Stephenson's 1st career slam a sign of things to come

April 21st, 2024

CINCINNATI -- Despite not producing much in the way of results in the early going this season, there were harbingers that good things offensively were coming Reds catcher 's way.

Stephenson has been one of the best in baseball at making hard contact in 2024, but he's hit balls right to defenders for outs. Over his past two games, he found a way to avoid gloves. He just had to clear the fences.

"You can feel great and stay with the process and all that, but if you’re not getting results, it can really test you," Reds manager David Bell said. "Tyler, his steadiness behind the plate and as a hitter just really paid off.”

Did it ever in the bottom of the first inning.

A grand slam by Stephenson -- the first of his career -- highlighted a five-run Cincinnati rally during Saturday's 7-5 win over the Angels at Great American Ball Park. The Reds have already claimed the three-game series with back-to-back wins.

“The past week or so, I’ve put some really good swings on the ball," Stephenson said. "Fortunately, I got a good pitch to hit. I didn’t know if it was going to stay fair or foul. Luckily, it did stay fair. It’s been a lot of hard work. It’s good to see some results come for sure.”

The Angels took a 2-0 lead on starter Graham Ashcraft in the top of the first inning, but the Reds had a response for Angels pitcher Patrick Sandoval in the bottom half. After Stuart Fairchild's RBI double scored Spencer Steer, Sandoval walked Jeimer Candelario and, following a strikeout, walked Elly De La Cruz to load the bases.

On an 0-1 elevated sinker from Sandoval, Stephenson lifted a drive to the opposite field for his grand slam. It was Stephenson's third homer of the season and second in two games.

"I shouldn’t have thrown that pitch. Back-to-back fastballs," Sandoval said. "But once it comes out of my hand, there’s nothing I can do about it. It was a quality pitch. Fastball at the top rail of the zone. He just happened to get to it and hit it the opposite way.”

During Friday's 7-1 win, Stephenson scorched a sixth-inning solo homer to the second deck of left-field seats with a 111 mph exit velocity.

Entering Saturday night, according to Statcast, Stephenson's barrel percentage of 24.2 was in the 100th percentile of MLB hitters and his hard-hit rate (51.5 percent) was in the 90th percentile.

However, Stephenson's expected slugging percentage (.513) was 118 points higher than his actual slugging percentage (.395). His expected batting average (.260) was 51 points higher than his actual average (.209).

“Everybody says it evens out. I don’t know if that’s true or not," Stephenson said. "At the end of the day, we control the things we can control. If I hit it hard and it’s right at somebody, I can live with that. It’s a long year.”

In his first full big league season, 2021, Stephenson hit 10 homers in 350 at-bats. Although limited by injuries to 50 games in ‘22, there was more optimism when he batted .319 with an .854 OPS and six homers over 166 at-bats.

The 2023 season was a backstep offensively for Stephenson, as he hit 13 homers in 465 at-bats while his OPS plummeted to .695. This season, it felt like he was just missing hitting a home run by a hair.

“Just some small adjustments," Stephenson said. "Obviously, I’m a big guy with long arms. I try to let my hands be as free as possible to give myself some room with my hands to be able to catch the ball up front and just let them take care of everything else.”

The momentum shift in the first inning was key support for Ashcraft, who finished with five runs, five hits and three walks allowed over five-plus innings with four strikeouts.

“You can’t overestimate how important it is," Bell said. "Getting down 2-0, obviously the game isn’t over. We have a long way to go. If you don’t score right away, the game can get away from you. Bouncing back right there was a big inning.”

Seeing Stephenson be the one to deliver the biggest hit of the rally was an additional boost for Ashcraft.

"We all knew what he is capable of and that he had the ability to do it," Ashcraft said. "To see that he’s actually putting that together piece by piece and doing what he’s doing right now, it’s great for him and it’s great for us because it helps us as a team.”