Focus, advice and Pilates have Stephenson ready for full-time role

March 29th, 2022

GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Nothing about the Major League game seems to get too fast for young Reds catcher .

“He has a slow heartbeat or whatever they say,” Reds manager David Bell said. “He’s the same all the time. In the big situations, that does show up.”

Now, Stephenson will be counted on to play more and do more. When the first domino fell in the Reds' offseason roster overhaul with veteran catcher Tucker Barnhart being traded to the Tigers, it wasn’t entirely a cost-saving move. Cincinnati knew it already had the perfect replacement.

Stephenson, 25, more than showed he was ready to become the everyday catcher, putting in the work to be ready for such a role in the offseason.

“I don’t feel any different,” Stephenson said. “Tucker and I have actually been texting and he’s asking how everything is going over here. Obviously, he’s going to be a source I can always go to -- not only this year, but any time during my career. He’s been a huge help.”

Stephenson has helped himself, as well. During the winter at home, he focused on blocking and framing pitches better with Joe Singley, who later became a Reds coaching intern. In camp, he does Pilates with movement and mobility specialist Robyn Cohen several times a week to improve flexibility.

Catching/third base coach J.R. House has noticed some differences from Stephenson already.

“Everything we try to do, whether it’s throwing, blocking, receiving or even game calling, we try to objectify as much as we can so we can get to the truth of what’s really happening in the game,” House said. “And he’s improved in every aspect.”

To improve blocking, Stephenson has reworked his catching stance. His rear end is positioned higher off the ground, with his hips hinged over the top. It looks like he’s bent over a little more. It helps have the blocked ball fall in front of him instead of it skipping further away.

“It allows him to be a little bit more athletic and get down easier,” House said. “When you’re late, you rush. When you rush, the ball bounces off of you a little more. You can be softer and create a better angle. It’s almost like an infielder with their footwork and always getting good hops … We’re happy with the results. It’s been a good progression.”

Stephenson is also pleased with the direction of his catching.

“It all kind of wraps around too to finding a comfortable and consistent stance behind the plate, which has helped clean up a lot of things,’ he said. “It’s trusting it because it’s easy to fall back into old habits during a game when it does speed up.”

Offensively, the game has not been too fast for Stephenson. His short career resume is already loaded with big moments.

In 43 pinch-hit at-bats, Stephenson has four home runs and 14 RBIs. Last season on April 17, he delivered a game-winner, to defeat Cleveland with a 10th inning walk-off single. On Sept. 14, 2020, he hit a two-run walk-off homer to defeat the Pirates. In seven at-bats with the bases loaded in 2021, he notched four hits with 11 RBIs.

In 132 games overall, Stephenson batted .286/.366/.431 with 10 homers and 45 RBIs. He hit his way into key lineup spots, largely batting anywhere from second through fifth.

Behind the plate, Stephenson caught three shutouts in 65 starts. In 588 1/3 innings caught and 683 chances, he did not commit an error.

“We were hoping to get him to average and he qualified to be above [average] and is taking it to another level,” House said. “We use SL+, which is strikes looking above average. He finished a little bit above 101 -- 100 is average. We’re trying to get him to a 103, marks that Tucker and elite catchers have, and get him to progress.”

According to Statcast, last season Stephenson had a 48.4% called strike rate on borderline pitches, slightly above the MLB average of 47.8%. Barnhart had a 49.4% strike rate. Stephenson was an average framer in terms of his framing run value (0 framing runs), while Barnhart was +5 framing runs above average, ranking seventh among catchers.

“I was not surprised, but the way he handled himself behind the plate last year, his reputation was not as a defensive catcher, but he turned himself into one,” Bell said. “Last year, he got more and more comfortable. He, for a young player, is just so calm and confident. He’s not the loudest guy. The one knock early on was that he’s not loud or raise his voice. He leads in a different way. He does communicate really well, but he does it in a way that’s calm, he has a calming influence on our pitchers. The way he receives and throws, he continues to evolve.

“Offensively, it’s the same as his personality. He takes his at-bats, puts the ball in play, uses the whole field. No situation is too big for him.”