The first thing you want to do after talking to Blue Jays minor league pitcher Sem Robberse is to go to baseball-ref and check his age. The native of Zeist, Netherlands, won’t turn 20 until October. Yet, his poise, depth of thought, and the progress he’s made in such a relatively short period of time suggests someone several years older. But the young righthander has made a habit of living up to the adage, “if you’re good enough, you’re old enough.”
The Blue Jays first started to pursue Robberse in his native Netherlands when he was 16 at an MLB-sponsored tournament in Barcelona. As an international prospect, Robberse was eligible to be signed, but he demurred, because he felt, “it was a little too early – I hadn’t even graduated high school yet.”
The Blue Jays continued their pursuit of Robberse the following season. Robberse by this time was pitching in the Honkball Hoofdklasse, the Netherlands’ top league. Blue Jays VP of International Operations Andrew Tinnish, who was spearheading the efforts to land Robberse, likened the quality of play in the loop of D-2 ball in the U.S. “They made some videos, saw that my mechanics were good, with a low risk of injury,” said Robberse after the Blue Jays watched him pitch in the European Championships. Tinnish made the trip overseas to watch Robberse pitch in the spring of 2019, then was back in May, when he finally got the youngster’s name on a contract. Tinnish was elated. Robberse’s delivery, Tinnish said,
….”it’s a top 10 in terms of pitchers I’ve scouted. He has excellent rhythm and movement, great hip and shoulder tilt and separation, has a firm front side, and pitches in a good line to the plate. He has a good landing, and clean arm action.
Robberse’s delivery is indeed a polished one.
The signing touched off a whirlwind spring for Robberse, who was writing his final high school exams, and had to make a brief trip back home in order to secure a work visa. He made several cross-Atlantic trips until landing for good in Florida in June. Florida, Robberse said, “It was completely different. First time I got off the plane, I’m wearing a hoodie because the plane was cold. I was sweating immediately. I’ve been through hot weather (in Europe) before, but nothing like this, where you feel like you’re breathing through a towel.”
Robberse would make only five appearances (two in relief) in the former Gulf Coast League that season, but he garnered a lot of attention. During trade talks in the off season, numerous clubs approached the Blue Jays about Robberse’s availability. This season, Robberse made his full season debut with the Low A Southeast’s Dunedin Blue Jays. After recording an 8.38 ERA after his first month of the season, Robberse continually improved, and after pitching a career high 7 innings of four-hit, one-run ball in a July 29th start against Bradenton, then another five frames of shutout one-hit ball in his next start, he was on his way to High A Vancouver. Heady stuff for a guy with all of 70 innings of pro experience, but the Blue Jays are thrilled with his makeup, and they obviously considered if anyone could handle such an aggressive assignment, it would be Robberse. With Alek Manoah in the bigs, and Nate Pearson apparently on track to return there soon, and this year’s first round pick Gunnar Hoglund out for the season, Robberse (the Blue Jays 13th-ranked prospect, according to MLB Pipeline) might be the best starting pitching prospect in the organization.
Ray Robberse was a pitcher himself, but “not at a high level,” he says. But Robberse Sr is just as much a student of pitching as his son is, and Sem gives him considerable credit for his development. “My dad is the biggest part of my career,” says the younger Robberse. “He taught (me my mechanics) by starting backward. You start with how you release the ball, how you finish, and then you move back from there so you’re prepared for the next step.” For his part, Ray says, “I did – and still do – some research on how to be efficient with pitching, and how to put all the kinetic energy the body produces into the baseball. I looked at the best pitchers, and worked with that info.” Ray scoured the internet for videos to further his research, and made one discovery that made a huge difference for Sem. “One thing I recall was a video from a baseball instruction site with the hands over the head motion to create energy and timing in fluid motion. We made the change in 2014/15 during a summer break. And his very first game after that he pitched a one-hit, 7 inning shutout with 57 pitches.” The adjustment was, in Ray’s words, a “game changer.”
The two have had an ongoing dialogue about pitching beyond mechanics. “(My dad) is still helping me, he’s always helping me…..with things like sequencing, and attacking hitters. It’s nice to have someone who supports me day in and day out with everything that I’m doing.” Robberse Sr says:
“…..as a kid I just told him to attack the hitters. I didn’t allow him to throw any breaking pitches. Your first and foremost job as a pitcher is to throw strikes. So he just went low in and away, up in and away. Look at the hitters settling themselves in the batter’s box. They, as we learned from a video from Diamond Demos with Pedro Martinez, tell you where they want you to pitch the ball. So you avoid that area. Sem was not allowed to throw a curveball until he was 17 years old and played on the highest level in The Netherlands, the Dutch major league. Before that bit was only fastball and change up, that still needs some developing. Hitting your spots as a pitcher is so much more important. Breaking stuff gives you, as a young kid, immediate success, but in the long term, you’re not learning how to pitch. Play with speed and location.”
“I’m starting to figure out more about my mechanics and looking into other pitches and stuff and see what they do. And I’ve seen some inefficiencies that I would want to change that would really help me. So now I’m starting to understand more like, mechanics wise, that helps me and then when my dad who understands a lot of it gets me to where I am at the moment.”
When asked about how much analytics factor into his development, Sem says:
“I’m curious to see what the numbers (spin rate, et al) are, and what the numbers say about a certain pitch and how that can affect a strategy, and how you can approach a hitter….at the same time, I’m not getting into like, where my slider has to be, those types of numbers……whenever I throw a bullpen I see what works and what doesn’t, then I know like, okay, I should maybe, do something different with my release or grip. I still want to have that feeling and not just go completely off into numbers.”
Covid-19 was hard on all players in the Blue Jays minor league system, probably more so on international players, many of whom could not go home. Robberse was in Florida for what would have been the 2020 season, but was fortunately able to go home in the off season. “It was hard, because I couldn’t really go anywhere, and had to do exercises in my room,” Robberse said. “I just tried really hard when I went home to work on my spin efficiency – that’s what I really want to get swings and misses on. Last year really wasn’t a ‘lost’ year, because I kept trying to do my thing and kept trying to get better.” The Robberse family had hoped to travel to Florida this September, because Sem’s younger brother will be playing in the U18 Worlds at Bradenton, by Covid has put a stop to that. When you talk to Sem, you come to understand how important his family is to him.
Robberse is definitely a work in progress, which really shouldn’t come as a surprise. A source close to the organization loves his profile, work ethic, and mechanics, but feels that at this point Sem lacks a true out pitch – but the good news is that time is on his side. When asked about how he feels his arsenal of pitches is developing, Sem answers with characteristic detail and insight:
“My fastball command has been really good. I’ve thrown it a lot of strikes. I’ve been really confident and just throwing in any count. My slider has been improving…I started throwing it this year….. playing with it in spring training and trying to perfect it a little bit more and find a way to make it consistent. So that’s really helpful, a really good pitch. My curveball has been good over the past two years, haven’t had any problems with it. So that’s been a really good pitch for me. I’ve been working on my change up because it was pretty fast. It comes up as a sinker, high 80s low 90s, so I’m trying to perfect that….get it a little slower. It has good depth on it, it’s got good movement on it, it’s just a little too fast, like the change of part. Adding and subtracting to a hitter’s approach is not there, but the movement is”
Robberse also likes to work down in the zone, as Baseball Savant illustrates:
“My fastball has a little cut to it, it moves down a little bit,” explains Sem.. “So whenever I don’t have to cut it it’s really good to have that in certain games when I can play better on top of the zone. But when there is a little cut to it, it comes down into the zone whenever I throw it up, so I if I notice that there’s a little cut in it, I tried to keep it down so that I can get weak contact off of it. My curveball and slider play down as well, so that helps.”
Among Robberse’s many fans is Dunedin pitching coach Drew Hayes, who oversaw Sem’s development for the first half of the season. When told about Robberse’s poise and maturity in a conversation, Hayes is not surprised:
“That’s exactly how he is every day…..it’s well thought out, purposeful work. He’s the consummate professional. Everything that he does is professional. The way he approaches his outings, scouting reports, deals with staff, the way he deals with anybody that’s working at the ballpark is professional.
Robberse is so articulate that Hayes agrees sometimes it’s easy to forget that English is his second language:
If forget that all the time because he’s so fluent. Everything he says is so measured and meaningful. At the same time, he’s very jovial, and he’s someone you can have a fun conversation with. And then five minutes later, you could talk to him seriously about something to do with pitching, and he’s locked in.
Given his age, it’s reasonable to ask Hayes if Robberse might experience an uptick in velocity (he currently sits in the low 90s) as he gets older. Hayes feels that he might, but given his arsenal of pitches and his feel for pitching, it might not be of huge importance:
I’m sure there’s some things we could do, but he’s already averaging 92, 93, touching 94 and 95, so that’s good velocity already…….I think that he’s still growing into his body, and as that occurs, naturally things are going to happen. If it’s a velo uptick, that’s great. Or, if it’s just him continuing to get better and adding to the stuff and refining it, and the way his pitches move, that would be great as well.”
When asked what are Robberse’s strongest attributes, as well as what he needs to work on as he moves up the ladder, Hayes draws parallels between the two:
One of his best attributes – beside his fastball – is just his ability to be cued on something. He’s not someone you really have to coach. You can just tell him, “hey, make the slider have a bit more depth, maybe make the curve ball a little bit more top to bottom,” and then he can just go and do it, for the most part. And that’s an outstanding trait. There’s nothing that really stands out as a negative, but I just think he just has to continue to mature, play more baseball – this will be the first time he’s gone through a full season. You saw his outing in Bradenton (July 29th) and the next week in Fort Myers. Both of those were borderline non-competitive outings. He just kind of cruised through seven innings, then turned around and got through five innings without much trouble. So it was probably time for him to see a little bit more challenge.
When asked who among Blue Jays players and staff have been the biggest influences upon him, Robberse singles out Toronto’s Pitching Development Coordinator. “Definitely Cory Popham. I can always talk to him, and he has always been helpful with me. So he always asks me how it’s going, and he texts me after every start. And that’s been really, really helpful for me.” As far as players go, he singles out a former fellow prospect. “ I talk to (Alek) Manoah every once in a while, and he’s of course now in the big leagues. He’s just fun to watch, he has a really good mentality. So every time you talk to him, it’s interesting. It’s fun to listen to.”
Popham says Robberse is, “an awesome kid,” and agrees it’s hard to believe he’s still a teenager. Sem is the complete package, as far as he’s concerned:
“Sem is everything you look for in a pitcher. He’s a bulldog on the mound, his work ethic is off the charts, and since he signed, he has constantly been improving. I’m incredibly fortunate to be able to work with him and cannot wait to continue watching him progress throughout his career.”
Officials throughout the Blue Jays organization besides Tinnish and Popham have sung Robberse’s praises. Last spring, Director of Player Development/MLB coach Gil Kim told us that Robberse was learning Spanish in order to better connect with his Latin teammates. Sem admits that he’s struggled beyond learning a number of words and phrases, but the gesture speaks volumes about him as a teammate.
Blue Jays Assistant Player Development Director Joe Sclafani also refers to Robberse’s maturity when asked what stands out about the young pitcher:
“Sem is someone we’re extremely excited about. From the time we first got him to the complex, he has been a consummate pro and has fully bought into what we discuss with him. He’s inquisitive, always wants to understand the why, and consistently wants to put the work in. For a younger guy, he is extremely mature, was able to establish his routines very quickly, and the strides he has made from day one are extremely encouraging. He has the aptitude to make adjustments really quickly, which excites us because he naturally has a great skill set that will only continue to get better.”
If it’s not time for Blue Jays fans to be excited about Sem Robberse, it soon will be.