Reliever Stephenson set for 'fresh, new start'

February 20th, 2021

If the last year hadn’t been so, well, pandemic, it would be meaningful to say that new Rockies righty reliever  would love to turn back the clock to around this time last year. But humor us.

Last spring, those in Reds camp had pegged Stephenson, the team’s top pick in the 2011 MLB Draft, as a potential breakout player. After debuting with the big league club in '16, he eventually settled into a bullpen role in ’19 with a 3.76 ERA and 81 strikeouts in 64 2/3 innings. But after the shutdown, Stephenson appeared in just 10 games in '20, posting a 9.90 ERA.

An offseason trade to the Rockies -- along with outfield prospect Jameson Hannah for righty Jeff Hoffman, another highly touted player needing a new opportunity -- offers a reset to Stephenson, who turns 28 on Wednesday.

“I was definitely disappointed with last season -- not the season I would have wanted to have, certainly not the season everybody would have liked to have had in baseball, period,” Stephenson said. “I could definitely do better. This year will be a good start.

“It's going to be a great opportunity for me. I spent a lot of time in that [Reds] organization. With that, you get expectations. It will be nice to have a fresh, new start.”

Stephenson gives the Rockies’ bullpen an intriguing strikeout weapon, thanks to a slider that possesses downward bite.

Stephenson had a healthy rate of 11.3 strikeouts per nine innings over 2019 and '20 -- and his ’19 placed him in the 98th percentile among pitchers in hard-hit percentage, according to Statcast.

The vertical break (or, "drop," to you and me) of Stephenson’s slider was in the 83rd percentile in 2019 and the 81st percentile in '20, according to MLB Quality of Pitch. Interestingly, Stephenson ranked low in slider location in his two big strikeout years, but that’s not necessarily bad. QOP’s “location” is based on proximity to the corners of the zone, so Stephenson’s strikeouts suggest that hitters are swinging at sliders that dive out of the zone.

There are two key growth areas for Stephenson, based on last season. Although it was not precipitous, Stephenson’s average slider velocity dipped below 85 mph for the first time in his career, and -- important to him -- he was not as effective with the high fastball. Stephenson also has revisited a curveball that he pocketed the last two seasons.

The Reds exhausted Stephenson’s Minor League options. The Rockies, who sank to 26-34 last season partly because they could not find dependable relief work in close games, have plenty of competitors and bounceback candidates. Stephenson is concerning himself with performing, not fighting off challenges.

“At this point, I view myself as a big leaguer, and that’s where I plan to be,” said Stephenson, who avoided arbitration in his first year of eligibility with a one-year, $805,000 deal, and is under club control through 2023. “I feel like I have the stuff, and everything’s starting to come together where I’m going to be able to show that I have it.”


Plans for Cron
Rockies manager Bud Black has high hopes for veteran first baseman C.J. Cron, who has the inside shot at the everyday gig despite being in camp as a non-roster invitee. Cron missed most of last year with the Tigers because of surgery to repair his left kneecap, but he's healthy entering 2021.

“Look up some of his stats in previous years with Minnesota and Tampa, and I knew him in 2016 when I was with the Angels working as a front-office guy,” Black said. “He’s a guy that can bring something. He can bring some power, and at 31 years old, he’s exciting for our coaching staff and the front office.”

Five is enough
Black said the Rockies have considered going to a six-man rotation amid the uncertainty of filling all the innings that come with a 162-game season, but have turned down the idea.