"Don’t scout the stat line" is a phrase commonly heard in scouting circles, especially when it comes to scouting Minor League or amateur players. There are a multitude of factors that play into a players’ stat line other than his true talent, including luck, age relative to his level, park factors, health, and transition to pro ball. For these reasons, it is essential to separate the numbers from the true talent, but when the numbers do not match the talent, it is often worth a second look to examine the causes of the poor numbers. Was the initial evaluation of the player inaccurate or can the poor performance be explained by other reasons? Have the tools that helped the player initially climb the lists regressed?
Using the Baseball Prospectus Midseason Top 50 Prospect list as our guide, there are four pitching prospects whose 2014 statistics do not match their high rankings. These prospects are, with their BP midseason ranking in parenthesis, Mets’ righty Noah Syndergaard (9), Reds’ righty Robert Stephenson (10), Diamondbacks’ righty Archie Bradley (14), and Astros’ righty Mark Appel (34).
This week, I’ll be examining one of these players every day. In today’s post, the second in the series, I’ll be discussing Reds’ righthander Robert Stephenson. Yesterday’s post, which featured Mets' righty Noah Syndergaard, can be found here.
Stephenson’s 2014 Statistics
120.2 IP, 4.48 ERA, 1.38 WHIP, 100 Hits, 14 HR, 66 BB, 121 K
Stephenson has legitimate top of the rotation stuff, namely an explosive fastball and hammer curveball, but has struggled to harness it thus far. His midseason BP ranking reflects his top of the rotation upside, but there is more risk present with Stephenson than with the previously discussed Syndergaard.
Stephenson is a legitimate strikeout pitcher, punching out about a batter per inning, but he struggles with his control. His 66 walks, which equates to 4.72 per nine innings, is the third highest total among all Double-A pitchers and is a real problem that needs fixed for him to be effective. His strikeouts are also third among Double-A pitchers, but the inflated walk totals more than outweigh the strikeouts.
The hit totals for Stephenson are reasonable, but the home run totals are not. I’ve seen video of three of his starts this year, and the home runs he surrenders are typically a result of him falling behind and having to groove a fastball to avoid another walk. Additionally, Stephenson's changeup is average at best, which makes it difficult for him to turn over a lineup multiple times. That’s a bad combination, and when it’s all said and done this is a pitcher with an elite fastball, a very good curveball, and little else.
This sounds like a very pessimistic outlook, but I still believe in and am high on Stephenson. The fastball and curveball are for real but the effectiveness of the present profile is limited due to the glaring weaknesses in his game. His stat line is poor, but this is the type of line one can expect from a pitcher with dominant stuff who is still far from a finished product.
Stephnenson did not take a step back in terms of tools or potential, but he also did not take a developmental step forward. This lost developmental year increases his risk factor, but the upside possessed by this player is still tremendous. Stephenson still needs to make some significant improvements with his command and changeup, but his ranking within the top ten prospects in baseball is still justifiable. I’d dock him a few slots in the rankings based on the increased risk, but few other pitchers have a ceiling anywhere close to him and he should not fall far. There is a bit of cause for concern that he won’t ever figure it out, but Stephenson is still only 21 years old and has plenty of time to improve.
I expect the Reds to promote Stephenson to Triple-A Louisville to open the 2015 season, as he has already spent the entire 2014 season and a small portion of the 2013 season at Double-A Pensacola. If he proves that he can harness his command and improve his changeup, a promotion to Cincinnati could be in the works, but if he puts up another season like this then the rumors of a potential move to the bullpen will only grow louder. A move to the pen would certainly limit his total value, but with two plus to plus-plus pitches, he could blossom into a dominant late inning reliever. The Reds will be getting something useful in Stephenson and the only question is whether it will be a top of the rotation starter or a shutdown reliever.
Dan Weigel is a contributing writer for Minor League Ball and Beyond the Box Score. His tweets about prospects and stats are found at @DanWiggles38.