After graduating from high school at 5-foot-8 and about 130 pounds, Ethan Roberts is used to people underestimating him. Even after a growth spurt and hard work added three inches and 40 pounds, the 22-year-old righty reliever doesn’t necessarily cut an imposing figure on the mound. But as he has displayed emphatically on Twitter, it would be unwise to doubt him.
Keep pushing limits. When you think you’ve gone too far, keep going. I love this game. DONT DOUBT ME?? pic.twitter.com/dYeMq9ZHUs
— Ethan Roberts (@EthanXXVI) June 28, 2020
Yep, that’s a nice little 96 mph on the fastball. And the best part of it is that wasn’t even the most impressive thing he’s posted lately. A video from about a week earlier showed him throwing a 90 mph cutter with a note that it had a spin rate of 3,331 rpm. Folks, that is elite. Like, elite elite. And it’s still just slightly lower than his highest recorded mark of 3,350 rpm in a college game at Vanderbilt.
Cut it ? ? #3331 pic.twitter.com/MlAQBvPNqw
— Ethan Roberts (@EthanXXVI) June 20, 2020
Pirates righty Montana DuRapau led MLB in 2019 with an average cutter spin rate of 2,846 rpm, topping out at 3,087 rpm on an 86.6 mph pitch. The Indians’ Phil Maton averaged 2,844 rpm and appears to have the highest recorded cutter spin last season with a 3,294 rpm offering in June on a pitch thrown 82.1 mph. Tyler Chatwood’s cutter had the third-most spin last year (2,760 rpm) and his highest effort of 3,146 was thrown 89.7 mph.
Finally, we look at Yu Darvish, who threw 1,040 pitches last season that Baseball Savant characterized as cutters. Only six of them exceeded 3,000 rpm, topping out at 3,111 rpm. Even if we assume that at least one of those is something else, which is almost certainly the case since he throws like 37 different pitches, the fact remains that the man who throws the third-most cutters with the ninth-highest average spin isn’t doing what we see in the video above.
The moral of the story is that literally no one throws their cutter with as much spin as Roberts. He’s not a one-trick pony, either, which is a big reason the Cubs took him in the fourth round out of Tennessee Tech in 2018 and why they remain very high on him. Roberts, who’s somehow remained somewhat under the radar even in a pitching-starved organization, says his curveball and slider are both around 3,300 rpm and the four-seam averages between 2,700 and 2,800 rpm.
I see some of you shrugging your shoulders, so let’s provide a little context by checking out MLB’s spin leaders (search defaults to FB) from last season. Ryan Pressly’s curveball averaged 3,305 rpm; Kyle Crick’s slider topped the charts at 3,246 rpm; Luke Bard’s four-seam was at 2,746 rpm. Roberts is right there with all of them and could very possibly have the highest spin rate in baseball on four different pitches. That’s not normal. I mean, there’s a reason the names are different for each pitch.
Roberts’ ability to manipulate the ball is unique and it’s something that could make a difference for him in his career. The same can be said for getting that fastball into the upper 90’s, which just makes those secondaries more dangerous. Roberts’ size might actually play to his advantage as well, since most hitters aren’t expecting that kind of explosion out of a relatively small pitcher. At the risk of offering up a hyperbolic comp based on stature alone, he kind of feels like a right-handed Billy Wagner.
Before I pull the whistle and guide this hype train out of the station, I should acknowledge that just throwing hard and/or generating a lot of spin isn’t enough to yield success at the next level. The spin has to equate to movement, something called “active spin” or “spin efficiency,” otherwise it’s like trying to accelerate on ice. But Roberts will turn just 23 on July 4 and has plenty of time to develop further, which will surely include working with the Cubs pitching infrastructure to ensure those eye-popping spin numbers aren’t just flukey or superfluous.
When it comes to numbers that mean something, Roberts’ advanced control, as evidenced by just 16 walks over 74 professional innings 1.95 BB/9) across three levels, is another factor working in his favor. He issued just two free passes over 24 innings for Myrtle Beach (0.75 BB/9), displaying both a willingness and desire to work in the zone. That kind of confidence can take some pitchers much longer to develop and affords Roberts a little more room to dial in even better command of his pitches.
But what really makes me feel good about this young man’s future has nothing to do with the numbers he’s putting up in games or training sessions. They say it’s what you do when think no one’s watching that really matters, and what Roberts did for my daughter a few months ago told me more about who he is than any metrics ever could.
As many of you already know, my daughter, Addison, spent nearly two months in the hospital last year to prepare for and undergo an extensive dual-stage spinal correction surgery. The outpouring of support from CI readers, family friends, and strangers was truly incredible and Addison’s room was flooded with cards and books and games. The nurses were in awe as packages arrived by the wagon-load, filling St. Louis with more than a little Cubs flair.
One day, I got a direct message on Twitter from someone named Ethan Roberts who was checking in on Addison to see if there was anything he could do to help her. He said he was keeping her in his prayers and asked if he could send her a card. As hectic as things were at the time for us, I didn’t even put two and two together and I just chalked it up to someone on Twitter who read my stuff.
It wasn’t until my wife called to ask about the hand-written note and autographed South Bend Cubs card from someone whose name she didn’t recognize that I finally put two and two together. And that’s why an autographed card from an A-ball pitcher is front and center in my basement display case, pushing Brett Hull to the back. Not just because I firmly believe Roberts will be pitching in the big leagues one day, but because he took the time to lift up my family for no reason other than just being a good person.
And that, my friends, is a story I don’t have to spin at all.