Guardians manager Terry Francona turned to Trevor Stephan plenty of times over the course of 2022, but none of those calls showed how much trust he has in his 26-year-old reliever more than bringing him in to prevent the Yankees from running up the score in a do-or-die Game 5 in the ALDS.
Stephan was called, as he had been so many times this year, to be a multi-inning clutch reliever. The Guardians were trailing, 4-1, and already embroiled in a bullpen game. They would still end up losing as they couldn’t muster the runs for a comeback, but it wasn’t the fault of Stephan, who recorded seven outs and bridged the gap between Sam Hentges and James Karinchak almost flawlessly.
He finished that game with an earned run on the scorecard, but that one can be chalked up to Karinchak, who immediately allowed a single and a runner to score from second. Regardless, Stephan did his job with four strikeouts, one hit, and one walk over 2.1 innings. He came in to pitch in arguably the biggest game of his life in front of the most hostile crowd he ever faced and came away looking like it didn’t phase him a bit.
It’s a familiar story for Stephan, who suddenly found himself as one of Tito’s most trusted relievers this season and the No. 9 MVP on our countdown.
Just how much did Tito trust Stephan throughout the regular season? According to FanGraphs’ gmLI, which measures the average leverage index of the game when a pitcher takes the mound, only Emmanuel Clase and Nick Sandlin entered the game in more tense situations. Nobody faced more than Stephan’s 174 batters in high- or medium-leverage situations.
Stephan was hardly a known quantity coming into 2022, especially to those who don’t follow the Guardians. After all, he was just a former Rule 5 draft pick who carried a 4.41 ERA in his first season — what could he possibly do in year two? Well, turns out he can pitch basically the same number of innings (63.2 in 2022 compared to 63.1 in 2021) but drop his ERA down to 2.69 and fold in a splitter that was virtually unhittable at times. By August, FanGraphs was calling him the “best pitcher you’ve never heard of” as the national media started to take notice. And if there was anyone left who didn’t know Stephan by October, they should after that Yankees series.
Nothing paints the emergence of Stephan’s abilities more clearly than the magic all-knowing orbs of Baseball Savant. Keep in mind that each red circle represents being in elite company, the upper echelon of each skill. Each number represents a percentile, so if you’re in the 97th percentile of something, roughly only 3% of the league is better than you at it.
Stephan nails them all.
Remember Phil Maton? The reliever who was traded to the Astros in exchange for Myles Straw last year? Much like Stephan, he always had high marks on his spin rates but could never seem to put it together to form anything. Even in Houston, he’s a good reliever, but still not as elite as his spin rate would normally suggest. He was a bit of a failed experiment that the Guardians were able to ship away for another team’s failed experiment and both sides are probably happy with it. But still, imagine if someone with a raw talent as good as Maton’s could put it together.
That’s basically Trevor Stephan.
Even when he was a middling rookie in 2021, Trevor was spinning his fastball at a near-elite level (81st percentile), but the results weren’t there yet. He was almost all fastball-slider, with his emerging splitter seeing usage just 8.1% of the time. He wasn’t missing barrels, and he couldn’t get batters to chase. He was constantly attacking the zone stuff that was too hittable for how aggressive he was.
If there’s one thing to point to when it comes to Steven’s emergence, it’s that big beautiful splitter. MLB.com ran a story about it after Game 1 of the ALDS that contained one particularly interesting tidbit.
While veteran Bryan Shaw taught him the grip, former teammate Blake Parker taught him how to use it. The result was a game-changer, which according to one rival evaluator made at-bats against him far more uncomfortable. Right-handed hitters, who slugged 11 homers off him last year, hit just one this season, batting .207 with 45 strikeouts in 153 plate appearances. Lefties also hit him with less power than last year.
Until proven otherwise, I’m convinced that Bryan Shaw gave Stephan what little power he had left as he faded into nothingness Space Jam-style.
The horizontal movement on all of his pitches is fantastic, just as they were last year. His velocity hasn’t gone up dramatically, and there is no change to his release point. It’s simply that he has this new weapon to fool batters when he really needs it. The splitter, which averages 88 mph (faster than his 86 mph slider) induced swings and misses 54% of the time in 2022, and it was by far his most dominant put-away pitch at 32.1%.
Stephan’s plan of attack is deceptively simple: four-seamer up in the zone, splitter down, slider away. That’s it. There are hardly any tricks up his sleeve, he doesn’t try to pinpoint the four-seamer down and away or move the splitter away from lefties. He knows what works, he knows batters have a limited view of him, and he exploits the hell out of it.
Stephan’s 2022 season was phenomenal, and there’s no reason to doubt he can build off of it going forward. He’s already easily the best Rule 5 draft pick in Cleveland history (sorry Hoby Milner), and with some time he could make his way up some other lists as well. At this point, I don’t think Stephan’s aggressiveness is going to wane, so how much he succeeds in the future depends on how comfortable he gets with his four-seamer and splitter, and how much he can get batters to chase, and more importantly, miss.
On that note, I leave you with this piece of treasured art, a montage of batters looking silly against that nasty splitter.
Trevor Stephan’s 2022 Stats
Total MVP points: 16
First-place MVP votes: 0
We’re reviewing (almost) all the Guardians players from 2022 now through November, starting with the top-10 MVPs as voted on by eight Covering the Corner staff members. Players were awarded points based on their one through 10 individual rankings and were ranked as such. You can find all the Year in Review posts here.