Robert Stephenson's professional career got off to a slow start by design. The Reds selected him with the 27th overall pick in the 2011 Draft but kept the right-hander from debuting until almost exactly one year later.
Now he's one of the fastest moving prospects in baseball.
Stephenson pitched at three levels -- Class A Dayton, Class A Advanced Bakersfield and Double-A Pensacola -- in 2013. The 6-foot-2 right-hander, who turns 21 on Feb. 24, finished with a 2.99 ERA, 136 strikeouts, 35 walks and a .217 average against across 114 1/3 innings in his full-season debut.
Talent evaluators took notice. MLB.com, which had ranked Stephenson at No. 55 overall at the end of the 2012 season, pegged him as baseball's No. 19 prospect -- seventh-best among right-handers -- entering the 2014 campaign. The California native earned exceptional 70 grades for his fastball and curveball and rated as an above-average 60 overall.
Stephenson talked to MiLB.com about the professional road he's taken, his potential Major League future and the arsenal that's made it all possible.
MiLB.com: You've been invited to Major League camp with the Reds, which is just getting underway. How's that been going so far?
Stephenson: It's been awesome. The atmosphere has been pretty fun and all the guys here have been great to be around. I'm trying to be a little laid-back for the most part. If guys come to talk to me, I'm always willing to listen. But I'm trying to keep quiet to myself and take in as much as I can.
MiLB.com: What kind of offseason preparations did you make to get ready for 2014?
Stephenson: I did a lot of strength training, a lot of swimming and Pilates in particular. The big focus for me was strengthening my hamstrings and giving myself a lot of flexibility. Everything I did was a big help to get me in shape for this.
MiLB.com: Why Pilates, in particular?
Stephenson: I'd actually never done it before, but I was hoping to do something like yoga or something else to add to my workouts. I talked to someone who figured Pilates would be best for me, and he recommended a particular woman to help me out with it. It's been a huge help this offseason.
MiLB.com: Looking at your Twitter account, there was a picture of you pitching in snow. Was that a common occurrence?
Stephenson: [laughs] No, I was actually just visiting my girlfriend in Washington. I was only visiting for a week, but it was getting close to spring, so I had to get a few throwing sessions in. It was pretty cold, I can tell you that; not as cold as some other parts of the country, but pretty cold for me, being a California guy.
MiLB.com: Going back a little bit, reflect on your first full season in pro ball last year.
Stephenson: Overall, it was great. I thought I did pretty well, but I still feel like some things broke down as the year went on, and that's a little bit upsetting. At the same time, I know that if I keep doing Pilates I can help strengthen my body and make myself able to pitch more innings this year and the years to come.
MiLB.com: What, in particular, broke down?
Stephenson: I had a hamstring injury [in June], and -- not that was a big thing -- but there was some shoulder fatigue in the end there. Those are things I want to iron out and build myself up to, so they don't happen again.
MiLB.com: Still, you were able to pitch at three levels. What was it like to be at those different spots in one year?
Stephenson: It was kind of a crazy experience, especially toward the end when everything was going so quickly. The big thing for me was that it was nice to be home. In Bakersfield, my family could come see me pitch, and it's always nice to have them there. Plus, I was happy to get a taste of Pensacola and will be able to carry that into this season.
MiLB.com: What did you take away from your experience with Pensacola?
Stephenson: Definitely the big thing is work on hitting my spots. I was falling behind hitters a lot, so a big focal point is getting ahead of them and giving myself that advantage. The hitters are more consistent there and they'll make you pay if you're hitting it where you should be right away.
MiLB.com: Before that, you were held back by the Reds and made your pro debut a year after getting drafted. What was your reaction to that strategy?
Stephenson: To be honest, I was a little disappointed at first. I don't want to say I was pushed back, but you could see they were holding me back a little bit. My arm wanted to throw. But as time went on, I saw that it was a better idea for me. They wanted to warm me up, get me used to throwing every five days. The more I look at it, the better it was for me.
MiLB.com: Back to the present. How close to the Majors do you feel right now?
Stephenson: Obviously, I don't expect to be break camp with the big club. That being said, I think they want me to be ready at some point this season in case I am moved up. I want to be ready at every turn, so I'm prepared when I do get that call.
MiLB.com: It's expected that you'll be up there at some point this year. What do you expect it'll be like when you first step on a Major League mound?
Stephenson: I'm sure it'll be pretty exciting, but to be honest, I'm not entirely sure how it'll be. I'm sure it's one of those things where you don't know until you're there in that moment.
MiLB.com: I want to talk shop a little bit. Scouting reports are very high on your fastball. How are you able to dial up the velocity on that?
Stephenson: I think sometimes it's just adrenaline. It usually only happens that I hit the really high speeds at the very beginning of an outing or toward the end of it. Sometimes, it happens in crucial situations, too. Whenever adrenaline kicks in, that's when I usually add a little extra velocity. It's just something that happens.
MiLB.com: As for off-speed stuff, your curveball gets high marks, too. What makes it effective?
Stephenson: That just comes from playing around with it, playing catch with it, playing with some different grips. The only way you can get a feel for that pitch is to experiment with it and play around with it and find what works best.
MiLB.com: What kind of grip do you use with it and what other adjustments have you made?
Stephenson: The grip's right around the horseshoe, on the seams there. As for adjustments, it's hard to say. They're such tight, tiny adjustments, I wouldn't even know how to explain them, to be honest.
MiLB.com: What's next for you in terms of your arsenal? What still needs work?
Stephenson: I've been working a lot on my changeup. It's actually got a lot better than it was a few years ago, but I still want to improve on it and make it an even better third option. I used to throw a two-seamer, too, but the organization has me mostly working on my four-seamer. I'd like to bring it back at some point, though, here and there, just to give my stuff another look and some more movement.
MiLB.com: You mentioned before you're a California guy, which obviously isn't exactly close to Cincinnati. What did you know about the Reds before 2011?
Stephenson: I didn't know a whole lot, really, besides the fact they're the oldest team in baseball. I knew there was a big history but wasn't too big on the specifics outside maybe the Big Red Machine.
But since, the biggest thing for me has been the fans. They really love this team and really love anything Reds as a whole. There are big crowds up there, and I saw a little bit of that when I went to Redsfest in December. They're pretty passionate about the game, and it shows.
MiLB.com: One last one. Who was the first pitcher you looked up to when you were younger and tried to model yourself after?
Stephenson: The first pitcher, I guess, was Jason Schmidt when he was on the Giants [from 2001-07]. I was a kid in the Bay Area, the Giants were the local team and he was really good then. But he was a guy I just enjoyed watching. Personally on the mound, I worked with so many different coaches who helped me find my mechanics that I've become my own pitcher instead of trying to look like someone else.