BURLINGTON, N.C.—When the Royals first approached Niklas Stephenson about trying weighted ball workouts last fall, he was a little hesitant.
But he didn’t have a whole lot to lose. The righthander was barely hanging on to a spot in pro ball. He had gone undrafted out of Sunset High in Encitas, Calif., before signing with the Royals as a nondrafted free agent in July 2012.
He’d posted a 7.47 ERA in two summers with the Royals’ Rookie-ball teams as a reliever. Lefthanders had hit an even .500 (20-for-40) against him.
With an 83-86 mph fastball, not much of a curveball and even less of a changeup, it would have been fair to wonder what a scout ever saw in Stephenson. It was even more remarkable that the Royals were asking him to come back for a third pro season.
So weighted ball workouts? Why not.
“At first I was real skeptical. I’m not skeptical any more,” Stephenson said.
Throwing a heavier-than-normal ball helped Steve Delabar go from the independent leagues to the Mariners’ and then the Blue Jays’ bullpen. It’s now taken Stephenson from afterthought to legitimate prospect.
In the first outing Stephenson threw in spring training for the Royals this year, he was throwing 93 mph. It was a massive jump for a pitcher who says he may have touched 90 mph once or twice in high school.
“It felt a whole lot better coming out of my hand, but it didn’t hit me until I looked at the chart at the end of my outing,” Stephenson said.
He’s throwing even harder now. In his first start at home this year on Wednesday night, Stephenson sat at 94-95 mph in the first inning then settled in to sit at 92-94 mph in innings two through five.
“The delivery has gotten better. He’s gotten stronger. He worked really hard in the offseason,” Burlington pitching coach Carlos Martinez said. “He’s jumped close to 10 mph. He’s come a long way. We signed him as a project and it’s paid off.”
He’s still got a long ways to go. His improved arm speed has sharpened his curveball, but he still throws too many loopy ones. His changeup is too firm, although thanks to his fastball velocity it does generate some groundballs. But it’s a lot easier to get hitters out when they have to gear up for 94 then when they are sitting on 84.
Stephenson allowed three hits and no walks while striking out two in five scoreless innings on Wednesday. Martinez said that Stephenson was even better in his first outing of the season. Stephenson touched 97 mph in that outing, striking out seven while walking one in 5 1/3 innings. In 10 innings, Stephenson has a 0.87 ERA.
Stephenson said he knows he needs to improve a lot to get from where he is now if he’s going to get to the big leagues. But a year ago, it seemed like an impossible dream. Now it’s possible.