Robberse's curiosity, willingness to learn key to prospect's success

February 28th, 2022

DUNEDIN, Fla. -- Sem Robberse’s path to becoming a top prospect for the Blue Jays began at a swimming pool in the Netherlands.

Robberse was a kid looking for a sport to stick with, but pitching wasn’t nearly the obvious choice. There’s soccer, which is king in the Netherlands, or field hockey, which is also extremely popular. Baseball trails a hundred miles behind, but nearly 15 years ago, Robberse stumbled upon something.

“I used to take swimming lessons until I was 6 years old, Robberse said on Monday in Dunedin. "When I was done with that, right next to the pool there was a baseball field. I thought I would try that out to see if I liked it or not. I liked it. When I went home and told my dad, he said, ‘OK, you’ve chosen your sport. I’ve got a whole box upstairs with old baseball stuff that I collected when I played baseball.’ I didn’t even know he played baseball. That was so cool.”

It turns out Robberse's father, Raymond, had played until he was 20, making it to the pre-selection process for the national team. Armed with a box of old gear, his young son was now a ballplayer.

Robberse started out playing in local youth leagues and by the time he was 11, he’d been invited to visit a baseball academy in the Netherlands. Soon after came opportunities to join national youth teams at the U15 and U18 levels, which is when Robberse first started to think seriously about playing professionally. As his teams traveled to the Czech Republic, Italy and Spain for European and International tournaments, scouts started to appear. Not like you’d see in Florida or the Dominican Republic, but scouts nonetheless.

It was in Barcelona that the Blue Jays first approached Robberse. He’d heard from other clubs, the Royals included, but the Blue Jays continued to track him as he played for both the national team and Amersfoort Quick, his club in Honkbal Hoofdklasse, the Netherlands’ top level of pro ball. In 2019, he signed with the Blue Jays and came stateside, debuting in the Gulf Coast League at just 17.

That’s where Robberse’s journey gets even more unique. After showing up for Spring Training in 2020, COVID-19 shut down camp. Unable to travel home to the Netherlands, Robberse moved into a hotel in Clearwater, Fla., provided by the team with a group of teammates, including many of the club’s Venezuelan prospects. He would do daily workouts in his hotel room with exercise bands, then head to the parking lot where he’d throw weighted balls against a brick wall. He’d rip off a few real pitches against that wall, too, to keep his arm loose.

“The baseballs would get completely messed up,” Robberse said, “so I’d have to grab another one.”

That is where it would be easy for an 18-year-old to fall off. There were daily Zoom calls with Blue Jays staff, which Robberse credits for helping him better understand pitch sequencing and reading hitters, but he was responsible for plenty of his own free time. As Robberse saw it, his job was to at least keep his body and mind at the same level so that he’d be ready to improve again when the time came.

“Sem is mature beyond his years. It’s so impressive to talk to him,” said Joe Sclafani, the Blue Jays’ director of player development. “Everything he does is done with intent. He asks questions. He’s always curious about, ‘If I’m doing this, what am I trying to get out of it?’ His aptitude is really good, too. If you ask him to tinker with a pitch grip or whatever it is, and [tell him] what we’re trying to see with it, he’s able to do it pretty quickly.”

A full summer living at that hotel finally ended in September 2020, when Robberse was able to use some of the Blue Jays’ facilities as the club managed COVID restrictions. He’s built his body up, which is still a work in progress, and has learned the right way to balance his own feel with data, which is of endless supply at the club’s new player development complex. For Robberse, feel comes first, with data being a valuable way to either affirm his instincts or teach him what he should be questioning.

Finally back to “normal” in 2021, Robberse posted a 4.36 ERA between Low-A Dunedin and High-A Vancouver, striking out 90 batters over 88 2/3 innings. With an advanced feel for pitching and a natural, athletic delivery that the club loves, he’s suddenly one of the hottest names in the organization. On Saturday, Robberse threw live batting practice sessions alongside Adam Kloffenstein and Ricky Tiedemann, two other big prospect names, and he’s cherished the dynamic he has with Toronto’s other young pitchers.

“When you see someone else do better than you, it’s motivation, not jealousy,” Robberse explained. “You root for them to make it because that motivates you. If he works hard, you’ll work even harder. You want to take that spot, but you don’t want to push someone down to take the spot. You want to actually be better.”