Pitching inside paying off for Will Roberts
RubberDucks right-hander enjoying success after midseason adjustments
As the Akron RubberDucks travel to Richmond for a key divisional battle with the first place Flying Squirrels, RubberDucks right-hander Will Roberts has the opportunity to take a stroll down memory lane.
When his turn comes to take the mound, the Virginia native can not only feel like he's pitching in a home game, but he can also harken back to the days of his youth when one of the game's best players once set foot on the very same field back when he was a prospect himself.
"My favorite player was always Chipper Jones because he was here before going up to Atlanta," Roberts reminisced about his childhood of growing up as a Braves fan in the Richmond area.
From 1966 through 2008, the Richmond minor league baseball franchise was part of the Atlanta Braves organization representing their AAA affiliate in the International League and played host to many future big league stars for the Braves, including the great Chipper Jones.
Following the 2008 season, Richmond was rebranded as the Flying Squirrels and converted to a AA affiliate for their new parent club, the San Francisco Giants. Today, Richmond plays in the Eastern League with the RubberDucks as they currently battle it out for first place in their division ahead of the upcoming All-Star Break.
Baseball was always a focal point for Roberts growing up as he originally started out playing as a catcher before deciding to pitch full-time.
“I was a catcher for a lot of my life up until I was around 15 or 16 and then I started pitching predominantly," Roberts said, "I grew a lot taller and I kind of had to make a decision. I was either going to have to put on a lot more weight to be a catcher or just stick to the mound. I think so far it’s been a good decision.”
I'd say it worked out, too, since Roberts was drafted not once, but twice between high school and college. In 2008, the right-hander was selected in the 49th round out of Maggie Walker High School by the Angels, but Roberts instead elected to attend college at the University of Virginia.
While majoring in economics, Roberts pitched collegiately for the Virginia Cavaliers and etched his name in the school's history books by pitching the first perfect game in Virginia history on March 29th, 2011 against George Washington University. It was the 19th overall perfecto in NCAA baseball history.
Later that year, Roberts was selected in the fifth round of the draft by the Indians and this time elected to sign.
“I’ve known Bob Mayer, the guy who drafted me, for a long time," Roberts explained of his decision to sign with the Indians, "I played for him in the East Coast Pro Showcase when I was going into my senior year of high school, so I always knew him and I’d see him each season when he’d come and scout other guys at Virginia."
Bob Mayer originally started out his career as a pitcher in the Cincinnati Reds organization, but eventually ended up becoming a scout for the Indians and is now the team's regional supervisor for scouting on the East Coast. Some notable signings aside from Roberts include major leaguers Lonnie Chisenhall, Chris Archer and Cody Allen.
"Just having that trust there once they drafted me that he was going to put me in a good position," Roberts said, "And once [Mayer] gave me more information about the team, I was really glad that the Indians were giving me an opportunity to go out and play pro ball.”
Roberts began his pro career with Mahoning Valley following the draft in 2011 going 1-3 with a 3.27 ERA in nine games (eight starts) for the Scrappers. In his journey through the Indians farm system leading up to this season, the right-hander has compiled a 16-26 record with a 4.50 ERA.
At the start of the 2014 season, Roberts was named to the newly-rebranded Akron RubberDucks roster as he would return to the AA level for a second season. The first couple months of the season didn't exactly go as well as the right-hander wanted as he went 4-6 with a 4.29 ERA in his first 10 starts between April and May with opposing hitters batting .289 against him.
Once June rolled around, however, something seemed to click for Roberts as he has gone on to win four of his next seven starts with a much more respectable 3.09 ERA and opposing batters only hitting at a mere .237 clip against him.
So what has attributed to this sudden turnaround?
“Probably just preparation.," Roberts explained, "Watching more film, getting a better idea of what the batter is trying to do and working with [Jeff Harris] on all my pitches like pitching inside and trying to get first-pitch strikes. It’s truly just a lot of small things that end up being big in the end."
Jeff Harris is a former big league pitcher and current pitching coach for the Akron RubberDucks. After retiring as a player in 2008, the Indians hired him as a pitching coach for their Arizona Rookie League team and he has been in the organization ever since. In that time, he has also had the opportunity to work with Will Roberts at different affiliates.
“We’ve been together in low-A and high-A a little bit and obviously this year," Harris said about his history with Roberts, "He’s a great guy, a hard worker and a professional all the way, but the guy wants to get better. He’s a student of the game. He shows up to work every day wanting to get better. That’s the difference between guys that have a good career and the guys that don’t."
Roberts' pitch arsenal consists of a fastball, a changeup, a curveball and a slider. Along with some minor mechanical adjustments, the right-hander has focused on developing all his pitches, particularly his changeup and curveball.
“There’s hardly ever a game where you’ve got all four," Roberts explained, "I’ve been really working on my changeup and my curveball because I feel like those are probably my #3 and #4 right now. I just try and improve on everything in every start as well as working on stuff in between starts.”
Harris concurs on his pitch development and had high praise for how well the right-hander has done in formulating what he believes to be a "legitimate major league four-pitch mix".
“He’s improved his curveball from last year to this year tremendously," Harris said, "It’s more of a confidence thing. He has more confidence throwing it. He’s repeating his delivery, which allows him to get in front of the ball consistently. Even on both sides of the plate, he’s able to do some different things with it.
While the curveball is coming along, the changeup appears to be the current stumbling block for Roberts right now.
"The guy really wants to have a good changeup and he does have a good changeup," Harris explained, "It’s just a little inconsistent at times, but we’re just working on some different grips with him and stuff like that. But it’s really coming along."
In addition to working on singular pitch development Harris has coached Roberts on his overall apprach to batters and has encouraged him to pitch inside more, which probably could be most attributed to the right-hander's success of late.
“He’s learning how to pitch inside right now and that’s kind of taken his game to another level," said Harris, "He’s always had the stuff to be successful. It was just a matter of establishing the inside part of the plate to kind of open up the outer half for him, cut down on some walks and get some more swing-and-miss to his stuff."
While his strikeout numbers haven't shown much visible improvement during his recent hot streak compared to his first 10 starts of the season, his WHIP and ground-ball rate certainly have. In April and May, Roberts posted a WHIP of 1.48 and a ground-ball rate of 0.75. In his last seven starts, Roberts has shaved his WHIP down to under one while improving his ground-ball rate to 1.44.
One of the biggest challenges for Roberts to this point in his career has been learning from failure. That has been no less evident this season given his early struggles and it appears he is adjusting well to that mindset.
"You’re always going to experience failure," said Roberts, "It's how you’re going to rebound from that and how you’re going to learn from that. I feel like the older I’ve gotten, the better I’ve gotten at trying to take bad outings and trying to get something out of them rather than just pushing them to the side and saying ‘Hey, that one doesn’t matter’ or taking it too hard.”
He couldn't do it without the support of his teammates, though, many of which have come up through the ranks of Tribe farm system right alongside of the right-hander.
“Baseball is really just about the team and the camaraderie in the clubhouse," Roberts spoke of his teammates, "So probably some of the best moments have been hanging out with the guys in the clubhouse and then maybe some of the success we’ve had on the field, but we’ve got a fun group here and this season’s been really fun.”
So now the question becomes will we see Will Roberts in an Indians uniform at some point and if so, when?
“I think everyone in that clubhouse wants to play in Cleveland at some point," Roberts said, "So I’d say that’s my goal, to be a major league pitcher."
“His delivery is solidified," Jeff Harris assured, "Obviously he still has to work on it to maintain it, but right now it’s just more maintenance than anything. His stuff is actually getting better every time out. He has a chance to have four major league average or above-average pitches when all is said and done.”
So while he's in Richmond this week with the team, Will Roberts can visit with family, catch up with old friends and maybe, just for a moment, follow in the footsteps of his childhood hero, Chipper Jones, towards what hopefully will also be a long and productive major league career.
Jake Dungan is a communications student at Stark State College and an intern with the Akron RubberDucks. Follow him on Twitter @MajorLeagueJake.