Connor Robertson has been on a roll of late out of the Midland bullpen. The right-handed set-up man has allowed only two runs in 15.2 innings in July and has struck out 23 while walking only two. In his most recent outing on Tuesday, Robertson allowed a rare run, but struck out five of the eight batters he faced while walking none.
While July has been Robertson’s best month of the season thus far, he has been one of the steadiest members of the Rockhounds’ bullpen since the start of the season. The Birmingham-Southern alum has a 4-2 record with fives saves and a 3.14 ERA in 2006. He has pitched mostly in a set-up role for the Rockhounds, a role he excelled in for low-A Kane County and high-A Stockton in 2005. He also played in a handful of games for AAA-Sacramento when the River Cats bullpen was short-handed law season.
Although Robertson has had a solid season for the Rockhounds, he acknowledges that there was a learning curve for him in his first season at AA.
“It’s been an adjustment. There are better players and better hitters at this level so you have to adjust. It’s a tough travel league, but now that I am used to it and I’ve seen some of the hitters twice, it helps. We’ve been playing a lot better lately and have been starting to win, so that has been fun,” Robertson said.
“In the beginning of the season, I was walking too many guys. I was trying to be too fine and was missing my spots. I started being more aggressive about throwing strikes and now I’m not giving away bases which really helps. I’m pitching more to contact and trusting my fielders to do the job.”
Walks have always been the biggest kink in Robertson’s pitching armor since he was drafted in the 31st round of the 2004 draft. Last season, he walked 40 in 75 innings. However, he was able to work around those walks, for the most part, last season because of his incredible strikeout rate. Robertson struck out 120 batters in those 75 innings.
This season, Robertson is still striking out batters at a high rate (69 in 63.1 innings), but he is limiting his walks (16 thus far) and getting hitters to make outs earlier in the count. Robertson has been especially tough on right-handed hitters, limiting them to a .229 BAA.
“Strikeouts just sort of happen. When there isn’t anyone on base, I like to try to limit my pitches and get a guy out on two or three pitches so I can stay in the game longer. If I come in with runners on-base, especially if the hitter is right-handed, in that situation I’ll look for a strikeout to keep the runners from moving up a base,” Robertson said.
In many ways, despite his success, Robertson is still learning how to pitch. He was a power-hitting corner infielder in college and only started pitching for Birmingham-Southern towards the end of his collegiate career. Although he enjoys pitching, Robertson admits that he misses his time at the plate.
“I’m on-board with being a full-time pitcher, but I definitely miss hitting every day. The guys know that I was a hitter in college, so they like to get on me about that sometimes. I take BP every once and awhile and take a few swings, but I’m definitely rusty,” Robertson said with a laugh.
The A’s have moved Robertson up slowly through the system, giving him time to learn about pitching at each level. With the exception of his short stint in Sacramento last season when he threw five innings and allowed only one run, Robertson has played at each level in the A’s system in ascending order.
“It’s been a really good learning experience moving through the different levels. I really like playing for this organization. I like the guys on the team and the coaching staff is great,” Robertson said.
“I learned a lot from [the AAA experience]. I learned that you have to throw your off-speed stuff and that the hitters are a lot more disciplined. There were a lot of veteran guys in that bullpen, so it was a great experience to talk to them and hear what they had to say about pitching.”
Like Robertson, most of the relievers in the current Midland bullpen are in their first full season of AA baseball. Despite their inexperience, the Rockhounds bullpen has been the strength of their pitching staff for much of the season. Robertson points to the communication between the Rockhound relievers as a big part of their success.
“We communicate really well with each other in the bullpen. If a guy has faced a hitter before, he’ll let you know all about the hitter. It really helps,” Robertson said.
“When I first started at Midland, there were some veteran guys, but they were moved up to AAA and we’ve had kind of a younger bullpen since then. I think we’ve done really well. Sometimes we’ve had some lapses, but overall, we’ve had a strong performance.”
The athletic right-hander throws his fastball in the high-80s, low-90s and he gets late downward movement on the pitch. Despite not having plus-velocity, Robertson gets a lot of swings and misses on his fastball because of the movement. He has an excellent slider that he throws in the mid-80s and gets a lot of swings and misses on. Robertson indicated that he has also been working on improving his change-up and adding a cut-fastball this season.
“I have been working on throwing my change-up more for strikes. I don’t necessarily have the velocity to throw [fastballs] up there all of the time, so it has been a big help for me to be able to pull the string sometimes [with the change-up] and get some weak groundballs to second,” Robertson said.
“I have also been working on a cutter, but I haven’t mastered that yet. Hopefully, down the road that will be something I can use as another weapon.”
Robertson was a closer for the A’s Rookie League club in 2004, but has primarily been a set-up man since that time. He has been a rubber arm for Midland manager Von Hayes, throwing more than one inning in nearly half of his 41 appearances.
“I like both closing and middle relief. I enjoy throwing two or three innings, but I also like pitching every day like a closer does. Really, I’d be happy doing whatever as long as I’m playing,” Robertson said.