and walking multiple batters on five pitches.

Stephenson was wild in general, uncorking the most askew pitches that I had seen from him over the course of the three games of footage. He missed inside and outside, high and low, and catcher Tucker Barnhart was kept busy corralling the horsehide.

The right-hander was clearly gassed, and even his tempo between pitches was noticeably slower than the pace that he had employed in his final High-A start. Stamina is an attribute that is critical for starting pitchers, both in terms of within a game and within a season, and it will likely be a focal point for Stephenson in his future development.

Mechanics Report Card

Balance

40

Momentum

65

Torque

70

Posture

55

Release Distance

60

Repetition

55

For an explanation on the grading system for pitching mechanics, please consult this pair of articles.

The above grades reflect Stephenson's peak mechanics, as were on display in the August 10th game for Bakersfield versus San Jose. Some of the grades would hold steady regardless of the start, such as balance and momentum, but the repetition grade in particular was highly dependent on the game in question.

He exhibits the common trade-off between momentum and balance, in that pitchers with a plus burst to the plate typically struggle to contain the extra levels of kinetic energy, though Stephenson's sub-par balance grade has more to do with a blatant drop-n-drive in his delivery that looks as though it is more a blatant manipulation than an issue of functional strength. As such, he has the potential to improve balance while maintaining his excellent speed to the plate, that is if he makes an adjustment to his mechanical technique.

It is more common to see prospects with great momentum than it is for pitchers at the highest level, and much of that effect is due to teams that adhere to a philosophy of “don't rush,” though such instruction can rob a pitcher of functional advantages such as high levels of kinetic energy and deeper release points. Here's hoping that the Reds allow Stephenson to maintain his current pattern of momentum so that he can reap the functional benefits; Cincy need look no further than Aroldis Chapman to see the upside of strong momentum. Stephenson's powerful delivery can be seen even in his warm-up pitches, and the following side-view provides the best possible vantage point:

There was also a pitch during the game that featured a temporary side-view of his motion, and the following freeze-frames demonstrate his strong early move to the plate (leading with the hip and achieving a strong energy angle at max leg lift) as well as the tremendous stride that results from his technique.

Directing his power toward the target throughout the delivery results in a minimal gear-change, which is a positive for repetition and consistency, although Stephenson's transition out of max leg lift is disrupted by the imbalance created by the drop-n-drive. In addition to the drop in vertical balance, he also loses lateral balance due to some torso-lean toward second base during the stride phase of his motion. Stephenson uses a lower leg lift from the stretch, though he avoids the abominable slide step, and he goes to a regular leg lift when the base-out situation reveals no immediate danger of a stolen base.

Robert Stephenson has the stuff and the delivery to be a force at the highest level, and though he might get his first taste of the show in late 2014, there are still some integral items left on his developmental to-do list before he can be considered a legitimate rotation anchor.

Doug Thorburn is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Doug's other articles. You can contact Doug by clicking here

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