HEIGHT 6-2, WEIGHT 190, B/T: R/R
The Reds haven't really missed on a first round draft pick since 2004. Terry Reynolds served as scouting director in 2004 and 2005, which saw the Reds land Homer Bailey and Jay Bruce in the first round. Chris Buckley took over in 2006 and has kept the organization on a roll ever since. That bodes well for 2011 first round pick Robert Stephenson.
The Mat Latos trade drained the organization of a lot of upper level talent, but the Reds have effectively replenished the lower levels of the system with high upside players like Stephenson.
DRAFT POSITION AND AMATEUR CAREER
The Reds selected Stephenson out of Alhambra High School in Martinez, California with the 27th overall pick in the first round of the 2011 draft. Given the success of the team in 2010, the organization was relegated to the back end of the draft. Regardless, they still managed to reel in a potential impact arm, a testament to the ability of the Reds scouting department.
Stephenson entered the draft was a fair amount of hype, as he threw no-hitters in consecutive games at Alhambra High. On the season, Stephenson posted a 7-2 record and a 1.33 ERA, allowing 29 hits over 64 innings, and posting a 132/23 K/BB ratio in 13 games. He was named the San Jose Mercury News' Gatorade California Baseball Player of the Year.
Stephenson attained that level of production with plus arm strength that tickled 97 mph on the radar gun and a biting curveball that, while inconsistent, has plus potential. And, he tinkered with a change-up and a slider that he rarely needed against high school hitters. Those attributes were enough to get him on the radar of MLB scouts, but he also offered plus makeup and intelligence. He was known to have a solid commitment to the University of Washington and a strong academic background in high school. So, his high school resume certainly fit the part of a 1st rounder.
The Reds did well to land that type of arm so late in the first round, but now need to manage his risk and develop his game.
Stephenson signed his first professional contract too late to pitch in the 2011 season. As a result, his first professional game experience came when the Reds assigned him to the rookie Pioneer League Billings Mustangs to begin the 2012 campaign. For the Mustangs, Stephenson demonstrated the polish and upside that made him a first round pick. In 30.2 innings, he posted a 2.05 ERA, 0.98 WHIP, allowing only 22 hits (2 of which were homers), and a 37/8 K/BB ratio. It was a dominant performance and it earned him a promotion to low-A Dayton.
Stephenson found low-A to be tougher sledding. In 34.1 innings, he compiled a 4.19 ERA, 1.37 WHIP, allowing 32 hits (4 of which were homers), and a 35/15 K/BB ratio. He might even have gotten off a bit easy, as he also gave up 7 unearned runs. He gave up 3 of those unearned runs during his August 22nd start, but the error itself came on a ground ball to the shortstop on the second batter of the inning and didn't result in any runs scoring on that play. However, the inning got away from Stephenson after that and the 3 runs that came around to score were classified as unearned.
Overall, Stephenson logged 65.0 innings in his first professional season and managed to stay healthy. A positive first season and one on which he will be able to build going forward.
Let's get this out of the way up front, Stephenson has solid mechanics. And yet, it took me a bit longer to write up this section, because there was something about his mechanics that didn't sit quite right with me. And, I couldn't quite put my finger on it. There is a bit of effort to the delivery, that was apparent. But, the reason for that effort was bit more challenging to identify. Still, after watching more video of him, the potential red flag became more apparent.
Part of the appeal of Stephenson is that he looks the part. He has a very good frame for a pitcher, standing 6-2 and tipping the scale at a wiry 190 lbs. He's not muscle bound, giving him fluidity and room for more physical projection as he matures. He also looks very good mechanically in the first phase of his mechanics, everything up to the apex of the leg kick, but not quite as good or efficient in the second phase, everything after the apex of the leg kick.
Here's a look at Stephenson's draft video, courtesy MLB.com:
Stephenson starts his windup with a small step towards first base with his left foot, which un-weights his right foot, enabling him to rotate it down onto the rubber. He then brings his left foot up into a high, aggressive leg kick, which exceeds parallel and ends with his left knee up against his chest. His leg kick also involves some coil, as the leg wraps a bit around the body, building momentum to be unleashed during the delivery. At this point, his mechanics are very solid. At the apex of his leg kick, Stephenson is in a very strong position. He has good height on the leg kick, good body coil, and maintains strong balance over the rubber, not drifting one way or the other. Throughout the first phase, Stephenson is very solid and at the apex he's in almost ideal position (see photo below). He has effectively built momentum through his movements and now is ready to unleash it.
|Courtesy Paul Ruhter, Billings Gazette|
Again, all in all, Stephenson has solid pitching mechanics. However, there are a few small areas of concern, including (1) utilizing a short stride, (2) limited hip rotation, and (3) an insufficient deceleration period.
For a pitcher with a tall, lanky frame, Stephenson uses a comparatively short, underwhelming stride and a less than explosive drive to the plate. The obvious benefit of a strong leg drive is that every bit of velocity you can generate with the lower body is velocity you don't have to generate with your arm. And, the less stress you have to put on the arm, the lower your injury risk. Part of the reason a longer stride equates to higher velocity is because a longer stride allows for a fuller and stronger hip rotation. You simply can't rotate and clear the hips as effectively if your stride is shorter.
Stephenson's shorter stride cuts off the rotation of his hips, forcing his shoulders to rotate early. Despite being in near ideal position at the apex of his leg kick, he doesn't maximize the momentum created by that position. The shorter stride limits the differential between the rotation of the hips and upper body, which means less momentum is generated by the body and has to be made up by the arm. Stephenson's delivery simply doesn't allow sufficient time to effectively delay the rotation of the upper body, causing the shoulders to rotate earlier than is ideal.
Due to the limited rotation of the hips, his right leg seems to linger behind him (which you can somewhat see in the baseball card photo to the right) as his arm delivers the pitch. Ideally, you want a pitcher with fast, full hip rotation and a delayed upper body rotation. Stephenson is almost the opposite, featuring a slower, limited hip rotation and an early upper body rotation. Due to the shorter stride, limited hip rotation, and early shoulder rotation, Stephenson's delivery has effort to it. The inefficiency of his delivery bleeds momentum, for which he must use the arm to compensate.
Another consequence of the shorter stride is that Stephenson's delivery has an upright look to it. He doesn't really finish with his upper body in a forward lean out over his plant leg, as his upper body stays fairly upright from the apex of the leg kick through the follow-through. In fact, his upper body seems to come up out of the delivery before it finishes. The upright delivery precludes his pitching arm from finishing naturally, instead its momentum is cut short. Instead of the arm finishing naturally, low and outside the left hip, Stephenson frequently finishes by bouncing the arm back up in the direction it came. A proper deceleration period is necessary to properly slow down the arm and mitigate the injury risk. Cutting short the deceleration period of the delivery is like slamming on the brakes to stop the car, eventually the brakes wear out.
Overall, Stephenson has solid mechanics, I want to stress that again because when you raise and talk about potential issues, even small ones, it can overshadow all those things that he does well. Stephenson generates momentum very well in the first phase, but he has a touch of inefficiency in the second phase that adds effort and forces his arm to work harder.
|Courtesy Paul Ruhter, Billings Gazette|
Stephenson can throw a slider, but at the professional level it's likely to be an either/or with the curveball/slider. Since the curveball is more refined and effective, that's likely his long-term breaking ball. If he scraps the slider, then he's left with his unrefined circle change-up for his third offering. Power pitchers in high school typically dominate with hard stuff and rarely need to develop a third pitch, typically the change-up, because of the level of competition. Additionally, the change-up is materially different from the power stuff, as it requires touch and feel.
Here is a very good look at his biting curveball from MILB.com:
If Stephenson can consistently locate his curveball, then he'll have the knockout pitch he needs to succeed against advanced hitters. The ability to locate both a mid-90s fastball and a plus curveball would be a lethal combination for Stephenson, even if the change-up remains inconsistent.
Stephenson has a bright future and the Reds did very well landing this much upside at the back end of the first round. The stuff and makeup are there, but he'll need to refine his mechanics and continue to polish his secondary offerings as he climbs the ladder. Stephenson's stuff, makeup, and physical stature gives him a legitimate top of the rotation type ceiling, but he has some development and injury risk to manage before he gets there.
Stephenson is the best pure power pitcher in the system, whose combination of upside and risk lands him comfortably at #3 on the list.