Stephenson has tools to be star pitcher for Reds
Cincinnati's top prospect can hit triple digits with fastball, but he struggled this spring
The 2011 First-Year Player Draft was so deep in pitching, right-hander Robert Stephenson went to the Cincinnati Reds with the 27th overall pick.
In his senior season at Alhambra High School in Martinez, Calif., Stephenson began the year by pitching back-to-back no-hitters. It helped earn him the California Gatorade Player of The Year Award. An extremely good student-athlete, many thought Stephenson could have gone earlier in the Draft.
But it was the year of the pitcher, such as Gerrit Cole, Danny Hultzen, Trevor Bauer, Dylan Bundy and Archie Bradley, just to name a few. Position players Bubba Starling, Anthony Rendon, Francisco Lindor, Javier Baez and George Springer were also all products of the same class.
After being in the Reds' Minor League system for parts of three seasons, Stephenson is ranked No. 1 on the team's Top 20 Prospect list.
At 6-foot-3 and 195 pounds, Stephenson may even fill out some more in his upper body. His size and his mound demeanor are two important components that should help trigger his future success. Throwing a bit across his body, Stephenson has good extension, and he finishes his delivery in a clean and skillful manner. And the 21-year-old is prepared to defend his position.
Stephenson is good at using the entire plate and changing the eye level of the hitter. It's difficult to look for a particular zone when facing him.
Stephenson has a very powerful arm, having the capability of hitting the high 90s consistently, while generally sitting at 94-98 mph. He can also hit triple digits. However, the higher Stephenson goes on the velocity scale, the flatter his pitches become. Movement, or lack thereof, tends to diminish my overall evaluation of his fastball. Stephenson tends to favor a rising four-seamer that can get in the eyes of the hitter and become a very tempting pitch. But it also equates to a number of swings and misses.
Stephenson's next-best offering is probably his curveball. It's a slower curve in the mid-70s and causes late reaction from hitters. The 20-mph drop in velocity from his fastball is a good weapon Stephenson uses to keep hitters off balance.
Stephenson's third pitch is his changeup. It's a work in progress that I saw him test more this past Spring Training. The results were mixed. Stephenson's arm action was good, but the pitch didn't speed up bats or get the swings and misses he may have wanted.
Cincinnati gave Stephenson some looks this past spring. He appeared in three games, throwing four innings and yielding seven hits. Stephenson walked one and struck out one, but opponents blistered him for a .438 batting average. He had a 2.00 WHIP and a 6.75 ERA.
At one point in his career, Stephenson was the type of pitcher who would lean back and try to throw the ball past the hitter. Now, he has toned down his aggressive approach in favor of picking his spots and throwing strikes. That approach works.
Not counting Spring Training or the brief start of the 2014 season, Stephenson has two seasons on his resume. He's pitched at Rookie League Billings and Double-A Pensacola, where he finished last year and started this season. Consistently, Stephenson has walked few and struck out many.
Because they get great movement on high-velocity fastballs, some pitching prospects don't need stellar secondary pitches to go deep into games. For me, the continued development of his secondary pitches holds the key to Stephenson's ultimate role and projected success.
If Stephenson can throw his secondary pitches for strikes, his fastball becomes more prominent. He will then be able to mix and match among three pitches, even if his fastball doesn't always have great life or movement.