We might well look back at the 1st round of the 2011 MLB Draft as one of the all-time great ones. At least, at this juncture it’s shaping up to have provided the current era of baseball with some of its absolute biggest names, with the likes of Francisco Lindor, Anthony Rendon, Gerrit Cole, Trevor Bauer, Javy Baez, and George Springer among the headliners. That doesn’t even include 2018 AL Cy Young Award winner Blake Snell, who sits just 12th when this group is sorted by bWAR to date. That’s ahead of former All Star and AL Rookie of the Year Award winner Michael Fulmer, too, on a list that also includes late Marlins pitcher Jose Fernandez, who often appeared to have the highest ceiling of the entire group.
The Cincinnati Reds hoped they’d found their ace among that group, too. Twice hoped, I should say. The single biggest financial commitment the Reds made this past winter was to former New York Yankees pitcher Sonny Gray, who they signed to what could amount to a 5 year, $50 million contract after sending away prospect Shed Long and a draft pick to acquire Gray, the former Oakland Athletics ace and #18 overall pick in that 2011 1st round. That was one of three major moves the front office made in a winter in which they were hell-bent on finally, finally rectifying a pitching staff that had floundered for some five years running, and whose foibles had begun to derail the thorough rebuild the front office had tried to put in place.
There were many culprits on those poor Reds pitching staffs, but perhaps the single most frustrating was Robert Stephenson - largely because he had always been in-house and wasn’t one of the imports from the litany of trades. The one-time fireballing righty had risen to be ranked as high as the #16 overall prospect in the game prior to the 2015 season, his combination of a fastball that could flirt with triple-digits and a buckling curveball inducing drools from scouts around the league, most of whom simply managed to ignore his consistent control issues as something that could get ironed out down the road.
Stephenson was the prospect arm Reds fans dreamed about most while their big league staff stumbled repeatedly, and they had the chance to do so for years. He was the ace we - and the Reds - hoped would eventually emerge to front the rotation, though admittedly it was evident early that would take some time seeing as he was drafted as a raw high school arm...as the #27 pick in that same 2011 1st round.
Fast-forward to the final days of spring camp in Goodyear, Arizona this March. Stephenson, 26 years old and out of options, owned a career 5.47 ERA in 133.1 big league innings strewn across the previous three seasons, and despite the occasional glimmer of hope that he could finally figure things out as a starter, he’d been effectively relegated to a battle for a final bullpen spot. Lose that, and the out of options factor would mean a trip to the waiver wire, which just might result in the end of his Cincinnati Reds career. The Reds, though, made the interesting decision to keep Stephenson over his fellow out of options roster-mate Matt Wisler, despite the latter having actually shown some tangible results as a bit league reliever in his career.
Same team. New role. Made it by the skin of his teeth. Almost no expectation that he’d either need to provide, or asked to provide any innings of importance, especially since manager David Bell and new pitching coach Derek Johnson had publicly insisted on carrying an eighth reliever - Stephenson, it seemed obvious on paper, was that extra eighth reliever. Yet there Stephenson was, on the mound in a tie game in the 7th and 8th innings of last night’s game against the Los Angeles Dodgers, pitching in his home state in a high-leverage situation on Jackie Robinson Day in front of over 50,000 fans - and looking absolutely, completely dominant.
The early returns on the 2019 version of Bob Steve have been undeniably excellent by any measure, even when you toss out the filter of having no expectations for him whatsoever. In his 9.1 IP, he’s fanned 12 while allowing a lone earned run on 3 hits. Perhaps most imporantly, though, he’s kept the ball both in the strike zone and in the yard, as it was a combination of profusely walking folks and allowing dingers at a prolific rate that had dented his early run through the big leagues despite still obviously possessing the quality of stuff to still induce swings and misses.
It’s easy to point to his improved control as the linchpin of his early 2019 success, but a bit of a deeper dive suggests there’s a lot more to it.
I mentioned earlier that Stephenson broke in as a professional featuring his high-velocity fastball and a slow, hammer curve. In his rookie year of 2016, he leaned on that fastball nearly 64% of the time, featuring his curve a solid 16% and change-up roughly 20% of the time as his secondary offerings. The problem was, though, that despite it featuring solid velocity, it came in flat as a board, and frankly got walloped at an epic level. Among the 339 pitchers who threw at least 130 IP total between 2016 and 2018, only 5 pitchers had their cumulative fastballs thrown valued worse than Stephenson - one unsurprisingly being Homer Bailey - and all those ranked worse than him threw considerably more innings (and this is a quantitative stat).
In other words, the pitch on which he leaned the most was a verifiable disaster, and when your go-to pitch does nothing but get pounded when thrown in the zone, it’s far from a shock to see one’s lesser offerings also begin to nibble at the fringes of the zone.
Towards the tail-end of that particular sample, though, Stephenson began to completely overhaul what he threw, as well as changing up his entire pitch mix. Despite getting drafted and signed as a big-time fastball and curve guy, he’d reached a point where that simply wasn’t going to cut it at the big league level, and to his credit, he kicked that concept to the curb - instead working a slider into his mix that he threw some 7-8 mph harder than the slurve he’d turned to for years. And by the end of the 2017 season, it had become a pitch that was among the more elite in all of baseball, as FanGraphs’ Alex Chamberlain noted, despite the rest of his efforts on the mound still lacking hardly any quality.
It’s pretty clear Bob Steve himself noticed, too, and maybe the new coaching staff he’s working with did, too. He began to not just throw his slider, but to lean on it tremendously, and in the limited sample that is his 2019 season he’s thrown it a whopping 54% of the time, all while reducing his fastball usage to a much lower 39%. The results have been tremendous, too, as out of the 187 relievers who have thrown a qualifying amount of innings so far in 2019, Stephenson’s slider has been valued as the absolute best of the bunch by a rather wide margin.
I’m incredibly hesitant to say this is Bob Steve finally turning the corner, since that would imply that he’s finally getting good at a job that he’s struggled with for some 8 years running. His job now, of course, is different. He’s no longer the 4-pitch pitcher trying to crack the starting rotation, aiming to be the club ace for the foreseeable future. The fact is, he’s now a 26 year old with a 2-pitch mix, relying on a slider/fastball combo nearly 94% of the time, and that’s coming in a relief role.
Still, the returns on that new role have been tremendous in the early going, and if he can maintain confidence in that newfound dominant slider even after a bit of inevitable regression hits, there’s a chance he could well end up being a pitcher as dominant as we’d hoped he’d be long ago - just in a different role.