On Thursday morning David Schoenfield wrote about each team’s most hyped prospect ever over at ESPN.com. He may define the word hype a little differently than I do, which may be why he chose Billy Hamilton for the Cincinnati Reds over a few guys I would have had a bit higher. But this is all an opinion and while sometimes opinions can actually be wrong, this isn’t one of those times. As Schoenfield notes, there was plenty of hype with Hamilton and just the kind of damage he may have been able to do on the bases.
For me the most hyped prospect was Jay Bruce. He was the #1 prospect in baseball at the time according to several sources. Beyond him I might venture to say Adam Dunn was next. While he didn’t rank as high as Bruce, that was partially a function of when he was called up. He entered 2001 as the #31 prospect on the Baseball America list and then went out and hit .334/.444/.671 between Double-A and Triple-A before being called up to Cincinnati just after the All-Star break. He would lost prospect eligibility before the list would be updated following the year – but the hype was real. Maybe you could argue that Homer Bailey or Aroldis Chapman should be the guy atop the list, too – they both can have an argument made in their favor.
All of that, though, brought me to the thought of who was the prospect that I saw in person from the Cincinnati Reds organization and believed in the most at the time I was watching? While the question at first seems like the answer should have taken me longer to come up with my answer, it really didn’t. The answer came quickly for me.
Of course the whole thing should be prefaced with this: It’s usually easier to see a pitcher on a given day and come away impressed than a hitter on a single day. The looks you get are better, more thorough, and can usually tell you more than just one day with four trips to the plate and MAYBE two or three defensive opportunities. And when I asked myself that question, a pitcher immediately popped into my head. Robert Stephenson. Looking back at the past prospect rankings, that may not be much of a surprise. From the winter of 2012 through the winter of 2015 he was rated as my top Reds prospect thrice, and the second best prospect once. Then after the 2016 season he dropped all of the way down to the third spot.
While Robert Stephenson wasn’t ever rated as highly as Jay Bruce, Homer Bailey, Arodis Chapman, or Nick Senzel was – all of whom were rated inside Baseball America’s Top 10 list at one point in their careers – he was the guy that I probably believed in the most, at least at one point.
When was that point? I can’t give you an exact date, but I can get you pretty close. Early summer of 2013 and in Dayton, Ohio. In 2012 Stephenson had reached Dayton as a 19-year-old in the second half after making a handful of starts for the Billings Mustangs. He would make another eight for the Dragons to end the season, posting a 4.19 ERA with 35 strikeouts and 15 walks in 34.1 innings.
But things were different in that 2013 season. Robert Stephenson was dominant in Dayton in the first half of the year. He made 14 starts for the Dragons and posted a 2.57 ERA with 20 walks and 96 strikeouts in 77.0 innings. The numbers were great, but it wasn’t the numbers that really got me into thinking he was a different kind of guy on the mound – not that they hurt that thought process at all. No, it was watching what he was doing.
Today we see a lot more guys throwing mid-to-upper 90’s. It’s almost a requirement. But in 2013 we weren’t there, and we definitely weren’t there for guys that were starting pitchers. But Stephenson was there, and he was a starter. He was routinely sitting 95-98 MPH and touching triple digits every so often. His breaking ball was an absolute hammer of a curveball that he could bury, but also throw for strikes when he needed to. He was showing two plus offerings at the time, and doing so while pounding the strikezone.
Here’s what I wrote about him in the 2014 Prospect Guide (Yeah, I actually used to write and publish a Prospect Guide – times were wild!):
Robert Stephenson is arguably the best right handed arm to come through the Cincinnati Reds system in decades. His fastball can reach triple digits and during the 2013 season routinely sat 95-98 MPH while regularly touching 99 MPH. He had some early season inconsistencies as he tried to work in a 2-seam fastball, but quickly put the struggles behind him as he relied more on his 4-seam fastball moving forward. His main secondary pitch is an above-average breaking ball. As the season went along he tightened up the pitch, giving it shorter breaking action in the 78-82 MPH range. The change up was a pitch that he improved throughout the season and showed more confidence in throwing as the season progressed. The pitch comes in the 86-90 MPH range and has solid movement.
He seemed to tail off in his final few starts of the season, with his velocity dipping down a few MPH and he showed some struggles with his control. After returning from a midseason hamstring injury Stephenson never got back into the groove that he was in where he showed not just good control, but good command of the strikezone with both his fastball and his breaking ball. With the stuff he has, it is no shock that he is unafraid to challenge hitters with his fastball, but will also rely on his offspeed pitches. Stephenson has all of the makings of a front of the rotation starting pitcher.
It’s that second paragraph that is interesting. At the time it just felt like a situation where he wasn’t quite “back”. As it turned out, that was peak of what we’d see from Robert Stephenson in both his fastball and his curveball. Even today, as a reliever in the majors, his fastball doesn’t come close to where he was sitting as a starter before the hamstring injury in 2013. The curveball regressed, and was eventually scrapped for the slider. The change up didn’t progress much and was eventually scrapped for the split-finger. Both moves were good ones as they both turned into above-average offerings.
The fastball, though, it never recovered. And it wasn’t just the velocity. If you have only seen the big league version of Robert Stephenson this is going to come as a big surprise – but there was a time that he showed good control of the fastball, and at times could command it. Today he pitches backwards, throwing his secondary offerings more than his fastball – and part of that is because he simply struggles to find the strikezone with the pitch. With that said, he turned himself into a quality reliever at the big league level. Last year he posted a 3.76 ERA – good for a 121 ERA+ out of the Reds bullpen with 81 strikeouts and 24 walks (4 IBB) in 64.2 innings.
It was very easy to watch Robert Stephenson pitch that summer and see all that you wanted to see of a future starting pitcher who could potentially be at the top of a rotation. But things didn’t quite work out that way. The stuff regressed. And then the stuff changed a few times over the years, and along the way the control did, too. Progression isn’t linear. Baseball is difficult and it’s humbling – as is scouting the sport. The best scouts on the planet miss every single year – go take a look at the top five draft picks in every single draft if you want a sobering look at how difficult the job actually is.
Sometimes you know you are seeing something special. And you may be. I knew that I was that summer. Robert Stephenson was showing stuff that other guys simply weren’t. From May 8th through July 13th, a stretch of eight starts (he missed most of June on the disabled list), he walked eight batters with 61 strikeouts and just 23 hits allowed with a 0.73 ERA for the Dayton Dragons in 49.0 innings. Opponents hit .135/.188/.218 against him in that time frame. That guy was a different kind of guy. I was sold.
Rarely have I seen another prospect that was just on a different kind of level like Stephenson was at that point. Hunter Greene for the two months before he was injured showed that kind of next-level prospect feel. Carlos Correa, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., and Wander Franco gave me that kind of feeling when I saw them in person. That’s about it, though. It’s a pretty short list.