A major league bullpen is almost always comprised of a combination of expected and unexpected contributors. That’s just nature and volatility of relief pitching these days. The 2022 Atlanta Braves bullpen was no different, and there may not have been a more out-of-nowhere addition than that of Jackson Stephens.
Stpehens, originally from Alabama, was all set start his college baseball career at the University of Alabama, when he got picked by the Cincinnati Reds in the 18th round of the 2012 Major League Baseball Draft. Stephens signed with the Reds, forgoing his college career, and began his professional career at the bottom of the Reds organization. After years of fighting his way through the minors, Stephens finally got added to the Reds’ 40-man roster at the end of 2016 and made his major league debut in June 2017.
He then spent the next two years shuttling between the majors and Triple-A with the Reds, before he was outrighted off the roster at the end of the 2019 season. He didn’t pitch in the COVID-shortened 2020 season, and signed with Tecolotes de los Dos Laredos of the Mexican league in 2021. He did enough in Mexico to catch the attention of the Braves: after the 2021 season, they signed him to a minor league deal for 2022. On April 12, a few days after the season began, the Braves added him to their 40-man roster and active roster, where he remained for most of the 2022 season.
What were the expectations?
Obviously when you come out of nowhere to contribute to a team, there’s not going to be much in the way of expectations beforehand. Stephens did have an impressive showing in the Venezuelan Winter League right before signing with Atlanta. He posted a 1.82 ERA in 50 innings in Venezuela with a 4.31 strikeout to walk ratio. But, honestly, no one knew what to expect. Given his method of acquisition, he was basically expected to be a last-guy-in-the-bullpen, replacement-level type, but he honestly ended up quite a bit better than that.
Stephens stunned everyone with how quickly he became a dependable arm out of the bullpen. After being called up on April 12, with the exception a seven-day stint on the concussion IL, Stephens spent the entire season in the Braves’ bullpen. For the season, he posted a 3.69 ERA, a 3.86 xERA, a 3.54 FIP, and a 4.03 xFIP. (The ERA/FIP/xFIP on a minus basis are 89/90/102.) Stephens has never been a huge strikeout guy, and that continued in 2022 with a 20 percent strikeout rate and a 10 percent walk rate.
He totaled 0.4 fWAR off the FIP in 53 2⁄3 innings, though, which is pretty average-y for a reliever.
What went right? What went wrong?
The easiest place to start with what went right for Stephens in 2022 was his 6.8 percent HR/FB rate, well below league average, indicating a decent amount of fly ball luck. This is obviously why his xFIP was half a run higher than his FIP last year and running such a number can dramatically change the outlook of your season.
Here’s an example of a ball, with different fly ball luck, that could’ve just as easily been home run:
And not only was it not a home run, it was an out.
Again, another big park, another ball hit hard to dead center field that not only wasn’t a home run, but was an out.
And here’s another, ironically, one batter from the last one:
Stephens gave up 44 fly balls last year and a grand total of 3 home runs in 2022, and had that number been more in line with league average, our entire outlook of Stephens’ season is probably much different.
That said, it’s not like his season was entirely just avoiding homers on deep fly balls. Stephens got good mileage out of both his four-seamer (.281 wOBA, .289 xwOBA) and his curveball (.201 wOBA, .215 xwOBA). The curveball success wasn’t very surprising: it’s a pitch with great two-plane movement, and Stephens had no problem throwing it for strikes, often sneaking it past hitters at the top of the zone. The four-seamer was a little weirder, as the pitch lacks effective “rise,” isn’t thrown unusually hard, and was rarely located well — but he threw strikes with it (in fact, Stephens threw tons of strikes, which makes his walk rate surprising) and apparently that was enough. The worse parts of his arsenal were his sinker and changeup, both of which got hit hard, even though the changeup’s movement looks good on paper.
As far as what went wrong, too many walks and too few strikeouts despite the combination of two strong pitches were still an issue for Stephens, continuing a consistent problem for him. Nearly one walk every two innings pitched is too many and, such a problem can be compensated for with an elite amount of strikeouts, but Stephens didn’t offer that either. A troubling amount of free passes, combined with large amounts of contact is not a recipe for consistent production from a pitcher. The walk thing was just really weird for Stephens, as he seemed to just temporarily lose control and walk guys while mostly being around the zone. By one definition of the strike zone, only 65 pitchers with 50+ innings pitched in 2022 (out of 347 total) threw in the zone more frequently, yet only three of them had a higher walk rate. He did throw a greater-than-usual number of borderline pitches, but probably what did him in is the fact that along with some curveballs near the top of the zone not being called strikes for him, he seemed to frequently spike multiple breakers non-competitively.
Still, he definitely had his moments. The September 25 game in Philadelphia was probably his crowning achievement: the Braves were in a crazy game featuring seven lead changes and extra innings thanks to a wild pitch that tied the game in the eighth. Not only did Jackson prevent the Phillies from walking off in the bottom of the 10th (IBB, strikeout, fielder’s choice out at third, fly out), but then he closed out the game in the bottom of the 11th after the Braves took a two-run lead, allowing just the ghost runner to score in an 8-7 victory. Here’s his last pitch of that game, but really, it was his awesome sequence in the 10th that gave the Braves a shot to win it.
On the flip side, his season wasn’t without meltdowns — his 4/6 shutdown/meltdown ratio is an artifact of the fact that low-leverage relievers can’t really earn WPA but sure can lose it, but sometimes those relievers get thrown into high leverage and flame out gloriously. That’s what happened on May 31, the day before the Braves started to turn their season around, as Jackson was handed a one-run extra-inning lead and turned it into a walkoff loss, as shown in the last 20 seconds of the clip below.
Note that that loss wasn’t really Stephens’ fault as the big hit was a flare down the line, but that’s what happens when you don’t strike everyone out, and Stephens definitely wasn’t that type of player, relying on balls to find gloves to get out of innings unscathed. When he didn’t, that happened — just like the roller through the infield on September 28 that gave the Nationals a walkoff win against the Braves.
As one more thing that went wrong: Stephens got hit by a comebacker in the noggin and had to miss some time on the concussion IL. That’s never fun for anyone.
In a somewhat surprising move, Stephens was designated for assignment at the beginning of the off-season as the Braves added Dennis Santana, formerly of the Rangers, to their rsoter. Bullpen depth and 40-man crunches are always tough to predict and clearly the Front Office felt they could make better use of Stephens’ 40-man spot with a direct swap for Santana. We’ll see where he ends up and if the team considers bringing him back on (perhaps) a minor league deal.
Stephens is probably still a replacement-level reliever so there’s no huge loss if the Braves don’t retain him, but he had a fun 2022 nonetheless, and it’d be kind of a bummer to see him go when his roster spot was most immediately taken up by someone that had an even worse xFIP than him last season.