When we looked at a list of available hard-throwing relievers who could upgrade the Cubs bullpen, righty Robert Stephenson was right there at the top. Though he doesn’t fit the profile of Jed Hoyer’s usual targets because he’s 31 and should be able to command a multiyear deal coming off of a career-best year, there’s a strong sense that the Cubs are looking to invest more money in relievers. Jon Morosi tweeted Monday that they’re among the teams showing interest in Stephenson, as they damn well should be.
RHP Robert Stephenson has been one of the most popular free-agent relievers this offseason, sources say.
— Jon Morosi (@jonmorosi) November 27, 2023
Stephenson experienced a big jump in strikeout percentage in large part due to his increased reliance on the cutter. Thrown a few ticks harder than his slider, the cutter is successful because it actually has a lot less break than most pitches of its kind. It was also Stephenson’s favorite pitch, making up 41% of his repertoire as he sort of worked backwards. His gyro slider, which was next at just over 24%, had a different look because it generated more vertical and less horizontal movement than similar breaking balls.
Then there’s the 97 mph fastball that plays up despite Stephenson’s 24th-percentile extension. When he’s able to load up on breaking balls that are disguised well and produce distinctly different shapes that hitters don’t see very often, the fastball almost serves as a bizarro changeup. He worked mainly up in the zone with the heater while getting more horizontal and vertical break on it than a typical four-seam.
Stephenson absolutely dominated right-handed batters in ’23 and was better against lefties than in the past, results he should be able to repeat given the shift in pitch mix. This is a guy who profiles as a lights-out setup man, someone who can allow Hoyer to buy at least a small measure of certainly for a group that had far too little of it last year.