After pitching well for the Pittsburgh Pirates last September, Robert Stephenson has put himself in a position to battle for an Opening Day bullpen spot
Robert Stephenson is one of the Pittsburgh Pirates’ handful of bullpen options who are out of minor league options. Stephenson, acquired from the Colorado Rockies during the final month of the 2022 campaign, seems like a guy who could find himself in roster limbo. However, he’s a reliever the Pirates should have on the Opening Day roster.
Now I get what you’re first thinking. You look at the back of his baseball card and think, why should the Pirates even give this a second thought to DFA him? In 58 innings, Stephenson had a 5.43 ERA, 4.23 FIP, and 1.33 WHIP. He allowed home runs at a 1.55-per-9 pace, and while he had a strong 5.7% walk rate, his strikeout rate was below average at 22.3%. Career wise, he has an ERA of nearly 5.00 at 4.90 and a similar FIP at 4.82.
However, what those numbers do not show are the major adjustments Stephenson made with the Pirates. Stephenson’s fastball gave him a ton of issues last season. Opponents clobbered the pitch, owning a .386 average, a .658 slugging percentage, and a .459 wOBA against it. For reference, Aaron Judge had a .686 slugging percentage and .458 wOBA last year. However, while opponents hit like Judge in his record-breaking season against Stephenson’s four-seamer, they couldn’t hit his slider. When Stephenson threw his slider, opponents had just a .170 average, .357 slugging percentage, and .264 wOBA. That’s more akin to Martin Maldonado, who had a .352 slugging percentage and .264 wOBA.
Stephenson started pitching to his strengths with the Pittsburgh Pirates. The reliever used his slider nearly 70% of the time (69.4%), while his fastball usage rate clocked in at just 28.2% while wearing black and gold. That’s a stark contrast to when he was in Colorado, using his fastball 53.6% of the time and his slider 45% of the time. It’s no surprise that Stephenson performed much better with the Pirates. In his final 13.1 innings of the season, Stephenson had a 3.38 ERA, 2.81 FIP, and 0.83 WHIP. He struck out 18 batters while only one reached via free pass.
The Pirate bullpen is mostly unproven and young, with many arms like Yerry De Los Santos, Colin Holderman, Dauri Moreta, and Jose Hernandez. Stephenson is the best among the Pirate relievers who are out of options. Duane Underwood Jr. has not shown any consistency in high-leverage situations, and Chase De Jong is only good for low-leverage and long relief. Stephenson deserves a roster spot over both of them, and possibly even a few players with options remaining like Moreta and Yohan Ramirez.
The Pirates should have Stephenson on the 26-man roster entering the 2023 campaign. The adjustments he made with the Pirates make him an interesting reliever, and he could continue to show the impact of those changes next season. Sure, it might be a small sample size to go off of, but it’s clear that Stephenson started to pitch to his strengths and got better results because of it.