Cincinnati Reds pitching as a whole has seemed to turn a corner in the last couple weeks. The unit still places last in the majors in ERA, but over the team’s last 12 games, there have been marked signs of improvement, culminating in starters having a 2.81 ERA. It should come as no surprise, then, that the team is 8-4 in that time span.
One standout from that turnaround has been Robert Stephenson, who looked strong again in Tuesday’s victory over Milwaukee, pitching six innings of shutout baseball before back-to-back doubles chased him from the game with no outs in the seventh. He allowed just four hits and struck out seven, but also walked five. Stephenson’s hot streak stretches beyond his last couple starts, though. In six appearances since August 2nd, including five starts, the right-hander owns a 2.08 ERA in 30.1 innings pitched. And if you’re into this sort of thing, he’s also gotten the win in each of his last four starts.
This is easily the best Stephenson has looked as a big leaguer since he made his debut in April 2016. Going into August, he had a 7.86 ERA in 15 games in 2017, and was allowing a startling 1.022 OPS to opponents. He spent all of June and most of July at AAA, and it seems that he may have picked something up in Louisville that is paying off in a big way in Cincinnati: A slider.
Stephenson has always boasted a 70-grade fastball that once touched triple digits early in his pro career, and complemented it with a hammer curve that got plenty of swings and misses in the low minors. In the majors, however, that’s been a different story, as he’s struggled to throw it for strikes and more advanced hitters have shown little hesitation to lay off of it.
What we’ve seen since August 2nd seems to be his answer for that. A quick jaunt over to brooksbaseball.net will show that Stephenson didn’t throw a single slider in 2016, and had thrown just 21 of them alongside 118 curveballs in 13 appearances before going back to the minors in late May. Since he’s returned, however, those figures had completely flipped. In eight appearances, he’s fired 147 sliders compared with just 12 curves, making it his new go-to as a secondary offering.
It’s a positive sign, as the slider has performed much better than the curve. Through May, here’s what his pitch outcomes looked like for his career:
The curve was thrown for a ball more than it was thrown for a strike, and when it was swung at, it was put in play more than it was swung through. Now take a look at his outcomes since August 2nd:
The slider is getting whiffed at three times more often than it’s put in play, and is actually getting thrown for a strike more than not.
Now, it’s not so much the fact that the curve was getting pummeled – opponents were 3-for-24 with nine K’s against it in 2017 before he was sent down. It’s the fact that the slider seems to be making his other pitches better. Opponents have gone from slugging .797 against his fastball to slugging .442, and slugging .500 against his change-up to slugging .174. In fact, of the nine home runs Stephenson has allowed this season, only one has come since August 2nd.
Stephenson still has a ways to go in terms of command - that much remains clear. Walking six batters per nine the way he has this season severely limits any success a pitcher is likely to have in the majors, regardless of how many he strikes out. Still, the last month of the former first round pick have been as encouraging a sign as we’ve seen that he’s willing and able to adapt to how big league hitters are handling him, and if the slider remains this strong of an addition to his repertoire, he may yet be on his way to achieving that frontline starter upside the Reds have always seen in him.