Prospect Update: Ethan Roberts Not Far From Promotion to AAA

Ethan Roberts has been a favorite of Cubs Insider the past two years, from his break out in South Bend in May of 2019 to his utter domination of the Carolina League in August of the same year. Heading into the 2020 season, Roberts was slated to be at Double-A Tennessee. Instead, the pandemic hit and plans changed.

That meant he had to pitch on his own, just like so many other players who had to forge their own developmental path outside of organized ball.

About every month or so, Roberts would post videos on his Twitter account of what he was working on in his own “pitch lab.“ Over the course of four months, he went from just staying in shape in the backyard to gaining 3-4 mph on his fastball indoors.

He worked hard to perfect a curve the Cubs wanted him to learn, adding it to a slider and a cutter that he used at Tennessee Tech. Now he had a 95-96 mph four-seamer to set them all off. It looked as if nothing was going to be able to stop him.

And then the games started.

Roberts being assigned to Double-A was a pretty cool because the Smokies play in Kodak, which is about an hour and a half as the crow flies from his home in Sparta. However, his first outing of the year did not go well as he gave up two runs in an inning of work. He didn’t walk anybody or strike anybody out, but three big hits pretty much spoiled his 2021 debut.

His next outing saw him go two innings and give up one run with one strikeout. It was clear that pitching in games was not the same as pitching in the lab. Roberts needed to make adjustments to bring the two worlds come together. And make those adjustments he did.

Starting with his third outing on May 13, Roberts is now one of the best relief pitchers in the Cubs organization. Between then and June 13, he made eight appearances and pitched 12 innings. He struck out 19 batters and put up a 1.50 ERA over the last montth and opponents are batting just .125 against him in that span. Everything is looking up.

Early last week, the Cubs promoted reliever Ben Leeper, Roberts’ teammate at Tennessee, to Triple-A Iowa. When that happened, Robert slid up to the front of the line for a promotion. He still has some things to work on and he would be the first to tell you as much. For one, he’s walked six batters this year and hit two. That’s not a lot, but being the perfectionist he is, he’s not going to be satisfied until he gets his walk rate down. His groundball rate is pretty nice at 46.9% while his 40.6% flyball rate should be in the low 30’s. That’s being a little picky, but, again, perfection is the goal.

As for his arsenal, I went and watched his last four outings and he’s going mostly fastball, cutter (almost looks like a change), and slider. We haven’t really seen a lot of the curve this year. As you can see in this video, the slider still has that plus spin rate of 3200 rpm.

As the next few weeks of June play out, I would not be surprised to see Roberts promoted to Triple-A. It could be early or mid July, no one really knows. The key for him is to stay consistent, keep his walks down, and to do what he’s done the past two seasons by baffling hitters.

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