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DNVR Exclusive: Stephenson makes impressive transition to Coors Field confines, ready to take next step
When RHP Jeff Hoffman was out of options to the minor leagues and opportunities on the 26-man roster following the 2020 season, the Rockies also struggled with this apparent limitation.
Yet former GM Jeff Bridich managed to trade Hoffman to the Cincinnati Reds for a useful asset in Colorado’s bullpen by the name of RHP Robert Stephenson. (RHP Case Williams also went to Cincinnati and OF Jameson Hannah came with Stephenson. Over the summer, the Rockies would re-acquire Williams and RHP Noah Davis for RHP Mychal Givens.)
It was essentially one team’s problematic pitcher and one prospect for another. Not quite a challenge trade testing each club’s ability to evaluate, but more about which side could make the better adjustment with their big league arm.
Hoffman opened in the Reds’ starting rotation, finishing April with a 3.33 ERA in 24.1 innings pitched over five starts. The next five were not quite as successful as the former top prospect included in the Troy Tulowitzki trade lasted just 16.2 frames and surrendered 12 earned runs (6.48 ERA) before going on the injured list with a right shoulder impingement.
The 28-year-old returned after five weeks only to earn a demotion to the bullpen when his first start back from the IL was more of the same struggles. As reliever, Hoffman found a groove in the second-half, appearing in 20 games with a 3.48 ERA over 28.0 innings.
Stephenson was much more steady in his debut season with a new club. His worst month by earned run average (7.71) was May, but that was mostly owed to a five-run outing, his worst of the season by far, coincidentally against his former club. If scratched from the record – if only mulligans like this existed – his performance in May would have been a 2.70 ERA and his season-long ERA would have dropped nearly a run, from 3.13 to 2.36.
By wins-above-replacement standards, Stephenson was better than 2019 according to Baseball-Reference (0.9 to 0.7) and worse than 2019 according to the FanGraphs model (0.5 to 0.9). His success through the lens of ERA+ (153 to 125) is undeniable.
“I thought it was a pretty good season overall,” Stephenson said of his first year with the Rockies. “Maybe some hiccups early on, but I think down the stretch it was definitely good. I feel like there’s a lot more that I can offer to this team than the opportunities I’ve been given so far.”
Stephenson pitched more in the 7th and 8th innings than any other, but in those 30 appearances, only nine were when Colorado was tied or held a lead of three or less. He came in with his club trailing in 27 of his 49 games.
With the help of pitching coach Steve Foster, now pitching coordinator for the entire organization, and bullpen coach Darren Holmes, who replaces Foster, Stephenson hit career-bests (or damn near it) in many of the important categories for Rockies’ relievers: home-runs-per-nine (0.98), homer-run-per-fly-ball (10.6%), ground ball percentage (38.2%), ground-ball-per-fly-ball (1.00) and non-hard-hit percentage (64.8%).
His splits were incredibly similar – minus that rough outing on May 13 – yet the peripheral statistics suggest he was even better at home, with a strikeout-to-walk rate of nearly twice as good when on the mound at Coors Field.
“Over time you adjust to it and you don’t even have to think about it anymore,” the 28-year-old said of pitching at altitude. “Obviously, stuff’s gonna be different here, as opposed to on the road. It’s an adjustment that everybody’s working on throughout the season. I think over time, you kind of just get the feel for what your ball’s gonna do at home versus on the road and it makes it a little bit easier to transition.”
Relievers RHP Daniel Bard and RHP Tyler Kinley aided this development more than any other, allowing Stephenson an outlet to discuss different grips on offspeed pitches and receive invaluable input on how to approach hitters in certain situations.
Like fellow new Rockies hurler LHP Austin Gomber, who notably mentioned in his first media availability that he wouldn’t change his tactics at Coors Field and would venture to throw his curveball even on the moon, Stephenson was quite effective with his breaking ball.
In fact, he went from not throwing a single curveball from 2019-20 to throwing it more than ever before.
He ditched the split-finger fastball and picked up the feel for his breaking ball to the point it became his best put away pitch, striking out 32% of hitters when down to two strikes.
And yet, the product of Martinez, CA is looking to take it to another level when it comes to the curve.
“I want to get a harder breaking ball because I feel like my it’s been a lot slower lately. It seems like the hitters are picking it up and taking. I’ve gotten a lot more takes on it. That’s one of the things I want to be able to pick up over the offseason is getting a harder breaking ball that’ll look a little more like fastball.”
Trial and error through different grips and releases is how Stephenson described the process of throwing his curveball in the upper 80s.
Colorado had a similar experimentation process in 2021 with relievers who were given opportunities like never before. Some excelled like Stephenson and rookies LHP Lucas Gilbreath and RHP Jordan Sheffield. Others such as RHP Yency Almonte did not.
Carlos Estévez and Bard are favored to resume their roles saving games for the Rockies, but if Stephenson can pick up where he left off, his role in the bullpen could expand to more chances in the back of bullpen.