AFL Spotlight: Will Roberts
Amazingly, the 2013 Arizona Fall League season wraps up late next week.
It has been a little more condensed version than in years past, but it still has given players from all 30 organizations a chance to face some of the best talent in the upper levels of the minors for five weeks.
One player who has benefitted from that exposure has been right-handed pitcher Will Roberts.
Roberts, 23, has made five starts in the AFL and is 0-1 with a 5.31 ERA. In 20.1 innings he has allowed 25 hits, 4 home runs, 6 walks and has 11 strikeouts. The numbers are not much to be excited about, but then again, in the offensive-dominated AFL that is often the case and pitchers typically suffer as a result.
Roberts had a solid 2013 campaign for the Indians in affiliate ball where he went 8-12 with a 4.77 ERA, and in 154.2 innings he allowed 173 hits, 17 home runs, 36 walks and had 107 strikeouts.
“I was pretty happy with the whole body of work and how everything went,” Roberts said. “I was able to get up to Akron and throw a good amount of innings up there and just see what the difference in the level is there. I feel like I have learned a lot of stuff and gotten better over the year. That’s really all you can ask, is if you finish the year better than you were in spring training.”
Roberts really struggled at High-A Carolina in 2012 and the early part of this season. In 28 total appearances at Carolina between the two seasons he went 6-13 with a 5.74 ERA. But he has pitched better everywhere else, going 2-1 with a 2.90 ERA in five starts at Low-A Lake County in 2012 before a promotion to Carolina and then going 7-9 with a 4.57 ERA in 23 starts at Double-A Akron after a promotion this season from Carolina.
“I really couldn’t tell you why,” Roberts replied on why he struggled so much at Carolina. “But when I got up to Akron I was able to make some strides with [pitching coach Greg Hibbard] and I was able to put some good starts together there in the beginning. Just like any season you are going to have your ups and downs, and I think what I was starting to learn is you have to minimize how long your downs last. I can’t really point to one thing, but I just felt comfortable up there working with Hibby and I felt like for the most part it was a good summer.”
A good summer indeed as Roberts really settled in over the course of the season at Double-A Akron. He had a very strong showing from July 1 to August 18th where he made a string of nine starts and went 2-4 with a 2.68 ERA that built some momentum for him and had the Indians speaking highly of him at the end of the season.
Even though Roberts struggled in his last three outings of the season, he had caught the Indians attention as a legit starting pitching option in the upper levels. They spoke highly of him in late season discussions and about the strides he made on the mound over the course of the season, and were ultimately impressed with his ability to haul innings, show durability, compete and throw strikes.
Those are some intangibles to starting pitchers which can often be hard to find. For as exciting as it can be to have a prospect that throws the ball 100 MPH or has a drop off the table curveball, the ability to be consistent outing to outing and haul innings is also an important trait that those high upside arms can lack.
Now, Roberts needs to put it all together. He needs to improve the quality of his stuff and show more confidence in using his entire arsenal. He only averages 89-91 MPH on his fastball and can get it up to 93 MPH at times, but he doesn’t have the life and movement to it to get a lot of swing and miss so he needs to rely on command and location of it. He needs to continue working to pitch off his fastball and mix his assortment of secondary offerings – a slider, changeup and cutter – into his pitch sequences.
“I am just trying to work on all of my pitches, working on mixing in all four pitches because I fell into a rhythm there during the season where I would go through a game and realize after the game I only threw two pitches and maybe mixed in a third pitch sometimes,” Roberts said. “So I really want to work in all four here in the AFL in the limited innings I get here. That’s my main goal, is to come out of here with a better feel on all four of my pitches.”
With the lack of a put away offering, Roberts knows he needs to be able to throw any of his pitches in any count in order to keep hitters guessing. The confidence to drop in a 2-0 or 3-1 changeup or slider is a key.
“I definitely want to be able to throw any pitch in any count,” Roberts said. “I am not going to be one of those guys who throws it by them for six innings, so I need to be able to mix my pitches better as I move along and improve the quality of them.”
Roberts is also still getting used to the grind of professional baseball with a game or practice every day for seven months.
“It is definitely different than college ball,” Roberts said. “You are more on your own out there and playing every day rather than three or four days a week. You definitely need to have a love of baseball to be able to do this year in and year out. The players are better every level you go to and it is a new challenge everywhere you go.”
With the end of the AFL season nearing, Roberts will soon see his offseason officially begin. But he does not plan to be off for long as spring training will be here soon and he knows he needs to continue to get better.
“I just plan on getting stronger so I can go through a full season again,” Roberts said about his offseason plans. “There are definitely times in the season where you start to feel weak and tired, and I want to be able to go through the full year feeling strong. I just want to carry over whatever I get done out here into spring training.”
There is a place in baseball for pitchers like Roberts who are command-control artists. If you can paint the corners and mix your pitches by throwing them anytime and in any count, you are going to be successful whether or not you throw 100 MPH or 88 MPH. The difference is you just have little room for error when you don’t throw hard.
Roberts should have a chance to pitch out of the starting rotation once again for Double-A Akron next season, and he is looking forward to the opportunity to continue to improve as a pitcher and also improve his standing in the organization.
“I think for sure they can count on me to go out there every fifth day and provide a good start,” Roberts said. “That is something I take pride in with my offseason regimen and then in season maintaining my strength to be able to go through the whole season. I think that is an attribute that adds to my value. All you can do is control what you can control and just try to get better. What happens on the field will speak for itself.”
Follow Tony and the Indians Baseball Insider on Twitter @TonyIBI. Also, his new book the 2014 Cleveland Indians Baseball Insider which profiles the Indians' Top 100 Prospects and more is available for sale.