Robertson setting sights on final big league ride
Longtime Tigers starter trying to reinvent himself as sidearming reliever
TOLEDO, Ohio -- Nate Robertson was walking through the corridors of Fifth Third Field recently when he spotted a team photo of the 2003 Toledo Mud Hens on the wall. It's part of a history the team has proudly embraced. For Robertson, it's part of his history.
Robertson can run down the line of players and remember the faces as teammates. Most of them, he notes, got callups to the big leagues that year on a Tigers team that lost 119 games. That includes himself, then a starting prospect with a power arm, a good slider and an attitude to attack hitters.
Robertson knows where the paths of those teammates led. He doesn't know where his own is headed.
"It's good to be back," Robertson said with a smile. "It's good to be a part of it."
Eight years, seven organizations and an arm surgery after helping pitch the Tigers to the 2006 World Series, Robertson is a 36-year-old taking one last shot, trying to make it back as a lefty reliever.
He wants to go out on his terms, but he also wants to see what he has left, to see if his transition into a sidearming reliever can play in the Majors. It's a leap of faith for a Tigers organization that has a stockpile of left-handed pitching, and for a pitcher who delivered in his prime with equal parts power and confidence.
"The only reason I made that call to the Tigers and reached out is because I feel like I'm offering something, too," Robertson said. "I love the game of baseball. I love being here. I love being part of this organization. But I also feel like I can help at the big league level.
"What I'm doing here, I'm really working hard toward trying to get back up there. If it happens, to me, it would be more rewarding to do it at this point in my career, as much time as I've had away from the game. To get back up there, man, that would just be something."
It's a process, one with ups and downs already, but one both parties want to see through. Between a Tigers bullpen in flux and Robertson's display in situations, it's a process that might yet lead him back to Detroit.
"I had him on the way up," said Mud Hens manager Larry Parrish. "He's a good influence, good to have around. How far this takes him, no one knows."
The goatee and glasses look familiar. Once Robertson starts into his delivery, though, the similarities end. This isn't the pitcher who struck out 155 batters his first full Major League season 10 years ago, then won 13 games with over 200 innings on the 2006 turnaround Tigers, pitching the openers to the AL Division Series and the AL Championship Series.
Robertson bid farewell to that pitcher a couple years ago, when he took the advice of a Minor League pitching coach and dropped his arm angle to try to get more movement on his pitches. After 1,152 1/3 Major League innings, the fastball had flattened out, and another surgery didn't help.
Robertson shifted his mindset to pitching for contact. He doesn't have to miss the bat, just the sweet spot.
"I'm not going to go out there and strike out a guy per inning. I just want to keep the ball on the ground," he said. "If they're getting hits through the holes, I'm fine with that, because eventually the ground balls are going to go to somebody."
The approach played last year in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League, where Robertson went 4-4 with a 3.04 ERA and allowed 45 hits over 50 1/3 innings for Triple-A Round Rock in the Rangers' system. He walked 23, struck out 40 and didn't allow a home run. Left-handed hitters batted just .213 (17-for-80) with eight walks and 23 strikeouts.
Robertson wasn't going to crack the deep Texas bullpen, and he didn't get a camp invite elsewhere. If he was going to try once more to work his way up, he wanted the right situation. That led him back to the Tigers, with whom he signed a Minor League deal in early March.
"How is this going to end? To me, it's going to end good no matter what," Robertson said. "This is exactly what I wanted to happen, and my family wanted to happen. I got a chance to be with what I think is the greatest organization in baseball, come back to a place that feels like home. And I know what's on the table.
"I know what I've gotta do, just keep on getting those boys to roll over and give myself a chance. That's all I can do, but have fun doing it. That's the biggest thing. I want to make sure to have as much fun as I can, because if I can't get back up, it'll probably be it for me."
So far, Robertson is getting seven outs on the ground for every two in the air, and he has yet to allow a home run in 14 2/3 innings. He had eight innings of three-hit shutout ball over a six-game stretch before paying for a pair of leadoff walks in a three-run, two-inning performance Saturday. Even then, two-thirds of the balls put in play were on the ground.
"My wife was giving me a hard time about my walks the other night," he joked. "She said, 'You can't get released before I get up there.'"
It's a process, and Robertson is working at it. His fastball sat at 85-86 mph on Saturday, so he has to be precise, though Parrish thinks that will pick up. There are lessons Robertson has learned about reading and reacting to hitters, and adjusting when his main pitch isn't there.
"I had my slider, and I still have an overhand slider that's good. But if I didn't have that, then I was really in trouble," he said. "Now I've got different weapons. I think I've learned how to adapt to the game, adapt to the hitter, the at-bat, and I've learned how to pitch a lot more."
The reminders of those days aren't hard to find. Not only was Robertson a Tigers starter, he was a Michigander, one of the few players to live here year-round. That ended after Detroit traded him in 2010, but like many Michigan homeowners, he found the real-estate market as tough as a stacked lineup.
Robertson kept the house and rented it out. For the past three years, his tenant was former teammate Don Kelly.
"When I signed, I called and I'm like, 'Donnie, man, I don't know what to tell you,'" Robertson said.
Robertson's family is still back in Kansas, so he is sharing the place and commuting with Mike Hessman, another former Tiger who came back. Hessman signed this past winter for his 18th Minor League season with a chance at the International League career home run record. Robertson is six months older than him.
Hessman is the oldest player on the team, and one of just two Mud Hens pitchers in his 30s. Top prospect Robbie Ray was in Little League when Robertson broke in with the Tigers in 2003.
"I try to keep myself restrained from telling too many stories," Robertson said. "I mean, sometimes guys are like, 'Dude, we don't need another one of those old-time stories. That's enough.'"
Said Parrish: "He goes out of his way to talk to the guys about pitching and throwing strikes, getting ahead. He should be good for some of these other guys."
Robertson doesn't want this trip to be about memories. He wants to make a new memory in Detroit, for himself as much as his 6-year-old son Wyatt. If he can get it all together and get back, he said, it would be the sweetest memory of all.