Every Tuesday, Baseball America will take a look at a prospect who is either just arriving to the majors or on the cusp of the majors to give a look at what can be expected from them both as a player and for fantasy purposes.
He's the 19th-ranked prospect in the game, so it's a little silly to call Robert Stephenson underrated. But when discussing the pitchers with the best stuff in the minors, Stephenson's name doesn't come up as often as it should.
As he showed in his first start of the 2014 season on Saturday night, at his best, Stephenson's stuff compares favorably with anyone in the minors. In his 2014 debut, Stephenson struck out 11 while allowing one hit (a double) and one walk in five innings of work. It was a career high for Stephenson in strikeouts, but otherwise it was reminiscent of a 6⅔-innings outing for low Class A Dayton last year where Stephenson allowed one infield hit and walked two while striking out nine.
Through his minor league career, Stephenson has shown swing-and-miss stuff (10.7 strikeouts-per-nine) along with generally solid control (2.9 walks per nine innings).
Stephenson's first start of the 2014 season was him at his best, which is about as good as a minor league pitcher can be. He showed premium velocity and two above-average to plus pitches. The righthander touched 99 mph and sat consistently in the 96-97 mph range Saturday night.
Even more impressive than the radar gun readings is how Tennessee's hitters reacted to the fastball. There are pitchers who can get squared up regularly at 95+ and others who can generate swings and misses with a 92-93 mph fastball because of deception and pitch movement. The Smokies could not catch up to Stephenson's fastball because it had velocity, location and some movement.
It was not as much a swing-and-miss pitch as one that either the Smokies' hitters took for a strike early in the count because it was well-located, or one they fouled off. Stephenson got six swings and misses on his fastball and had another 13 taken for strikes. Eleven were fouled off, all of which were either fouled back or fouled off to the opposite field. No one pulled a fastball foul against Stephenson all night. At its best, it was a blow-away-hitters pitch, as Cubs’ prospect Kris Bryant found on this two-strike fastball.
Because he could generally locate his fastball on the bottom corners both to his arm-side and glove-side, Stephenson was able to get ahead. With Tennessee's hitters forced to gear up to try to catch up to his fastball, he was then able to lock them up with his off-speed stuff, usually his curveball. Stephenson threw 23 curveballs on the night and three changeups. Fifteen of his 26 off-speed pitches were strikes (12 curveballs and three changeups). Six of Stephenson's third strikes came with his off-speed offerings as hitters would stand and stare as the curveball dropped right through the strike zone as Jonathan Mota did here.
Two of the first three batters actually squared him up–Charles Cutler doubled to right center field and Mota lined out to shortstop. But after that, only one of the final 14 batters he faced made solid contact. Tennessee's hitters were consistently behind his fastball. Stephenson struck out seven consecutive batters at one point. Catcher Devin Mesoraco threw out Cutler trying to steal, so only four hitters actually put the ball in play—Cutler’s double, Mota’s lineout, a grounder to the first baseman by righthanded-hitting Jeudy Valdez and a fly out to right field by righthanded hitting John Andreoli.
Now this was Stephenson at his best, and he has to prove that he can come close to replicating this performance on a regular basis. But with the exception of a four-start stint in Pensacola last year, Stephenson has shown he can throw strikes. With no red flags in a rather straightforward delivery, Stephenson isn’t as erratic as many young fireballers.
Although he didn’t show it much against Tennessee, Stephenson’s changeup is an average pitch as well. Limited to roughly 75 pitches because it was his first start of the season, Stephenson didn’t need to mix in a third pitch since he faced only 16 batters (less than two trips through the lineup). As he lengthens his outings, he’ll generally spot in his changeup more regularly.
WHAT TO EXPECT
Alfredo Simon's excellent spot start this week as a fill-in for the injured Mat Latos helped emphasize that the Reds may not need Stephenson for a while. Simon is ready to take a start or two if someone in the Reds' rotation needs to be skipped and lefthander David Holmberg, sitting in Triple-A, could be another starting pitching option if the Reds need someone in April or May. But by midseason, Stephenson's talent should make the case that he can help the big league club if there is an injury. He should be ready for a full-time job next season. With plus stuff and solid control, Stephenson looks to be a valuable fantasy option who should provide strikeouts, a solid WHIP and below-league average ERA. Long term, he has potential to be at the front-of-the-rotation ace.