Stephenson looks to use rookie lessons in '17

Right-hander takes positives from difficult results last season

Stephenson looks to use rookie lessons in '17

GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- The eight big league starts Robert Stephenson made for the Reds last season, especially the six in September, were not wasted opportunities, even though the right-hander often struggled. For Stephenson, the experience was valuable and something he's taken into Spring Training this year.

"I think I learned a lot about myself, confidence-wise," Stephenson said on Tuesday before Reds pitchers and catchers held their first workout. "I just need to be more relaxed and stay positive. There were times I tried to do too much and impress everyone. That's when I really struggled. I pitched tight. I wasn't relaxed and loose. I pitched a lot better when I was more free."

Stephenson, who turns 24 on Feb. 24, is among several pitchers vying for one of the two open spots in the Reds' rotation. Also competing are Cody Reed, Amir Garrett, Bronson Arroyo and Tim Adleman.

In his eight starts for the Reds, Stephenson was 2-3 with a 6.08 ERA and 1.62 WHIP. Over his 37 innings, he allowed 19 walks with 31 strikeouts and nine home runs. Although he won his first two Major League outings during a pair of April spot starts, he was 0-3 with a 7.56 ERA over his final six starts, and the Reds went 1-5 when he pitched those games.

Stephenson also learned he needed to improve executing his pitches.

"I really need to work on hitting the inside target," Stephenson said. "I wanted to get a lot better at that during the offseason, especially this spring. There were a lot of times last year where we needed to go inside on somebody based on the scouting report. I'd try to go inside, miss over the middle of the plate and get hit really hard."

According to zone breakdowns below that were broken down by exit velocity on Statcast™, Stephenson paid a steep price when he missed over the middle, especially to right-handed hitters. Against left-handed hitters, he didn't get hit quite as hard, but he was vulnerable on the outside.

Left: Catchers' view of Robert Stephenson vs. left-handed hitters in 2016; right: vs. right-handed hitters

"It wasn't command. In the bullpen, I could hit that spot every time," Stephenson said. "But as soon as you put a batter in there, it's when I had the problem -- getting as far inside as I needed to."

Stephenson did struggle with walks, however, with a 4.7 walks-per-nine-innings rate in the big leagues and 4.6 at Triple-A Louisville over 136 2/3 innings with a 4.41 ERA in 24 starts.

In August, Stephenson was criticized in the media by Louisville manager Delino DeShields. The comments included that Stephenson should be embarrassed for not making the adjustments as directed by his coaches. DeShields later apologized for sending such a message through the media.

"You know, it wasn't true. He wasn't around to see my work with the pitching coaches," Stephenson said. "I listen to what everybody tells me. I'd be dumb not to listen. It's not like I've had a lot of success where I can tell everybody I'm going to do it one way and not listen to anybody. I kind of ignored it. It wasn't a problem for me. It was a problem for him."

Stephenson is eager to put 2016 behind him, while also using the what he learned to help him this season.

"I definitely feel like it's a great opportunity for me," Stephenson said. "Last spring, there was a slim chance to make the team but an opportunity was there. … There's a lot more I can show and prove to everybody to make a bigger claim for myself coming out of spring this year."

Mark Sheldon has covered the Reds for MLB.com since 2006, and previously covered the Twins from 2001-05. Follow him on Twitter @m_sheldon and Facebook and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.