From Zeist to St. Louis, Robberse dreams big

April 25th, 2024

This story was excerpted from John Denton’s Cardinals Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

When he must explain the sport that he’s been in love with since he was 6 years old and a passion that he has chased half a world away from his native Netherlands, tries to find parallels between baseball and soccer, because that’s the pastime the Dutch usually gravitate toward.

Major League Baseball might not be widely known in the Netherlands, but that’s never deterred Robberse, 22, from dreaming that he can someday make it to the sport’s grandest stage. Sure, the 6-foot-1, 195-pound right-hander hails from the same hometown as Hall of Fame pitcher Bert Blyleven -- tiny Zeist, Netherlands -- but making it to the big leagues always seemed to be something likely out of reach.

That is, until this season, in which Robberse has quickly matured into one of the best pitching prospects in the Cardinals' system while pitching for the Triple-A Memphis Redbirds. Four starts into the season, Robberse has compiled a 3-0 record with a stellar 1.59 ERA. Featuring a cutter, sweeper, slider and four-seam fastball, Robberse has struck out 23 batters, while walking just six in 22 2/3 innings.

His most recent outing -- a one-hitter over eight innings in a defeat of the Gwinnett Braves -- earned him an International League Pitcher of the Week award. Cardinals catcher Pedro Pagés was behind the plate for that outing and he was blown away by Robberse’s command of all his pitches.

“I’ve caught him twice now and he’s been throwing the ball really well,” Pagés said of Robberse, who came to the Cardinals last July in the trade that sent closer Jordan Hicks to the Blue Jays. “His cutter is really on right now. Then, he has that good four-seam fastball and slider mix. And his sweeper is good. Against Gwinnett, we faced a lot of lefties and Sem being able to use that cutter and get it in on the hands and the slider under the hands, they were both working really well.”

Robberse has been working toward this moment since he was 6 years old, and he gravitated toward the sport after not really liking soccer and being lukewarm to swimming. Later, Robberse learned that his father, Raymond, was once an MLB hopeful while playing for the Dutch National Team before a knee injury ended his career. Together, they used their subscription to watch the Yankees and other MLB clubs and dream simultaneously about Sem making it to the bigs.

Raymond, once a shortstop and pitcher, worked with his son on developing a smooth and athletic throwing motion that was repeatable and wouldn’t put undue strain on the elbow or shoulder. After attending a high school that tailored to his pro baseball aspirations and featuring stuff that topped out in the high 80s in terms of velocity, Robberse was signed by the Blue Jays in July of 2019 while that club was initially there to scout other pitching hopefuls.

He spent most of 2020 in a Florida hotel room when the COVID-19 pandemic paused most international travel, but he’s since worked his way through the Minors. He came to the Cardinals along with fellow right-hander Adam Kloffenstein, and whatever home sickness he’s ever felt has been suppressed by the dreams of making it big in the game.

“Not many players I have grown up with have gone on the same kind of path that I’ve been on, but in the end it’s still just baseball,” said Robberse, the Cardinals' No. 12-ranked prospect, per MLB Pipeline. “In the beginning, it was different for sure. This is such a big country and it’s so much bigger than the Netherlands, but baseball stays the same and that’s what made it easier for me. I’ve always kind of just poured myself into the game and worked to get better. That’s what made the game fun for me. Life outside of baseball was different, for sure, but keeping my mind on baseball helped me a lot.”

If he can make it to St. Louis and pitch in the big leagues, Robberse is hoping to be a trail blazer to help grow the game in the Netherlands -- even though many still aren’t very familiar with the rules of baseball.

“Sometimes, I have to use soccer as a lot of the examples to make it easier to explain baseball because that’s the biggest sport there,” he said. “Any time I can give them soccer examples, that helps. But with things like double plays, then things become a little difficult.

“I just hope the sport grows. With baseball being more worldwide than ever with social media, I hope it catches on and grows in the Netherlands. I hope the people there start seeing the sport on TV more because that will help it grow.”

Other top performers in Cards' system
Triple-A Memphis: Thomas Saggese, who won the Double-A Texas League MVP in 2023, continues to impress at the plate. He’s smashed five doubles and two home runs while hitting .288 and driving in 11 runs in 18 games.

Double-A Springfield: Tink Hence -- the top prospect in the Cardinals' system, per MLB Pipeline -- suffered his first rocky outing of the season when Arkansas tagged him for three earned runs in 3 1/3 innings on Wednesday. Prior to that, the 21-year-old Hence pitched a gem against Amarillo that lowered his ERA to 1.17.

High-A Peoria: Left-hander Cooper Hjerpe has been limited to just 7 2/3 innings pitched over three starts so far. MLB Pipeline’s No. 6 prospect in the Cards' system has struck out 13 and walked five thus far after missing most of his rookie season with arthroscopic surgery in his elbow.

Single-A Palm Beach: Chase Davis, the No. 21 overall pick in the 2023 MLB Draft by the Cardinals, has finally started to show off the enormous power that he flashed as a college junior. Davis, the Cardinals' No. 5 prospect, has six doubles and two homers in 14 games, but he has whiffed 23 times compared to seven walks.