Tyler Stephenson was once viewed as Cincinnati’s catcher of the future. A 10-year answer behind the plate and staple of the Reds next great teams. Fast forward only two years and people want him off the team, serving in a backup role, and traded at his lowest value. Hold up, not so fast.
Stephenson still needs to be a fixture in this lineup. At the very least for 2024. I understand the idea of looking for areas to improve, and with so much young talent elsewhere Stephenson has become a scapegoat of sorts. Well, you don’t have to squint too hard to see the path to a bounce back.
The primary job of a catcher is to more or less run the pitching staff and provide plus defense (more on that later). Most teams would sign up for league average offense from behind the plate with anything else being a bonus.
Last season was a struggle for Stephenson posting a career worst .243/.317/.378 good for a 85 wRC+. His struggles can be found in the situation he got himself into at the plate. He rarely found himself in hitters counts and often was batting with two strikes, which did not work out in his favor.
|2021 (402 PA)
|2022 (183 PA)
|2023 (517 PA)
Obviously your numbers will be much lower with two strikes than zero strikes. What I want to focus on is how each situation fared better in 2021, even as a rookie, and 2022 compared to 2023.
I think Stephenson found himself in two strike counts too often by not be aggressive enough on pitches in the zone earlier in counts. He does not have the power to fall into a three true outcome – walk, strikeout, home run – type hitter.
Would being a bit more aggressive earlier in counts lead to better outcomes?
When Stephenson is at his best he is making solid contact and shooting line drives to all fields. I think he can get back to the track he was on before last season.
He did not go chasing out of the zone at a drastic rate – 24% compared to career 23%. Zone contact was 83% compared to 85% in 2022 and 91% in 2021. A lot of his batted ball data was similar, if not better, than previous years. To me, that’s good news.
No major drop off, and even slight improvement in some areas, from years when he was successful makes me believe his best case outcome is still very much on the table.
Stephenson said he was healthy leading into the 2023 season, but I have always wondered if he truly was 100%. A concussion, thumb, and clavicle injury cut his 2022 season short.
A season in which he slashed .319/.372/.482 good for a 135 wRC+ through 50 games. A second season in the majors and import part of his development. We saw how injuries can affect players the following year with Eugenio Suarez and I do not want to undermine that as a possibility.
Keep in mind, prior to 2023 Stepheson had 605 plate appearances in the Majors. He slashed .296/.369/.454 with a 21.7% strikeout rate and 120 wRC+ (hat tip to Bryce Spalding ).
Building off a great rookie year and trending towards one of the best offensive catchers in baseball before the injury. We have seen more good Tyler Stepheson than bad Tyler Stephenson.
No need to beat around the bush, Stephenson was awful behind the dish in 2023.
While it was never a strength, he was passable with room to grow. Last season was a step back across the board. Baseball Savant runs metrics that determine a catchers ability to frame pitches. Stephenson graded out as a -1 in 2021 and -2 in 2022.
Last season he dropped to a -9. Sure, framing might lose importance if the automatic strike zone enters the equation, but for 2024, framing matters.
The good news? You can improve framing in an offseason. It is something you can work on and improve at a higher success rate than many other aspects of the sport.
Just look at the top 10 in catcher framing runs from 2023 and how they started their career.
|First Three Seasons
|7, 0, 10
|0, 8, 12
|0, -2, -3
|-1, 3, 8
|0, -1, 9
|-1, 0, 2
|1, 2, 2
|0, 0 , 8
My point of this chart is simply to show variance and examples of improvements.
Tyler Stephenson is unlikely to become a top-10 framer behind the plate, but improvement, even drastic, has happened before. Take the Reds most recent gold glove catcher, Tucker Barnhart. He posted a 2, -4, -10, -18, then 2 through his first five seasons.
More than just framing is important. Blocking pitches in the dirt matters, especially with the amount of breaking balls catchers see. Stepheson graded out as a -2 in 2023, and improvement from his -4 in 2021. Essentially, this means two past balls plus wild pitches got past him that the system expected a catcher to stop.
Other areas of focus are the run game and calling a game. Stepheson was league average in controlling the run his first couple years and a -3 last season. As far as calling a game, we do not have numbers that show one way or another.
With so much going into the result of a pitch, I struggle to put too much fault on Stepheson. There were times when pitch selection and location seemed strange, but we don’t have the information, scouting report, or intel needed to draw a fair conclusion, in my opinion.
If you are sitting there thinking catchers defensive metrics are a bit wonky I’d probably agree with you. The trust ole eye test lines up pretty well with Stephenson’s metrics, however. Keep in mind, Stephenson was a positive defensive WAR player until last year. Another offseason of work can hopefully lead to some needed improvements.
I see 2023 as a down year and not a downward trend. Too much talent in his bat to be consistently below league average. Projection models are expecting a bounce back to around 95-97 wRC+, as well.
Young catchers with offensive upside and years of control are very hard to find. Look around the league and ask yourself how many are available? Danny Jansen, who’s blocked by Kirk and in the final year of arbitration, is the only possibility I can see. Moving off Stepheson would be a mistake and a short-sided decision and the Reds know that.
Another offseason removed from multiple injuries can only be good for Stepheson. He does not need to be a middle of the lineup bat, but get back to a plus offensive catcher, show improvement behind the plate, and be a value to this Reds team in 2024.