During a two-month stretch from mid-June through mid-August last summer, Northern California right-hander Robert Stephenson took advantage of an elite amateur baseball trifecta.
A big-time payout – in the form of the start of either a collegiate or professional career – will arrive in the coming months.
Stephenson, a 6-foot-3, 180-pound senior at Alhambra High School in the San Francisco Bay-area community of Martinez, Calif., possesses a fastball that consistently sits in the 92-94 mph range and may have touched as high as 97 this spring, according to reports.
He is a big-time prospect: Perfect Game has Stephenson ranked No. 8 nationally and No. 2 in the state of California in the class of 2011. Only Huntington Beach left-hander Henry Owens (No. 7 national, No. 1 state) is ranked higher in California.
Stephenson’s 2010 summer of fun started with an impressive showing at the Perfect Game National Showcase at the Tampa Bay Rays’ Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla., in June.
Two high-profile events followed in August: the Area Code Games in Long Beach, Calif., and the Aflac All-American Game played at Petco Park in San Diego, the home of the San Diego Padres.
If Stephenson had been somewhat of an unknown going into last summer, his appearances at the PG National, Area Codes and Aflac game certainly increased people’s awareness.
“It was a great summer for me,” Stephenson told Perfect Game this week. “Not only was it a lot of fun, but it was a great learning experience because at the beginning of the year I wasn’t really experienced at pitching against all the good hitters. I think I got better as the summer went on (as far as) learning how to pitch against the better hitters.”
Professional scouts and college coaches and recruiting coordinators show up by the hundreds at all three of the events Stephenson performed at last summer, most notably the PG National.
After that showcase, he received a perfect 10.0 PG Grade and was named to the Top Prospect List, along with such notables as Daniel Norris, Blake Swihart, Josh Tobias and Michael Kelly.
"Long lean athletic build, not close to filling out. Big leg raise delivery, 3/4's slot, not much effort on release,” a Perfect Game scouting report from the event read. “Loose and very fast arm, steady 92-93 mph fastball explodes out of his hand, plenty more velo in there, gets some arm side run."
The PG National and the Aflac All-American Game stood out for Stephenson in terms of the exposure he received.
“Obviously, going to the National and then getting selected for the Aflac game, that was definitely beneficial,” Stephenson said. “And the Aflac game itself … getting to play with all the good players there and meeting all of them, they were all a bunch of real good guys, so it was fun to meet some new people.
“And playing out on the Padres’ field was really cool to me; I especially like their field because it’s a pitcher’s park, but just being out on the field and in front of so many people was really a great experience for me. I had a lot of fun with it.”
Stephenson, who started for the West squad at the Aflac game and pitched two scoreless innings, didn’t play with total strangers at the event. He has spent the last couple of summers pitching for the powerhouse NorCal travel ball team, and fellow NorCal standouts Shawnon Dunston Jr., Billy Flamion and Joe Ross were also on the Aflac West roster.
He played for the Milwaukee Brewers White squad at the Area Code Games, along with highly ranked and NCAA Division I signees like outfielders Flamion (Oregon) and Dunston Jr. (Vanderbilt); third basemen Tyler Goeddel (UCLA) and Kevin Kramer (UCLA); infielder Zachary Green (Arizona State) and left-hander Max Fried (UCLA).
In addition to going to the showcases, Stephenson stepped up his offseason conditioning program, and scouts and college coaches became even more interested.
“It happened kind of all of a sudden,” he said. “I played against some pretty good players in the Junior Olympics and stuff when I a sophomore and a junior … and I was working out a little bit and pitching all the time and practicing, and I had a jump in my velocity. All of a sudden, that’s when everything happened with the scouts at the showcases and everything.”
Stephenson verbally committed to the University of Washington in April, 2010 – even before his productive summer – and signed with the Huskies in November. Washington’s most high-profile baseball alum is San Francisco Giants right-hander and two-time Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum, who pitched for the Huskies from 2004-06.
During these first couple weeks of May, Stephenson will work toward wrapping up his high school career on as high a note as possible. Alhambra stood 11-7 through May 2 with five more regular season games remaining, somewhat off-setting a start to the season in which Stephenson pitched back-to-back no-hitters in his first two starts.
“I think it’s been going pretty good,” he said. “I’d like to be winning a few more games as a team, but personally, I’ve been pretty happy with it (and) I feel great.
“I just wanted to get everything out of my last high school season as I could,” he continued. “I knew I’d never have a chance to do this again, so I was just looking forward to having a great season and I really just wanted to go out there and win every single game I could.”
As his high school career winds down, it just might be the last time he wears the uniform of any school. A professional career could conceivably begin sooner than later.
Perfect Game’s director of scouting David Rawnsley’s most recent mock draft projects Stephenson to be plucked by the Cincinnati Reds with the 27th pick in the first round of June’s MLB First-Year Player Draft. Pennsylvania high school left-hander Jesse Biddle was taken by the Philadelphia Phillies with the No. 27 overall pick last year, and was awarded with a $1.16 million signing bonus.
That’s a pretty big payday, one that would be difficult for Stephenson to turn down. Last summer’s trifecta of events could pay off sooner than Stephenson imagined, even if he currently sounds somewhat indifferent to the draft.
“I’ll probably watch it, but I don’t really know right now,” he said. “I’m looking at college but I’ll keep my thoughts open with the draft, too. But college is where I’m focused right now.”