Coming off a game where he walked six batters and three starts after he walked five in another, there was not many directions for Robert Stephenson to go but up.
Command has been an issue for the right-hander nearly all season, as he is pushing his career worst totals in BB/9 at 4.9 in Triple-A. He has walked at least four batters in an astounding seven outings and has just five that he has walked two or fewer hitters.
However, one of those was on Wednesday night, when Stephenson clearly had his best stuff going.
While he didn’t walk his first batter until there were two outs in the third inning, Stephenson was still wild early. In the first inning, only half of his 12 pitches resulted in strikes, and that was with receiving some help from chasing hitters.
Stephenson worked predominantly up in the zone early in the game, which may have also aided some of the chasing. Also helping that cause was that he was working in the mid-90s with his fastball, giving younger hitters less time to see the ball out of the zone.
There were also times where Stephenson was able to get away with pitches out over the plate, that he would not at the next level, ie. Cody Reed. A good way to gauge how that would translate at the big league level is to see what Major League-caliber hitters do against it.
We will use eight-year Major League veteran Casey McGehee as the example from Wednesday night. Stephenson left two fastballs over the plate for McGehee and he made him pay each time with hard hit doubles. The second just missed a home run, as it hit about halfway up the outfield wall.
Those were two of the five hits that Stephenson gave up. After chasing pitches in his first at bat to lead off the game, another player with a good amount of service time, Alex Presley, adjusted and walked on seven pitches in his second at bat, but was up 3-0 at one point. Presley also went up 3-0 in his third at bat, but missed a quality 3-1 pitch that resulted in a fly out. This is another trait that Stephenson will see from big league hitters are that they adjust mid-game. With younger hitters throughout the rest of the lineup, Stephenson was able to mow down many of the others based just on his good stuff.
One aspect that Stephenson showed progression is with his off speed pitches and curve. In the second inning, he buried one of the best curves that he threw all night for a strikeout of Chad Huffman to lead off the inning. He also started the next hitter with a changeup. While he did not use the curve to start hitters much, he was not afraid to toss a first-pitch change to throw hitters off and he did that multiple times.
The second strikeout that Stephenson had in the second was on a sharp two-seam fastball on the inside corner that froze the right-handed hitter. This was Stephenson bread and butter pitch on Wednesday night and he did a nice job of using the off pitches to make it even more effective. There were three reported reading on velocity on his fastball throughout the night and they were 94, 95, and 96 MPH.
He also pounced off the mound and made a nice bare hand play on a bunt to retire a hitter in the fourth, showing his athleticism.
Once Stephenson got in a groove and a rhythm, throwing strikes was no issue at all. He had solid command and no trouble getting the ball where he wanted it for the most part. He worked both sides of the plate well and mixed his pitches enough to have success at the big league level.
As it does with many of the Reds’ young starters, eventual success in the Major Leagues will come down to consistent fastball command because Stephenson has the stuff to get it done.