McCoy: Stephenson comfortable in first full season in major leagues

Reds catcher, team’s No. 1 pick in 2015, is hitting .359 this season

There is no plausible argument that the Cincinnati Reds permitted a solid, usable catcher to walk away when they didn’t re-sign Curt Casali last December.

He signed a $1.5 million contract with the San Francisco Giants and recently performed an incredible feat: he caught five straight shutouts from five different starting pitchers.

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The Reds, though, knew they had to make room for catcher Tyler Stephenson, a No. 1 draft pick in 2015. He spent five years in the minors and he was more than ready.

And the Reds saved $1 million.

While some say he is a back-up catcher to Tucker Barnhart, he is more than that. He starts most games against left-handed pitchers and is at the top of the list as manager David Bell’s right-handed pinch-hitter.

He has appeared in 15 of the team’s 24 games and is hitting .359 with a home run and six RBI.

Stephenson is 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds, rather tall for a catcher, but it hasn’t shortened up his game one bit.

He loves the position and takes all the lumps and bruises with a grin. He started Wednesday in Los Angeles against Clayton Kershaw and like most of the Reds he left that game with a bruised batting average. He also obtained some physical marks.

He took a foul ball under his mask and against his chin. He took a trip and a tumble to the grass crossing first base on a ground ball and was attended to by athletic trainer Tomas Vera.

Asked after the game how he was, Stephenson said, “I’m good. Couldn’t be better. I signed up to be back there (catching) and stuff. It’s part of it. It’s a good day. I’m good. I appreciate you asking.”

Stephenson was drafted out of Kennesaw (Ga.) Mountain High School, which is why it took him so long to ascend the minor league ladder. Catchers have a lot to learn. And he said his education from his first year in the majors last season to now was close to a doctorate.

“From last year to this year, it’s completely different,” he said. “I was up some last year, but the time I spent on the taxi squad and the time I spent at the alternate training site just helped me make huge strides. Just being in on the meetings was educational. We didn’t have a minor league season. So I was able to build relationships with our pitchers because I was always around them.

“I want to say I’m comfortable where I’m at,” he added. “I’m proud of myself for making those strides.”

Stephenson had no success facing Kershaw, but then neither did anyone else, with the exception of Nick Senzel. The Reds mustered just four hits and Senzel had three of them.

Stephenson, though, marked it in his diary as a learning lesson.

“It was fun,” he said. “It was my first time facing him or any big-name guy like that. I know I helped him out on a few pitches, which I’m bummed about. It was good to see him for the first time and I felt my ABs got better the more times I saw him. At the end of the day, he is just another guy out there trying to compete. I can’t let his name affect me and my ability. He won, but we have more opportunities coming.”

Reds manager David Bell said Stephenson’s progress is right out of a movie, “Fast and Furious.”

Said Bell of Stephenson’s improvement over the last two years, “It has been fast. When I came into the organization I knew Tyler was a top prospect and highly thought of. We also knew there was room for improvement in his catching and his hitting.

“The development that has taken place right before our eyes has been really incredible,” Bell added. “Defensively he has really settled in, grown a lot in the ways he does everything behind the plate, the way he calls games, the way he receives blocking.”

Stephenson’s quick rise has earned him total confidence from Bell, the coaching staff and the pitching staff.

“He has improved in every area to the point where there is no hesitation to having him catch in any situation, with any of our pitchers. It says so much about what he is capable of.”

With Barnhart, a two-time Gold Glove winner who is hitting .302 so far this year, the Reds catching situation is nestled in four extremely capable hands.

And even though Stephenson is job competition for Barnhart, there is mutual admiration and cooperation.

“Tucker has been phenomenal with Tyler,” said Bell. “He has been very, very supportive and helped him develop. That’s not always the case. That should not surprise us about Tucker, but we’ve seen situations where it is not like that. But Tucker is a great teammate and Tyler has benefitted from that.

And, oh yeah. While Stephenson is hitting .349, Casali is hitting .133 as Buster Posey’s back-up for San Francisco.

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