GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Learning appearances can be painful. Right-hander Robert Stephenson and left-hander Cody Reed found that out last year.
They started the year atop the Reds prospect list and ended it atop the suspect list after struggling mightily in their first time in the majors. Stephenson went 2-3 with a 6.08 ERA. Reed went 0-7 with a 7.36 ERA.
Stephenson is 24 and Reed is 23, so what happened last year is not the end of the line -- if they learned from their rude awakenings.
“You learn from your successes and your failures, sometimes more from your failures,” Reds manager Bryan Price said. “They could not have been throwing the ball in Triple-A the way they were in the big leagues or they wouldn't have had the success they did in Triple-A, especially Cody.”
But both Stephenson and Reed are reaching the point in their development that results in the majors are expected. Both are in the competition for a rotation spot this spring. They are, in fact, the two favorites for the spots. But they’ll have to apply what they learned last year to win one of the spots.
So what did they learn?
“I learned a lot about what I had to work on in the offseason,” Stephenson said. “I felt I had to work on going inside. I think there were a lot of times last year where (catcher) Tucker (Barnhart) wanted to go inside with somebody, and I’d try to go in and I’d miss over the heart of the plate and get hit hard.”
“That’s one of the things I wanted to focus on coming into this year. I think if I can improve that, I’ll be a lot better.”
Said Reed: “I learned you have to stay positive no matter what. I was around all these guys in the clubhouse. They were awesome. I felt like this offseason I could joke about it. When someone mentioned a home run, I could joke about it and dog myself. People might think that is bad, but that was the way I could deal with it.”
Price has talked a lot about one of the keys to pitching success is having conviction in your stuff. Stephenson and Reed have the stuff to be successful -- if they put it where they want it.
“Each guy just has to have better command,” pitching coach Mack Jenkins said. “The hitters in the majors leagues are good. If you don’t command the ball well, you pitch in the middle of the plate, you’re not going to have success. Those guys pitched behind. The hitter can narrow his happy zone down. That’s what happened to both of them.
“Early when Rob pitched in games, he was able to command, especially when he got his curveball over the plate. He wasn’t able to do that in September. His fastball command was sporadic. Same with Cody. Sporadic command.”
That is largely a mental thing. Both have worked on that.
“Mentally just trusting myself,” Stephenson said. “Not trying to do too much. Instead of trying to impress everybody, be relaxed.”
And Reed: “If I’m right between the ears, I think everything will come together. In my mind, I have the capability of being successful and staying here as long as I can. I think it’s all about what’s between the ears. I tried to stay as strong as possible when things weren’t going very good.”
As Price said, it is not uncommon for young pitchers to struggle early in their careers. Homer Bailey did. He pointed that out to Reed.
“You get humbled pretty quick,” Reed said. “But you’ve got to stay confident. Homer took me under his wing. One game in Cincinnati, he invited me to his house. We just talked. Stuff like that is big.”
Stephenson makes his spring debut Sunday. Reed will make his Monday.
That will be their first chance to apply last year’s lessons.
For Stephenson, it means pitching inside -- something he worked on in the offseason.
“I had agent step in the box and I tried to get inside,” Stephenson said. “I worked on front side, too, making sure I stay more in synch. Keep everything more consistent.
“I’m very happy so far. I’m looking forward to facing live hitters.”
For Reed, it means working his change-up into the mix with his slider and fastball.
“My change-up has surprised me,” Reed said. “I changed my grip a little bit. Nothing major. It feels better. I’m more confident. I can throw it both sides with the same arm speed. It could have helped me last year.”
Of all that goes on this spring, nothing is more important for the Reds than the development of Stephenson and Reed. They’re going to have to be good for the Reds to have a chance to be good.
Price has said as much.
“I don't want to sit here and say, 72, 75 wins is a nice improvement for a team that's rebuilding,” Price said. “We have to set much higher goals and standards for ourselves, and in order for that to happen, we have to have stability in the rotation. We need some step-up performances.”
John Fay is a freelance sports columnist; this column represents his opinion. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.