Cincinnati Reds’ Robert Stephenson Showing Why He’s a No. 1 Prospect


Just over three years ago, the Cincinnati Reds selected high school pitcher Robert Stephenson with the 27th pick in the 2012 MLB Draft. Touting a fastball that could reach the upper 90s, Stephenson quickly became the Reds’ best pitching prospect since Homer Bailey.

The right-hander breezed his way through the lower levels of the minor leagues, reaching Low-A Dayton by the end of the 2012 summer. He started 2013 in Dayton and simply overmatched hitters, striking out 96 in 77 innings with an ERA of 2.57 and a WHIP of 0.99 before being promoted to High-A Bakersfield. Hitters didn’t prove to be an issue for Stephenson there, either. He made only four starts in Bakersfield before getting called up again to Double-A Pensacola.

That’s where Stephenson’s quick development hit a snag. In his four 2013 starts in Double-A, he had an ERA of 4.86 while walking 13 in 16.2 innings. He stayed in Pensacola for the entirety of 2014 and his hardships continued, going 7-10 with a 4.75 ERA and 1.38 WHIP. The strikeouts were still there, but control continued to be a big issue for Stephenson, walking 4.9 batters per nine innings.

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Despite his Double-A woes, Stephenson was again named the Reds’ No. 1 prospect in nearly every ranking out there before the 2015 season. His year started slowly, as he went 0-4 with a 6.85 ERA through his first five starts, walking 18 while striking out 26.

Since then, Stephenson has put his enormous potential on full display.

In nine Double-A starts spanning 54.2 innings, Stephenson had an ERA of 2.30 and a 0.99 WHIP with 63 strikeouts and 24 walks. Over that time, opposing batters hit for a .161 average against him. In a word, Stephenson has been dominant. His best start came on June 4, when he threw a one-hitter, walking just one and striking out seven over eight innings.

His May and June performances were enough to earn him a promotion to Triple-A Louisville after a year and a half in Pensacola. The 22-year-old made his first Triple-A start on Friday, tossing five innings of two-run, four-hit baseball, walking three and striking out six.

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Stephenson owes much of his recent success to better command. Through his first five starts, he walked far too many hitters: 6.8 per nine innings. Over his next ten outings (including his first AAA start), Stephenson lowered that number to 4.1 walks per nine. It’s still not an ideal number, but it’s acceptable when you consider that he’s not giving up many hits. His better control has helped him lower his pitch counts and allowed him to go deeper into games, averaging six innings per start in his last 10 outings after throwing less than five innings per start through his first five.

After news broke that Stephenson was being called up to Louisville, general manager Walt Jocketty told’s Mark Sheldon that getting off to quick starts has also contributed to Stephenson’s success:

"“He’s been much more consistent,” Jocketty said. “He got in trouble, I’ve seen several times, early and then settled in and was unhittable the rest of the game. He finally got over that hump where he was able to get off to a better start initially in the game. That was one thing we were trying to get him past. He’s been very successful at that the past several starts.”"

If the top prospect can continue his success in Louisville, it’s possible that we could see him in Cincinnati sooner than later. It’s quite possible that Johnny Cueto and Mike Leake will be traded before July 31, which would leave two openings in the Reds’ starting rotation, assuming Raisel Iglesias returns from the disabled list after the All-Star break.Tony Cingrani could possibly fill one spot, but it’s unknown who would be the No. 5 starter. Stephenson’s name could be on the table, but my guess is the organization will want him to work on having better consistency in the minors before a major league promotion.

However, a September call-up would make sense in order for the team to determine if Stephenson is ready for the major league level and if he can be a part of the rotation in 2016. And for a team that won’t be playing for a playoff spot, the hard-throwing right-hander would give Reds fans a reason to keep tuning in.

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