It has been nearly a decade since a pitching prospect this heralded came around for the Reds’ organization. The Cincinnati Reds are playing the role of mother goose, sitting on the golden hen that is Robert Stephenson. The last name to draw this much attention this quickly? Homer Bailey. And for the most part, he has been worth the wait.
Drawing similarities between Bailey and Stephenson is actually much easier than what one would believe. Each man comes from a state known as a hot bed for baseball (Bailey from Texas, Stephenson from California), each had a blazing fastball at a very young age, and was a first-round selection by Cincinnati, tabbed as the next big thing in the rotation.
Despite the belief that Bailey is not worthy of his nine-figure contract, the fact of the matter is that he got one. Most headlines about first-round picks are about how epically they flamed out, but in Bailey’s case, he was one who panned out.
Back when Bailey was first drafted out of high school in La Grange, Texas, he showed up in the Reds’ minor league throngs and outpaced everyone. By the time he was 21 years old, he was already up at Triple-A Louisville, after bullying his way through the lower levels. Then, his near triple-digits fastball was so enticing that he was brought up to attempt to inject life in a listless 2007 ball club. In nine starts, he’d post a 5.76 ERA, while walking 28 batters in 45.1 innings. Things were no better in 2008 as a 22-year-old, where he went 0-6 with a 7.93 ERA in eight starts, allowing 32 earned runs in 36.1 innings.
Ultimately, things have worked for Homer, but that’s due more to his individual perseverance and testament to his ability to adapt. Not all pitchers are built to withstand that kind of failure and still find a way not only to make it back to the big leagues, but also have success once getting there.
In 2013, at single-A Dayton, Robert Stephenson annihilated his competition. He would move up to high-A Bakersfield, strike out better than a batter per inning, and make the move up to Double-A Pensacola. Much like Bailey just seven-to-eight years ago, Stephenson has a tremendous fastball that allows him to rear back and embarrass his fellow 20-to-22-year-olds. At the end of 2013, Stephenson was on average nearly four and a half years younger than his competition at the Double-A level. Last season, the number was still at about three and a half years younger.
Just how important are minor league statistics? Seemingly, as long as Stephenson continues to strike out a high clip of batters down on the farm, he’ll eventually get his chance. Even though he went 7-10 with a 4.75 ERA in 2014, he struck out 140 batters in 136.1 innings of work. The walks were an issue, totaling a career-high average of 4.9 per nine innings pitched.
Heading into Spring Training, Stephenson has earned himself a chance to win a spot in the starting rotation if he pitches well enough. But history has shone us that waiting on a prospect of his caliber would behoove the organization. The desire to thrust the top minor league star into the show is always voracious, but allowing Stephenson to season properly will ensure that once he makes it up to the Reds, he’ll never leave.