Connor Byrne of MLB Trade Rumors wrote about Cincinnati Reds reliever Robert Stephenson and his being a breakout candidate on Monday. In 2019 he made a full on transition to the bullpen for the Reds. The now 27-year-old right-handed pitcher had a bit of a breakout season in 2019 as it was. He entered the year with a 5.47 ERA for his career in 133.1 innings. The big area where he struggled the most was in his inability to keep his walk rate at a quality level. But last season he walked just 24 batters – and four of those were intentional – in 64.2 innings.

With big improvements in his ability to find the strikezone, his strikeout rate also jumped up. He struck out a career best 11.3 batters per 9-innings pitched. In a year where everyone and their mother was giving up home runs at career rates, Stephenson saw his home run rate at a level lower than his career rate. All combined, it led to a 3.76 ERA (121 ERA+) and a 1.04 WHIP. Those are all strong numbers.

But there are a lot of promising numbers beyond that which could lead to an even bigger breakout for Robert Stephenson. We know that the strikeout is the best case scenario for a pitcher – it leaves no ability for the ball to somehow find the grass, or a player to make an error. And among the 341 pitchers in Major League Baseball in 2019 that threw at least 50 innings, Stephenson had the 45th best strikeout percentage in the game. That’s pretty good. But it’s not the best stat we’re going to drop in this paragraph. This is: Among those 341 pitchers, Stephenson had the 3rd highest swinging strike rate in baseball, trailing just Josh Hader and Nick Anderson.

As a prospect, Robert Stephenson was among the best in baseball. At times he was flat out dominant – In 2013 he posted a 2.99 ERA across three levels, striking out 136 batters with just 35 walks in 114.1 innings. He always showed stuff, though it did change over the years. He swapped out the curveball for a slider, and eventually scrapped a change up for a splitter – both pitches that he picked up rather quickly. But there were plenty of times where he struggled to find the consistency – mostly through battles with the strikezone. The strikeouts were always present, but the walks were there a bit too often.

In 2019 the strikeout rate was among the best 15% in baseball. And his rate at which he got opposing hitters to swing and miss was among the top 1% in the game. But not all of his pitches stand out. In face, the fastball that Robert Stephenson throws is among the worst in baseball according to Fangraphs pitch value statistic. Among the 341 pitchers with 50 innings pitched last season, his fastball rated out as the 316th best in the game.

The fastball is one thing. The offspeed stuff is another. The slider that Stephenson throws rated out as the 15th best in the game. His splitter is more middle-of-the-pack, ranking out as the 111th best change up in the game. That’s still a little above-average.

Let’s take a closer look at the pitches, ranking, and values at play for Robert Stephenson:

The pitch selection for Robert Stephenson is rather interesting. He pitches backwards, at least in the sense that he throws his offspeed stuff significantly more than he throws his fastball. That’s quite key here, because the fastball – at least in 2019 – was among the worst in baseball, while the slider was among the best.

It’s that fastball that could be key to truly breaking out for Robert Stephenson. If his fastball can improve a little bit, while the offspeed stuff remains above-average to elite, we could see Stephenson go from above-average like he was in 2019 to another level in 2020.

7 Responses

  1. PhoenixPhil

    RS has a very high ceiling (even as high as Hader). I also think his has a pretty low floor to go along with it. If he can stay healthy, I believe he could be right there with Iggy, Lorenzen and Garret. That’s a nice top four. If Pedro is your fifth best, I won’t complain.

  2. CFD3000

    Two part comment. First, what would it take for Stephenson’s fastball to improve? Is it just consistency with his release point and control? Or is it mechanics, grip and spin rate that need improvement? Which is an indirect way of asking – is an improved fastball in his control (no pun intended) and therefore more likely, or is there no obvious track to improvement and therefore less likely?

    Second, despite some wobbly results in early spring training I am optimistic that Cody Reed could be the next breakout reliever. He profiles like Stephenson in that he has the tools and has flashed nearly unhittable stuff on occasion, but has also struggled mightily at times. But he has been on an upward trend over the last two seasons, when healthy. I’m expecting, if he’s healthy, that he will be a strong part of an increasingly effective Reds bullpen.

  3. Matt WI

    Doug (or anyone that knows) could you just add a little context for how a pitch is rated? What made his fastball so bad?

    Percentage of time its put back into play compared to other pitchers? Strike/Ball ratio?

    • Doug Gray

      The Fangraphs values are simply how it played – strikes/balls/how well guys hit it.

  4. RojoBenjy

    If he could be the pitcher he was in the first month or two of 2019 season for a whole season, wouldn’t that be fantastic?

    That slider was NASTY and he used it very well.

    What happened for him in the second half? Can’t remember if an injury was mixed in somewhere or not.

  5. Scott C.

    I would really like to see Stephenson break out big this year. The slider is NASTY. He would be a big boost to the end of the pen and along with Lorenzen can pitch multiple innings.

  6. MBS

    Given his age, experience, and numbers he put up last year, it would make sense that this could be a “breakout season”.