BALTIMORE — The best pitch in baseball is the product of a slight twist of Robert Stephenson’s right wrist.
The change in hand position he made when throwing his slider was minute, a couple of centimeters at most. Consider it similar to a click or two on a safe, an appropriate analogy since doing so unlocked the key to Stephenson’s remarkable success.
Rays pitching coach Kyle Snyder made the suggestion a week and a half or so after Stephenson was acquired from Pittsburgh in early June.
After studying an analytical breakdown of Stephenson’s pitches and watching him throw, Snyder thought Stephenson could make the slider more effective by making a small change to slightly increase he velocity.
Stephenson welcomed the idea.
“The day he mentioned it was the same day I adjusted it,” Stephenson said. “So it was a quick fix.”
Stephenson, a 30-year-old reliever on his fourth team in four years, had considered the concept previously of adding velocity. Snyder helped with the implementation.
“Something he said to me just made sense,” Stephenson said. “I always wanted to and hadn’t really figured out how. But then Snyder mentioned a couple things with hand position and mentality with it and it kind of worked out. Something clicked for me and I was able to do it.”
With his fingers slightly more behind the ball — between a 12 and 1 o’clock position, so it looks more like his fastball — Stephenson started throwing the slider harder, and with more backspin and less side spin, increasing the velocity from 84-85 mph to 88-89.
That changed the dynamics of the pitch, reducing the reaction time of the hitter, who is deceived into thinking it’s a fastball, while decreasing the horizontal break and adding vertical drop.
And in the process, it becomes practically unhittable.
Cause and effect
Since Stephenson started throwing it harder — which led pitch tracking sites to label it a cutter, but he and the Rays still call it a slider — hitters have swung and missed a staggering 59.3% of the time (through Friday’s games).
In 68 at-bats that ended with a cutter, he has allowed only six hits and an .088 average, while posting 37 strikeouts.
Since his June 3 debut with the Rays, Stephenson, who also throws a 97-mph fastball and splitter, leads all major-league pitchers with a 50.9% whiff rate (well ahead of Texas’ Aroldis Chapman, among pitchers with at least 100 pitches swung at.)
“It’s been incredible,” Snyder said. “For the month of August, I think he had a 3% walk rate and a 45% strikeout rate. I don’t know that in my six years here throughout the league that I’ve seen anything like that. …
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“Just to see what he’s done, the confidence that’s kind of grown alongside that, it’s been tremendous to watch.”
Especially given how much difference the improvement of the one pitch made.
“Internally, we knew the pitch had improved,” Snyder said. “It’s been pretty eye catching to see just the number of swings and misses that are occurring on that particular pitch.”
Even more so since the hitters have a pretty good idea that it’s coming, something manager Kevin Cash and others marvel at.
“I think it just tells you how good that pitch really is,” reliever Colin Poche said.
Stephenson’s improvement this season has been stark.
In 18 games with the Pirates, Stephenson had a 5.14 ERA, .231 opponents’ average, 1.429 WHIP (walks and hits per innings pitched), 27.9 strikeout percentage and 13.1 walk rate.
In his first 38 games with the Rays, those numbers were all markedly better: 2.36 ERA, .130 opponents’ average, 0.670 WHIP, 43.2 strikeout percentage, 6.4 walk rate.
“Since the day he got here, he’s been really good,” starter Tyler Glasnow said. “His rhythm and his mechanics never deviate. He’s always very consistent. He always looks spot on. I haven’t really seen him have even like one bad outing yet.
“I think it’s just coming over here and being, I don’t know exactly what it is. But I’m surprised he hasn’t been that his entire career. He’s been so lights out.”
Stephenson said there is more to it than the changes to the slider/cutter, mentioning “trusting the process” of throwing strikes and being aggressive that the Rays preach is “a huge part” of his success, as well as trusting the catchers.
“Everything’s kind of added up and worked out well for me,” he said.
For starters, the bullpen
Stephenson first learned his original slider in 2017, when he was still with the Reds, who had made him a first-round pick in the 2011 draft.
After mixed results as a starter, the Reds were trying him in relief. Former big-leaguer Ted Power, then the Reds’ bullpen coach, felt a slider would be a good addition.
“He’s a very determined guy,” Power said. “He’s very headstrong, and he kind of wants to do things his own way. But he was willing to listen and start tinkering with this slider because he was having trouble getting that split finger (pitch) close to the zone.”
Stephenson began to rely primarily on the fastball and slider combo, as he transitioned full time to the bullpen in 2019 and “fully bought in” to the move. “I was like, ‘OK, I just want to be in the big leagues, whatever it takes,’ ” he said.
Stephenson was traded to the Rockies before the 2021 season, claimed off waivers by the Pirates in August 2022 and traded on June 2 to the Rays, who felt acting then to acquire Stephenson, making $1.75 million as a pending free agent, was better than waiting to see what they could get at the Aug. 1 trade deadline.
Stephenson, calling the Rays “the best team I’ve ever been on,” said it has been a good fit.
His bullpen mates feel the same way, admiring what he’s done on the field, noting his consistency and professionalism, and regularly teasing him about his always groomed black hair.
“Absolutely perfect hair,” starter Zach Eflin said. “I’ve never seen anybody with more perfect hair than him.”
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