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Iglesias pinpoints root of early struggles

Reds closer knows he needs his slider to be effective
@m_sheldon
April 16, 2019

LOS ANGELES -- Raisel Iglesias has not been as effective as the Reds have come to expect from their best reliever in recent seasons. But manager David Bell is not wavering from wanting Iglesias in high-leverage moments, and Iglesias still wants the ball for those situations. “If he continues to

LOS ANGELES -- Raisel Iglesias has not been as effective as the Reds have come to expect from their best reliever in recent seasons. But manager David Bell is not wavering from wanting Iglesias in high-leverage moments, and Iglesias still wants the ball for those situations.

“If he continues to believe in himself, we’ll believe in him,” Bell said on Tuesday “We’ll be looking for more opportunities to get him right back out there.”

Through his first six appearances of 2019, Iglesias already has three losses compared to two saves. During Monday’s 4-3 loss to the Dodgers, the right-hander did not retire either of the batters he faced. First, he walked pinch-hitter Chris Taylor on five pitches. Joc Pederson followed with a two-run walk-off home run on a 1-1 slider.

Bell noted he was not concerned that something was wrong with Iglesias.

“Guys that are as good as him, they’re allowed to have a stretch like that,” Bell said. “I do think it’s just more magnified. When they’re pitching, it’s the high-leverage, most important situation. When they don’t have their best night, it can really be magnified.”

Iglesias, who was signed to a three-year, $24.1 million deal by Cincinnati in November, recorded 58 saves for the Reds over the 2017-18 seasons. Last year, he was 2-5 with a 2.38 ERA and converted 30 saves in 34 chances.

“I think it’s just a bad start right now,” Iglesias said via translator Julio Morillo. “I think the hitters, they’ve been doing a pretty good job preparing themselves. They know that I’m not as sharp as I was last year. I think it’s too early in the season to say that I’m having a bad year. I think I’m just going to continue to get better. I believe in myself that I’m going to be the one that I was last year.”

One reason Iglesias has been off is that his best pitch -- the slider -- has not been as effective. According to Statcast, its velocity has dipped to an average of 83.5 mph from the 84.9 mph it averaged in 2018, which could be affecting its deceptiveness or the sharpness of its break. He used his slider to put away hitters 27.7 percent of the time in '18, compared to 16.7 percent this year.

“It’s not a secret that my slider isn’t sharp as it was last year,” Iglesias said. “I think I’ve just been focused to work on other pitches, and I have not worked on my slider as much.

“Hopefully, I can make my adjustments quickly and just go out there and compete. … That’s my go-to pitch. … I’m just going to keep working on it. Hopefully, I can get the rhythm of it.”

Stephenson dependable from bullpen

On the other hand, things have gone swimmingly for Reds right-hander Robert Stephenson so far in 2019. A full-time reliever for the first time, Stephenson has 0.96 ERA through his first six games and 9 1/3 innings of the season. He’s retired his last 16 batters in a row over the previous four appearances.

“So far, I love it,” Stephenson said Tuesday about working from the bullpen. “I'm happy starting or relieving. I think the last time I was in the bullpen, I was kind of more itching to get back in a starter's role and I think that now I've just embraced being in the bullpen and I kind of like it now.”

Stephenson was used in a high-leverage situation as he pitched the seventh and eighth innings Monday during a 2-2 game.

“At this point, Robert has earned that,” Bell said. “He’s passed all the tests. There are going to be times where it’s not going to go perfect. At this point, he’s shown that he’s a guy we can start to use in those situations. He’s been up for the challenge.”

A former first-round pick of the Reds in 2011, Stephenson was long groomed as a starting pitcher. But he often struggled in that role over multiple call-ups, especially with his confidence. Entering Spring Training, he was out of Minor League options and wound up being the final pitcher named to the team when camp broke.

At some point during spring, Stephenson stopped worrying.

“I think it wasn't so much the confidence, it was letting go of the expectations and allowing myself to realize that if something does happen and I do end up being DFA'd and end up with a different team, that's a likely scenario, but I just have to accept that fact,” he said. “Once I accepted that fact, I was able to move on to perform a little better.”

As a reliever instead of a starter, Stephenson has simplified his repertoire to mainly two pitches – the four-seam fastball and slider. But he’s really developed his slider well and has thrown it 56.1 percent of the time to hitters in ’19. In the eighth inning on Monday, all five pitches thrown to Austin Barnes were sliders including a called strike three.

“When I have a good feel for it, there's no reason to stop throwing it,” Stephenson said. “If they're going to swing at it, might as well keep throwing it.”

Mark Sheldon has covered the Reds for MLB.com since 2006, and previously covered the Twins from 2001-05. Follow him on Twitter @m_sheldon and Facebook.