Three (Possibly) True Outcomes: Robert Stephenson

USA TODAY Sports

Reds' pitcher Robert Stephenson made plenty of top-100 lists this year. How good will he be once he makes the show?

Most baseball fans are familiar with the phrase "Three True Outcomes", which refers to walks, strike outs, and home runs. These outcomes are "true" in that they pit the pitcher against the batter, largely independent of outside factors like defense or foot speed. When ball four is awarded to the batter, it is a certainty that he will be reaching first base.

When it comes to prospects, certainties do not exist. Every prospect has a wide range of outcomes between his ceiling and floor potential, with most players settling somewhere in between the two. I like to think of prospect outcomes as the Dream (the player's ceiling), the Nightmare (the player's floor) and the Reality (weighing all the factors to come up with the most likely outcome). Throughout the year, I will be examining the ceilings and floors of players across the minor leagues, and making my best forecast on the eventual outcome. Today, I take a request from fellow Fake Teams' writer Zack Smith (FantasyNinja8), and examine Reds' pitcher Robert Stephenson.

The Dream

Readers that are familiar with these pieces know that this is the section where I really like to gush about the prospect in question. Luckily for me, Robert Stephenson gives me an ample amount of material to praise. Cited by many to have the best pure arm strength of a high school pitching crop that included Dylan Bundy and Archie Bradley in 2011, Stephenson fell to the Reds' late in the first round due to doubts about his offspeed offerings. Like many top prospects, he did not reach a deal until the August signing deadline, postponing his pro debut until last season. And what a brilliant debut it was. In a limited time (15 starts), Stephenson dazzled, compiling a 3.18 ERA and a 72:23 K:BB ratio in 65 innings. Here you can see a video of him throwing (thanks to Reds' Minor Leagues for the footage) for the Dayton Dragons last season:

Do you feel that? That's the excitement a scout gets when he's found a prospect. Stephenson has some elite tools, starting with the tremendous arm speed you can see illustrated clearly when his mechanics are slowed down around the 2:45 mark of the video. His arm speed allows him to unleash fastballs in the mid to upper 90s, approaching and touching the century mark with some regularity. Some evaluators put a future 80 grade on the pitch; not only for the excellent velocity, but also for the life the pitch has in the zone. While impressive, the arm speed, although more impressive than it was as an amateur, was a known commodity entering pro ball. The real excitement comes from the development of his two secondary offerings. During high school, Stephenson used up to six pitches at times, utilizing a splitter as an out pitch. The Reds had him drop that pitch (at least for now) to take stress off his elbow. Instead, he has simplified his arsenal to include just a fastball, overhand curveball, and a changeup. The curve ball flashes plus potential, with good depth and velocity difference. He seems confident enough to throw it for a strike as well as a chase pitch. The changeup is a work in progress right now, but we will say that for almost every 19 or 20 year old pitcher. With his velocity, developing an average changeup should be no challenge. Along with good size, he is extremely athletic which should help him repeat his delivery and field his position. We can get more into some of the big "ifs" with Stephenson in The Nightmare, but his total package certainly has the chance to be what every Major League manager and front office executive dreams of: a front of the rotation stallion that logs 200 high quality innings per season.

Ceiling Fantasy Line: 19 wins, 2.87 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, 213 K

The Nightmare

While it pains me to admit it, Stephenson is not without his flaws or flags. The first question mark comes with his delivery and how it will affect his overall command. You can see from the video above there is violence in his delivery, especially with his head movement. As you can imagine, movement in the head, which includes the eyes, often leads to problems with command. Couple that with the fact that he sometimes rushes his delivery and he can go through stretches where control and command become a struggle. As long as he can slow himself down and stay tall over his front side, his athleticism should prevent these issues. That certainly will be tested as he faces better competition. Another problem, if you can really call it a "problem", is that some people in the Reds' organization think Stephenson is sometimes too intense for his own good. He only seems to have one speed, regularly firing warm up pitches in the mid-90s, and completely realizing that while that may be okay for a power reliever, he needs to pace himself to last an entire season and career. His biggest question mark is that right now "flashes plus" and "developing" are the best things we can say about his secondary offerings. "Flashes" simply means once or twice a game it looks like a plus offering, but it lacks consistency. We all know that more times than not, the consistency just doesn't come. Stephenson will have to work hard to develop those pitches, because his fastball alone will not be enough to get through a Major League lineup multiple times. If the secondary offerings don't come around, his velocity will give the Reds' the option of making him a reliever, and possibly then we will see the splitter come back a la Jon Papelbon. In fact, the intensity and stuff does remind me of Pap coming up through the minors. Of course, with his age and relative inexperience, Stephenson could completely flame out and never reach the Majors. He has that boom or bust potential, but right now he has shown so much progress that I think reliever is the truer downside.

Floor Fantasy Line: 11 saves, 3.87 ERA, 1.43 WHIP, 71 K

The Reality

Am I bullish on Stephenson? Well, I wrote a 150 more words about his upside than his downside so I think that answers that question. I can't help but smile when I think about his fastball, and his delivery, while violent, is somewhat hauntingly beautiful to me. I am (hopefully) rational enough, though, to acknowledge the risk in a 20-year old pitcher with just 65 professional innings coming into this season. Just look at his first three starts this year and you can see the risk and excitement wrapped into one neat stat line:

W

L

ERA

G

GS

CG

SV

IP

H

ER

HR

BB

SO

BB/9

SO/9

WHIP

G/F

0

2

7.11

3

3

0

0

12.2

19

10

1

3

20

2.13

14.21

1.74

4.33

Stats from Baseball America.

Small sample size and arbitrary end points be dammed, that's a lot of hits, but even more punchouts. I believe in the strikeout totals in a short sample way more than I do in the hits, especially when he only allowed one homerun over the 3 games. To me, the fastball is going to be so dominant that the other pitches will play up just pitching off that. And the strides he made in his first year, encouraged me and prompted ESPN's Keith Law to share this opinion in his top-100 write up:

... if the secondary stuff doesn't come along, but he's shown so much progress that the Reds have likely found buried treasure here and a potential No. 1 or 2 starter.

He's athletic, he's focused, and one of the biggest knocks on him is that he is too intense. Um, sign me up for that any day. The Reality is usually where I'll hedge, but I am pushing all my chips to the middle with Stephenson. While we probably won't see him in the Big Leagues until mid-2014 at the earliest, I think we'll see him in the top-10 of prospect lists a year from now, and I fully expect him to make good on his potential.

Fantasy Line: 17 wins, 3.17 ERA, 1.26 WHIP, 203 K

Sources

Baseball Prospectus

Baseball America

ESPN

Fangraphs

Andrew Ball is a writer for Fake Teams, Fantasy Ninjas, and Beyond the Box Score.

You can follow him on twitter @Andrew_Ball.

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