My latest column for Cincinnati Magazine is now online, in which I tried to make the case for giving Robert Stephenson another chance in the near future:

A couple of weeks ago, right here in the digital pages of Cincinnati Magazine, I suggested that the Cincinnati Reds try sending Homer Bailey to the bullpen. This week, they actually took my advice, so let’s hope they’re still paying attention. I have another idea.

Once upon a time, Robert Stephenson was the Next Big Thing for the Reds. California’s high school Player of the Year in 2011—he threw back-to-back no-hitters at the beginning of his senior season—Stephenson was selected by the Reds in the first round, and he’s been among the club’s top prospects ever since. For four consecutive seasons beginning in 2013, he was a consensus top-100 prospect in all of baseball, with every major outlet ranking him among the top 20 youngsters in all of baseball at one point or another.

In other words, Stephenson was the very definition of a highly-touted young pitcher. During the second half of last season, he appeared to be on the verge of delivering on all that promise. He went 5-2 with a dazzling 2.50 ERA in the final two months, holding opposing hitters to a .205 batting average in the process.

And then … nothing. Stephenson pitched poorly this spring (7.71 ERA) and was sent to Triple-A Louisville, never to be heard from again.

Check it out and let me know what you think. I think it’s time to see what he’s got, though I acknowledge that Cincinnati management likely has very good reasons for keeping Stephenson at Triple-A for the time being (possibly even some non-performance-related reasons).

Still…what do the Reds have to lose by giving him another chance?

30 Responses

  1. AJ

    Would like to see him get another chance as well. I’d like to see Romano get a break and regroup in triple a or the bullpen to keep innings from catching up to him and see if Stephenson can perform with new folks in the dugout.

  2. cfd3000

    If Bailey and Romano and Mahle and Finnegan had all pitched well, then Stephenson should languish in Louisville. But they have not. I get why Matt Harvey got slotted in for Finnegan. And I get that Anthony DeSclafani should take Bailey’s spot. Mahle has just barely shown enough to continue to get the ball every fifth day, but Romano has not. If the Reds are at all serious about this rebuild they have to be both patient and fearless. Pitchers don’t succeed on hope. Romano hasn’t shown much at all in two months of starts. Time for some fearless. Sal to AAA to see if he can show he deserves another shot. Robert to Cincinnati to see if he can, finally, show that he belongs. I don’t know how that swap will turn out, but I do know that it’s time to find out. Put me down as Agree, Chad.

  3. Keith

    He walked 4 people today in 6 innings. Reds may not have much to lose, but I think he needs to demonstrate consistent command before coming back up. What’s the point in bringing him up, only to continue to walk people, and then sending him back down? Jerking him around until he fixes his control doesn’t seem fair to him.

  4. mawnlower

    I’m not sure how I feel about Stephenson, he’s got great stuff, but he really needs to get his control down. Mahle is supposed to be a control artist yet he still has walked 5 batters in a game, and this is a huge problem, so Stephenson has to nail his control because that could be his downfall, and has been so far.

  5. What_do_I_know

    A bunch of games. That’s what they have to lose. Why can’t we have nice things? Why do we have to settle for hitters that can’t hit and pitchers that can’t pitch strikes?

  6. wizeman

    He allows very few hits. 7 baserunners in 6 innings… and at least 4 of them are singles as they are walks. wish the others would do so well night after night.
    know it is not analytically sound but seems to me all, of our starters walk a lot of guys and run high pitch counts.
    isn’t there an issue with service time for mahle? doesn’t he need to go down to stop his clock?

  7. Mike Adams

    Chad or RLN bloggers, what do you think is the reason for Stephenson’s control issues?
    Wasn’t there some rumors or reports of attitude or not listening to coaches at AAA or the Reds?
    Is his control problem a physical thing that may never be corrected, or is it something that he just won’t fix when offered suggestions?
    Opinions anyone?

    • David

      I think control by pitchers is both a physical and psychological (mental) problem, at this level of baseball.
      Young pitchers especially don’t always trust their stuff when they first reach the Majors, and try to be too fine with control, and ML umpires do not give them the benefit of the doubt, until they actually prove they can locate and hit the corners of the zone. Hence, a lot of BB’s.
      Physically, I think this is also a matter of mechanics and strength. As pitchers tire (fatigue) during a game, their mechanics sometimes degrade and they don’t make the same, repeatable motion to deliver a pitch.
      Time and experience will help them, as they become more aware of just what they should be doing mechanically, when pitching. Bob Stephenson is fairly tall, and sometimes tall guys have more problems with mechanics, because of their taller physique, longer legs and arms. More chance to make a physical error in pitching.

  8. Bill

    I think Stephenson can start at the MLB level, I just don’t think he will be successful walking so many. Everyone wants to point to a few good starts or that yes he walked a lot of people but only gave up two or three runs. That might get the job done at AAA, but he won’t be facing AAA hitters with the Reds. I am sure someone on here has the stats ready, but how many successful guys have a walk rate above BB/9 above 5? His minor league numbers would be one of the worst in the majors this year. If he can drop that down some in the majors he will finally be what everyone expected him to be.

    • greenmtred

      Control is a problem for lots of young pitchers, such as Randy Johnson and Nolan Ryan and all of the young Reds’ starters (not sure about Castillo). Stephenson has great stuff, and I have a feeling that pitching to major league hitters provokes more control issues than pitching to AAA hitters does because you have to use less of the strike zone to avoid getting hammered. So maybe Stephenson needs to pitch in MLB to effectively work on his command, so why not give him an extended shot?

  9. Indy Red Man

    Bob Steve had a 3.30 era in the 2nd half for the Reds over 60 ip. When have any of these guys besides Castillo put together a better/longer run then that? Same thing as Winker….he may not cut it, but don’t they need to find out? Absolutely the worst run team in mlb!! Show me somebody that’s worse? There are some horrible teams out there. The White Sox are hideous in every phase of the game, but atleast they’re not running out the same exact faces year after year and expecting something different to happen.

  10. Jeff Reed

    The Reds have brought up too many young pitchers over the past few years who cannot consistently get the ball in the strike zone, putting too much emphasis on pitching speed. Even more than the occasional long ball, walks are a pitcher’s negative especially when they walk the first hitter in the inning. Stephenson should no longer be on the L’ville-Cincy shuttle. When he can get the ball in the strike zone consistently in AAA, then he should be brought up. This fact should be made clear to all young pitchers, including Finnegan. If the Red’s organization cannot develop pitchers who have control, then they should trade for or spend money for pitchers who can. Without a starting pitching staff who can get the ball over the strike zone, the Reds are going nowhere.

  11. Shchi Cossack

    I’ve been looking more closely at Stephenson’s pitches and I’m not sure the walks are indicative of his control at this point. Last night was a good example, 4 walks in 6 innings. Looking at the pitches and the situation, I think he was throwing the pitches exactly where he wanted to throw them. It sure looks like Stephenson was being squeezed at the bottom of the strike zone and until the 6th inning, I’m not sure either of the 2 walks was legitimate. Not only that, but the situation probably played a factor.

    The 1st walk followed a 2-out double by Frazier. Frazier is a good hitter, got a good pitch to hit and did what good hitters are suppose to do with such pitches. The pitch sequence on the next hitter with a runner on 2B and 2 outs sure looks like a strikeout on both the 5th and 6th pitches. Both pitches at the bottom of the strike zone but called balls by the umpire.

    The 2nd walk followed a fielding error by Nick Senzel that resulted in a man on 2B and 2 outs. The walk was a 4-pitch walk, but every pitch was right on the edge of the strike zone and could have been called either way.

    Neither of the 1st two walks had any impact on the scoring and Stephenson looked like he was in complete control until the 6th inning. Stephenson looked like he pitched a solid game last night, just like the previous 4 games. It could be that Stephenson has a reputation for control issues and the umpires are buying in to that reputation by tightening the strike zone on him. It happens and becomes an additional burden to overcome. With the strike zone differences between AAA and MLB, pitching in AAA probably doesn’t do anything to help Stephenson adjust to throwing strikes in MLB since he’s working the perimeter of the strike zone in AAA.

    • WVRedlegs

      Good observations. The strike zones and umpires could very well be a factor between AAA and the ML. Also, the hitters are much more better in ML than in AAA. There are not 5 pitchers that are pitching better at this time for the rotation. DeSclafani and Castillo have spots nailed down for now. Harvey has one too, but that is what most of us think as temporary until July 31. The others are always teetering back and forth. Give Stephenson a shot to be #4 at this time. Romano is in some kind of funk right now. Mahle is too.
      Some real sorting is going on in the rotation. Let them settle this from the mound, and not from some front office board room.

  12. TomN

    It really seems some guys get a bad rep by Reds management and they are sent off to Siberia, otherwise known as Louisville, until God knows when. There is something to be said for ‘having a plan’ but we all know what happens to plans when you meet the enemy (or when spring training is over).

    Let BobSteve play!

  13. WVRedlegs

    Robert Stephenson is a thrower, not a pitcher. Throwers rarely survive the rigors of MLB. He is a little over-confident in his fastball, but has trouble locating it. He has a very nasty curveball, but has trouble locating it. He doesn’t have much confidence in his change-up, but the Reds want him to throw it more to develop it more. Stephenson, as Chris Welsh said, is wild in the strike zone and throws too many waist high fastballs out over the middle of the plate. A very common theme for Reds pitchers. ML hitters are a very different breed than AAA hitters.
    That said, Stephenson should get a call up soon, because the ones in the rotation now are not pitching well at all. He deserves another shot as he has earned it. But this time his career with the Reds will be on the line. If he blows his next chance, he may find himself included in a trade package.
    Could easily send him packing back to his native California.
    I’d be calling the LA Angels to offer up Stephenson and Adam Duvall or Scott Schebler. I believe they have 3 starters on the DL for an extended time and they need a corner OF with some power. Trout is their main power source with Upton and Pujols barely carrying their own weight. Calhoun is inexplicably hitting about .050 points lower than Duvall.
    Next man up should be Stephenson and he would have about 6-7 weeks to win a rotation spot or deal with the consequences.

      • WVRedlegs

        Oh, I don’t know. How about that Kevin Maitan kid at SS? Jordon Adell OF. Brandon Marsh OF.
        Jose Soriano RHP. I could live with any 3 of these.

  14. wizeman

    trout or ohtani
    as long as you are asking

  15. james garrett

    Been saying all along that Bob should be up here and pitching.Got great stuff with a wipe out slider.He has been punished from the get go because he wouldn’t do what he was told.Batlle of wills and he lost because of his walks.Every young guy walks people period.Just let him pitch for goodness sakes.What he did at the end of last year should have been good enough and lets be honest most starters in the big leagues may give you 5 or 6 innings at most.Only the elite guys give you any more then that but they cost 20 mil or more.

  16. Thomas Jefferson

    Thanks, Chad – This is a difficult question, but one that means a lot to the Reds, especially if they can get it right and have Stephenson become a top flight MLB pitcher. I especially like some of the comments above (thank you, Cossack and WV, among others) – it feels like it is about how he is missing (not just the walk rate) and how he is handling/approaching it mentally.

    How he is missing: if he misses into the middle of the strike zone on a regular basis, the AAA hitters are punishing the mistake a lot less than MLB players will. (Ask Castillo what light-hitting guys like Descalso do to a pitch that drifts back into the middle of the plate – for those who missed it in his last start, a key 2-run HR.) The Reds are tracking these misses and know how often they are happening, so they can project what will happen when better hitters are in the batters box against Stephenson. Also, if he is missing on the edges, especially in situations where it is important to not give up a run (and not give in mentally), then he may be learning and getting really close to being ready for the big boys to be in the batters box.

    Mental approach: we have almost no idea what is going in this part of the equation, but the glimpses that Robert gave in that recent interview combined with current (and previous) coaches’ comments suggest that there may be a ways to go before he is ready for the pressure-cooker of the big leagues. We also do not know what exactly the Reds have said he has to do (or how he has to work on some things); if he has not done what they asked, they lose (more) credibility by promoting him instead of keeping him in AAA. You can be sure that the other pitchers in the system who are being told to improve their control and walk rates are watching how this gets handled.

    Stephenson has gotten chances before, and they have not resulted in him learning or grabbing the position by the horns and refusing to let it go. If he had never gotten a shot, it would be more important to give it to him, but since he has had a couple that didn’t work so well as needed, there is less energy here to promote him.

    Whatever they do, I sure hope it works. A pitcher in the rotation who excels with the raw stuff Stephenson can bring would be a huge anchor for the Reds for the next 6 years.

    • jay johnson

      I think he proved he can be the guy during the back half of last season.What would he had to have done to gain your approval?
      His numbers speak for themselves.

  17. SultanofSwaff

    The closest comp from my memory is David Cone. Cone never got his walk rate below 5 per 9IP until he was 25. His strikeout rate never was as high as BobSteve’s. The history books are chock full of pitchers who blossom later. It would be a shortsighted travesty to trade him.

    Also, it’s important that the pitch calling in Cincy emphasizes his strengths, which is pitching backwards. Price’s ‘establish the fastball’ mantra not only did a disservice to many of our young pitchers, it’s statistically unsound in today’s swing for the fences game. The inability to locate a fastball consistently is no more a sin than the inability to locate an offspeed pitch, but the Reds for too long have insisted on a one size fits all approach.

  18. james garrett

    No young pitcher is going to come up and dominate regardless.Young guys need to pitch period.I have said it before and will say it again that 5 or 6 innings is all any starting pitcher throws any more.Pitch count gets them or the third time through the order gets them or a pinch hitter is used for them.Elite starters in the majors may go 7 sometimes or even 8 but they are proven veteran guys with 150 or more starts and 5 or more years in the big leagues.All of these guys except a handful struggled early and often in the first couple of years.Bob has 19 starts in the big leagues strung out over 3 years and none this year.Just let him pitch or trade him for a prospect.The Reds won’t do that of course just like they won’t trade any of these other young guys because only one of them(Castillo) has over 25 starts in the majors.They know it takes time but for some reason they don’t have any patience at all with these guys.

  19. Old-school

    There is a fascinating article by Peter Gammons in The Athletic on the challenges of identifying and developing pitching in this new era. He points out the number of elite pitchers who were not first round picks and how the greats of today have floundered and been traded and been sent back to AAA a time or two. He also points out there are no HOF pitchers currently drafted in the first round. Justin Verlander will be the first.

    Also great data on how pitchers can’t get through the order the third time in 2018- it’s not just Tyler Mahle or Luis Castillo.

    He used a new term – stopper. In years past, Josh hader was a closer or a starter. Now, he’s a stopper . The Brewers have won all 18 games he has pitched in. Props to Amir Garrett who gets a mention.

    The Reds bullpen has been very good and perhaps it’s time to say that’s the first product of the rebuild???

    Draft elite hitters….absolutely don’t give up on Stephenson and call him up for 10 starts…..send Romano down to get better…keep sending out Mahle.

    There will be a time to sign a pitching FA or make a monster trade for a SP. This article changed my mind on trading Iglesias. Build a deep multi-innings dominant bullpen ready to go every night. Iglesias and Garrett and Lorenzen could be a core nucleus of a championship bullpen for years. Nasty boys V2.

    • redsfan06

      Agree with what you are pointing out. It’s not just the Reds pitchers, but all of the Major leagues that are struggling to go past 5 innings. How many times have we seen one of our pitchers pitch effectively into the 6th inning, only to get hammered or at least in trouble? The Reds need to be an early adopter in recognizing future trends to get ahead of the curve. Quit leaving pitchers in to get into trouble instead of trying to let them figure out how to pitch further into games.

      • redsfan06

        This is what is behind Tampa Bay’s recent experiments with having a reliever pitch the first inning. The results have been uneven, so it doesn’t appear to be a panacea. But answering the problem of a pitcher going though a lineup more than twice remains the issue. Very few are capable of doing so successfully on a regular basis.

    • greenmtred

      Interesting perspective, Old School.

  20. Eddiek957

    I remember Robert pulled the other teams in like four straight games ace and pitched well. Amir and Robert should have been in the rotation from the get go. I said that in spring training. I also said homer needed to pitch out of the pen to begin the season. I don’t know I’m generally optimistic but the mismanagement of the roster has been horrendous I’m losing hope

  21. bouwills

    Here’s a thought. Maybe the Reds haven’t squandered the talents of DeSclafani, Stephenson, Finnegan, Garrett, or Reed (yet). Perhaps they’re just not ready. Maybe the Reds are doing their best to make sure they’re healthy (AD, BF, & AG) as well as prepared (RS & CR). If Bailey had remained healthy, plus had Iglesias & Lorenzen been able to pitch in the rotation instead of out of the bullpen, then all of this would be a lot less crucial. Building a good young rotation, basically from scratch, may be one of the most difficult things to accomplish in pro sports. Patience- plus no more Gallardos, Arroyos, Simons, Marquis, …………….Harveys?