Robert Stephenson, throwing strikes, and pitching theory Doug Gray May 17, 2018 26 Comments Gentry Estes of the Louisville Courier Journal wrote about Robert Stephenson and trying to get back to the Major Leagues. On the surface, the premise of the article isn’t much – everyone in the minors is trying to get to the majors, or get back to the majors. There were a few quotes that stood out, though, that leave open some questions. Talking about his control, Stephenson said this: Teams that are more aggressive, I’m able to get quicker outs because they swing a lot more,” Stephenson said. “It’s the guys that like to take pitches that I have a problem with, and being able to pound the zone and get them to swing the bat is the biggest challenge for me, especially with some of those teams that are really patient. This makes sense. Guys that expand the strikezone are going to let a guy without control have success. Guys that don’t swing at non-strikes are going to cause issues for a guy who doesn’t throw strikes. This is very obvious. He seems to get this and notes that he’s got to pound the zone more. Here’s where things get a little bit questionable, as he would say this: Obviously, I’d like to limit the walk numbers, but at the same time, I don’t think that they are the most important things ever. If you can get guys out without them getting hits, then I don’t think that walks should be as big of a deal. But I know that’s definitely one of the biggest things that they want me to work on is being able to limit the walks and limiting baserunners. The important part here is the “if you can get guys out without them getting hits, then I don’t think walks should be as big of a deal” part. Pitchers don’t really have the ability to get guys to hit the ball at defenders. They can control if they walk guys (for the most part). They can control if they strike a guy out (for the most part). What they can’t really control is what happens once a guy makes contact aside from having some control over whether it’s a ground ball or a fly ball, and plenty of that is also on the hitter, too. The way to work around baserunners is by striking guys out. Lots and lots of them. Robert Stephenson has done that in Triple-A this year. He’s sitting at a 24.8% strikeout rate for the Bats this season. But, even so, stranding guys on base isn’t exactly a repeatable skillset. What is a skillset is keeping guys off of the bases. Worrying about hits doesn’t make a ton of sense. Hits are a result of guys making contact, not a particular skillset of making special contact. Everyone in the Major Leagues has that level of skillset that when they make contact it’s going to be a hit about 30-35% of the time (BABIP works, and home runs are hits but don’t count in BABIP since they can’t be fielded). What can be controlled, though, is walking guys, and striking guys out. The pitcher has the ability to have a large influence on those outcomes. Yes, when you’ve got a match up of Jose Altuve instead of say, Aaron Judge, the strikeout is going to differ some in the likelihood of the outcome, but for the 90% of guys that aren’t outliers, the pitcher is the dictator of the walk or strikeout. My bigger question lies here: Are the Reds teaching, or educating their pitchers that they can or can’t control hits allowed? Are they teaching guys that the pitching theory should be the fewest walks possible and the most strikeouts possible are going to lead to the best results? Pitching theory, much like hitting theory is very easy. It’s easy to understand that walking fewer batters is better, and striking out batters often is good. It’s tougher to sell without showing the data that a pitcher doesn’t have the ability to control whether a guy can get a hit or not. But we do have the data that pretty much tells us that they can’t do that once they allow contact to be made. Pitching theory, however, isn’t pitching results. I understand pitching theory. But I’m a terrible pitcher with a bum shoulder and knee and couldn’t get anyone out if my life depended on it. Likewise, you can have a great understanding of what you need to do, but simply be unable to do it for one reason or another. The hope that I have is simply that the Reds are teaching the right theory. Not everyone can execute with that theory because there are just limitations in what we can do, but it’s a good starting point to work from. This was originally posted in a different article, but felt that it was better suited for a standalone piece. 26 Responses Pat May 17, 2018 Let’s hope he puts the “above the neck” part of baseball together with his fantastic “below the neck” talent. His quotes are a bit worrisome as is his up and down pitching. When he’s on he’s got MLB quality. When he’s not, he looks like a guy in high A confused as to why his stuff isn’t getting swung at and teams circle the bases. Hitters have become so good and have every aid and video at their disposal that being a SP at the MLB level has been elevated to an art form at 95+ mph. How bout the Reds pay Greg Maddux a king’s ransom to coach pitchers in the organization? Optimist May 17, 2018 Interesting analysis, especially combined with your earlier review of Greene’s flukish numbers. Perhaps Greene is as rigidly following coaching as BobSteve is not? Also, has the low minors pitching coaching and approach changed since BobSteve was drafted? Scott May 17, 2018 My perception of this guy is that he is not very coachable and wants to do things his way. There is no way the Reds are teaching their pitchers that it is fine to walk 6 or 7 guys a game (25 in 36 IP so far this year) as long as you don’t give up many hits. Totally ridiculous. He also goes on in the same interview to say (not verbatim) that he didn’t think his demotion to Louisville this year should have been so heavily weighted on spring training and that he feels he has demonstrated that he belongs in the bigs. Personally I don’t understand pitchers that cant or wont throw strikes at this level. Its either lack of talent or confidence and until he fixes whichever it is he should stay right there in AAA. I wish people would stop including this guy as one of the pitchers on the next good team. I dont see it, especially in a starting role. Doug Gray May 17, 2018 Well of course they aren’t teaching guys it’s fine to walk that many hitters. But what I’m interested in knowing, and I’ll be asking pitching coaches in the organization about it, is what exactly is the theory they are teaching. And their takes on controlling what pitchers/hitters can control in the at-bat. I’ll also add that if it’s a lack of talent, then it’s never something that will be fixed. I don’t believe that’s what it is, though, because I’ve see him go through long periods of time throwing his fastball where he wants to. It’s been a while since we’ve seen that guy, but he existed. It’s figuring out what that guy was doing that this guy isn’t, and making that change. Scott May 17, 2018 Well you asked in the article if they were teaching this lol You may not believe its talent but the numbers say you are wrong. Hes been in Louisville since 2015. Lots of pitchers have talent and never make it. I believe hes one of these, no matter how many “flashes” he has. AirborneJayJay May 17, 2018 Somebody give Robert Stephenson a lesson in WHIP. If a pitcher’s WHIP starts getting above 1.20 the ERA starts to go up, usually up above 4.00. It isn’t a coincidence. Someone give Stephenson a look at some pitchers’ stats that he probably would try to emulate. Like Verlander, Archer, and Scherzer. Scherzer is just unbelievable. Almost always under 1.00. If Stephenson cannot grasp that fact, maybe it is more than past time to give him a change of scenery. The Reds should be trying to package together some redundancy personnel like Stephenson and try to get something back for them. Not going to get much back in a solo Stephenson trade as his plummeting market value resembles that of a 1975 AMC Pacer. citizen54 May 17, 2018 I think what he is saying is that walks and hits are basically the same thing and that if you aren’t giving up a lot of hits then giving up some walks are okay, hence why some people use WHIP. And at the same time if you are striking out a lot of people then walks aren’t that important. He is technically correct in that if you go by FIP, striking out 3 batters for every 2 you walk or hbp is essentially a wash. At the end he acknowledges that he needs to improve on his walk rate so even though I don’t think he should be downplaying the importance of limiting walks, I don’t see what the big uproar is about. Mike V May 18, 2018 Agreed … Cinvenfan May 17, 2018 Homer Bailey, Tony Cingrani, BobSteve. 3 cases of great arms and low baseball IQ. As much as I praise the team for drafting talent the last 10 years or so -absolutely above average sucess rate in MLB- they have to consider make up as well. An uncoachable young pitcher is a bad as a miss. Jonathan Linn May 17, 2018 What would make you think Homer Bailey & Tony Cingrani have low baseball IQ? Cinvenfan May 17, 2018 A person who is stubborn or refuses to listen to their coaches on how to improve -and Homer was always laveled that way- is not too smart baseball wise IMO. stock May 17, 2018 You nailed it Cinvenfan. Bailey is who I think about as a Stephenson comp. Neither are coachable. Both seem to take days off. Am pretty sure Votto would laugh at the work ethic of the two. I-71_Exile May 17, 2018 I would add that a pitcher has some control over where a ball is hit through speed and location. A pitch on the inside part of the plate is more likely to be pulled than one on the outside corner. A pitch down in the zone is more likely to be a ground ball than a fly ball. There is situational pitching as well as situational hitting. Robert Stephenson is simply rationalizing. He can’t reliably command his pitches so he throws a lot of balls and the balls he throws are too far out of the zone for a professional hitter to chase. He’s selling his strengths—pure stuff—while dismissing his weaknesses. If he could throw strikes, he’d be talking about how important command is I suspect. How many times does he have to get rocked before he realizes that he needs to do something different? Doug Gray May 17, 2018 While you are technically correct with your first sentence, the problem is, no one is precise enough to actually execute that enough to make it work. Goes back to pitching theory versus pitching execution. The theory is very simple. The execution of that theory is insanely difficult. Alan May 17, 2018 I remember Greg Maddux saying in an interview, “Pitching isn’t about making a batter miss your pitch. It’s about making a batter hit your pitch.” Doug Gray May 17, 2018 Well if guys had the command and a strikezone a foot wider than the one today like Maddux did, then he’d still be right. But that strikezone doesn’t exist anymore, and I don’t know that anyone has that kind of command, either. Big Ed May 17, 2018 The guy is a baseball player, not Tom Wolfe or John Foster Dulles. I think it’s a bit odd to assume he must be so precise with his answers. He said, “Obviously, I’d like to get the (walks) number down.” Now, if Dick Williams gave the other statement, it would be concerning, but I chalk this up to unfortunate phrasing, not some misunderstanding of what he needs to work on. Bill Anderson May 17, 2018 Stephenson is just one of those high BB/K guys. He works backwards and tends to get better control as the year progresses. I think the Reds did him a favor by letting him work out the early season kinks while the team stunk up the place. He needs a 4 month trial for sort of a final exam. His 2 month one last year was decent with not always high pitch counts. Compare that to Cody Reed who just sucks and sucks and sucks…….. I believe you can’t make a pitcher what he is not. Let them be themselves and they will flourish………..unless your Sal Romero and can’t throw a breaking pitch for the life of it. Big Ed May 18, 2018 Corey Kluber had yet to make the majors at Cody Reed’s age. Jake Arrieta was pretty much in the same boat as Reed. The Rage May 18, 2018 Reed isn’t the same talent. His fastball sucks, it is a relievers fastball. Tom May 18, 2018 I think you gotta hang with him for a while longer as he matures. It will come around. No need to trade him. He’s the kind of prospect you don’t want to trade at a low point in value. Might as well be patient and constructive. He has 1 option left, however. What does that mean for next year? He has to stay in the majors? Tom May 18, 2018 Reed and Finnegan also both have 2 options. Jose Lopez has 3. Give them all the time you have before giving them up to another team. None of them will be primary pieces in a trade at this point. 2019 AAA rotation could be Reed (needs practice) Finnegan (needs soft innings build up) Mella Lopez Gutierez Stephenson (options?) 2020 could have some mature young pitchers from that group ready to compete at 26, 27, or 28. Would provide great insurance for injury in the years to come. DHud May 18, 2018 “If you can get guys out…” But you’re not. You’re not getting guys out effectively. He and Reed (reference to his comments on being demoted last season) both need a reality check about what “success” looks like. Fun fact, it’s not a 5+ ERA and 5-6 BB/9. They’re both right where they belong for now (Finnegan too) The Rage May 18, 2018 My view on this, is Stephenson should have been in the rotation since day 1. The Reds have their head up their ass so far, they don’t get talent. They don’t get how talent works. They live intellectual fantasies that don’t come true in reality. Romero’s a first pitch fastball pitcher. The Reds like that. But the man simply can’t throw good breaking pitches. You want to talk about a 2nd half mirage last year, Sal was one of them. Castillo and Mahle can change speeds(and Castillo still worries me with his health). Sal can’t. Stop using him in the rotation. GM Nep O'Tism May 19, 2018 I’m mostly on board with a lot of what you’re saying, Doug, but I believe that pitchers are a little shortchanged on what they can or can’t control. If you look at pitchers from 2013-2017 (previous 5 years) who pitched at least 750 innings in that time span (150ip/season), and then sort it by BABIP lowest-to-highest, you’ll see names like Arrieta, Kershaw, Cueto, Bumgarner, Scherzer, and Greinke in the top 10. I don’t think that’s due to luck that those guys all had BABIP under .280 during that time (.256, .266, .270, .274, .277, .278, respectively) while the league BABIP in those 5 years were .294, .295, .296, .298, .297. Good pitchers will find a way to limit good contact, and as exit velocities have shown about balls hit at certain velocities and their odds of turning into a hit, if you limit good contact, you will limit how often that contact will turn into a hit. The IFFB% those 5 years were always right around 9.6%, yet during that time you had Bumgarner at 11.5%, Cueto and Kershaw at 11.2%, Scherzer at 10.8%, Greinke at 10.7%.. Arrieta is the only one out of those who didn’t have an IFFB well above the norm. The Hard hit % those 5 years were 29.9%, 29.1%, 28.8%, 31.4%, 31.8%.. those numbers for those guys were Arrieta at 25.5%, Kershaw at 26.9%, Cueto at 27.5%, Scherzer at 28.9%, Bumgarner at 28.9%, and then Greinke actually around average at 29.6%. The Soft hit % those 5 years were 16.5%, 18.3%, 18.6%, 18.8%, 18.9%.. those numbers for those guys were Arrieta at 21.9%, Cueto at 20.4%, Kershaw at 20.1%, Greinke at 19.6%, and Scherzer and Bumgarner around average at 18.7% and 18.4% – – – – – – – – – So while I agree they can’t control everything, I refuse to believe they can’t control a lot of little things that can add up to be a big difference. The good pitchers manage to get more soft contact, less hard contact, and more IFFB. That poor quality of contact leads to lowered BABIP. Of course that’s not an argument that Bob Steve shouldn’t be awfully concerned about his walk rate, just that I think we (collective we) are shortchanging MLB pitchers on what they can and can’t control. Doug Gray May 19, 2018 Of course they have an absolutely tiny amount of control over it. The difference between the extreme outliers you cite, and the average for the league is less than 10%. It’s not so much that they don’t have some control over it, it’s that they don’t have much control over it compared to anyone else in baseball. They are all extremely talented. But the difference is making guys miss and not giving them free passes, not so much being able to influence soft contact.