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Brewers prospect Cam Robinson makes bid for 40-man roster spot with breakout season

The 23-year-old discusses his development after ascending through three minor-league levels in 2022

MLB: MAY 26 Brewers at Cardinals

Every December, Major League Baseball holds the Rule 5 Draft. The MLB phase of the draft allows teams to draft eligible minor-league players who are not members of their organization’s 40-man roster. The selecting team must then keep the player on their active roster for the entire season or offer him back to his original club.

To prevent notable prospects from becoming eligible, organizations must add them to the 40-man roster ahead of the draft.

Brice Turang, the Brewersfourth-ranked prospect, is a slam dunk to join the roster early in the offseason to keep him in the organization.

Turang may not be the only player the Brewers elect to protect. Another talent in Milwaukee’s system has made his bid for a roster spot with a big 2022 season.

Reliever Cam Robinson was eligible for last year’s Rule 5 Draft. The Brewers did not protect him, and he went unclaimed. One year later, he looks like a strong candidate to join the 40-man roster this winter.

Robinson began the season in High-A as a member of the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers. After excelling as the Rattlers’ closer, he earned a promotion to the Double-A Biloxi Shuckers in early July. He continued to perform, and he moved up the ladder again to the Triple-A Nashville Sounds in late August.

Across those three minor-league levels, Robinson has authored a strong 2.40 ERA and 2.70 FIP in 60 innings. The right-hander has struck out 31.4% of opposing hitters and collected 25 saves in the process.

While outfield prospects Garrett Mitchell, Sal Frelick, and Joey Wiemer have caught attention for their rapid rise through the minor-league ranks in a short period of time, Robinson has shown a similar level of growth within a couple of years.

Putting position players and relievers in the same boat isn’t an entirely fair comparison. Nonetheless, Robinson, like many of the club’s highly-rated prospects, is now one call away from the big leagues and positioned to make an impact in Milwaukee as soon as next season.

Robinson’s ascent was a few seasons in the making. The Brewers drafted him as a 17-year-old in the 23rd round of the 2017 draft, and he spent each of his first three seasons pitching for Milwaukee’s rookie-level affiliates.

It was during that period when Robinson learned to make adjustments.

One change was focusing strictly on baseball after being a multi-sport athlete in high school.

“My first couple years of pro ball, I wasn’t really a baseball player. I played multiple sports. I was a football player and a basketball player,” he said in an exclusive interview with Brew Crew Ball.

Playing in high school isn’t the same as playing professionally, so Robinson had to learn to change his mentality. That is not as easy to do when playing in rookie ball, which can at times more closely resemble an unheralded summer league than a competitive season.

“Baseball was just the sport I had the most fun with because it wasn’t necessarily the one that I was always the best in. I was always pretty good, but the mentality I took going into pro ball, because I didn’t know much about it all, it was like it’s summer ball for me.”

“The Arizona complex, it’s not really professional baseball if you ask anyone when they get out of that,” he added. “It’s really just summer ball.”

Pitching against older competition was also a new challenge.

“It was a little unexpected because my first year, I was 17 going against people who were 23, 24.”

“If I was going against people my age like I just was [in high school], I’m going to dominate. But at the time, not actually thinking about it, I was like, ‘These guys are just older than me. That’s the only thing going on right now.’”

As he got older and gained more experience, he came to understand the nature of professional baseball. A more refined mindset has helped him excel since arriving in full-season ball.

“The mentality changed. I started to actually get the business aspect of professional baseball. Just getting older and maturing, I think. The mental game actually helped me.”

After those inaugural three years, Robinson had to respond to a new obstacle. The COVID-19 pandemic delayed the big-league season and resulted in the cancellation of minor-league games.

The situation left many minor leaguers in limbo until August, when the league announced that clubs may permit them to play for independent teams in response to the wiped-out schedule.

For lower-level minor league players like Robinson, there was even greater uncertainty. The best he could do was be ready for whatever transpired.

“That whole summer until about August, there was always talk about an instructs league or going to the complex, but it was always with a ‘There might not be enough space’ type deal. So I would always get ready to go do that. I didn’t wanna go pitch in another league if I was going to go to Arizona to train with the Brewers.”

Robinson made the most of the situation, spending the summer training with friends.

“The good thing about COVID was all of my college friends were home from school. We’d work out twice a day together, go to the field, do live BP, all that stuff. It was more just having fun with training versus when I’m home now in the offseason and everyone’s at school, so I got to do my own thing. At that time period, I had all my homies from high school, and we were just grinding together.”

When he returned the following season, he had a new pitch. Robinson swapped out his four-seam fastball for a cutter, which has since become his go-to weapon.

Oddly enough, the change was unintentional.

“[During] the COVID year, my fastball actually changed. I don’t know what happened. I guess it was not throwing off a mound for a while at the beginning of COVID. When I got back into it doing pulldowns and stuff, my four-seam fastball just turned into a cutter.”

Robinson didn’t even notice how his fastball was moving until others pointed it out.

“I never knew my fastball was cutting,” he said. “I would always hear people [say], ‘You throw a cutter? Your ball’s cutting a bit.’ I’m like, ‘No, that’s just my fastball.’”

In a data-driven era of baseball in which pitchers can use pitch tracking technology and high-speed cameras to help them build the perfect pitch, Robinson found his cutter organically.

“It wasn’t really [about] developing a pitch type,” he confirmed.

Robinson and the Brewers went to work on refining the rest of his arsenal to complement his new cutter. They redesigned his slider to separate it from the cutter. While his 12-6 curveball remains a useful part of his arsenal, the cutter and slider combination is now at the heart of his approach.

“The way that my pitches play now is my curveball is still the same curveball, but it actually is the worst out of my three pitches on Trackman data-wise. I went from a bullet slider, which is basically a slower version of my cutter, to a ‘sweeper,’ and then I throw a cutter at 93 to 96 and the same curveball. So my best tunneling for pitches right now are my cutter to slider with my curveball being more of a ‘land early for a strike’ pitch.”

While cutters and sliders are different pitches, they sometimes have a similar movement profile. One pitcher’s cutter may move like another pitcher’s slider does. Public pitch classification systems often confuse the two.

In Robinson’s case, the two pitches are distinct.

“The cutter, it’s just a slight cut through the baseball, like coming through football-wise and cutting off of it. The sweeper, it’s more getting around it out of the hand to get that extra depth.”

The video backs that up. Robinson’s fastball is a textbook cutter, clocking in the mid-90s with slight late movement. Meanwhile, the shape of his “sweeper” is more pronounced and features more depth.

More simply put, his cutter cuts, and his “sweeper” sweeps.

The new cutter—along with a full-time move to the bullpen—yielded immediate results. Robinson posted a 3.08 ERA in 49 23 innings last season with the Low-A Carolina Mudcats, the Timber Rattlers, and one outing with the Shuckers.

Continuing to get used to his new pitch mix and understanding how his pitches play off each other has helped him take his performance to the next level in 2022.

“It’s more of a U,” Robinson said of how he attacks hitters with his pitches. “Stay out of the middle, stay on both corners and the bottom of the zone. There are some good spots in the top, but it’s more like pitching as a U more than anything.”

The process isn’t finished yet, though. While Robinson’s confidence in his arsenal has grown, he still believes there is room to improve.

“I’m still trying to get the feel for the new slider. Obviously, I’ve got some feel for it, but it’s more about getting that consistent feel, being able to throw it every time, and then learning the exact spots to throw my fastball to let it work. If I start it too far outside to a righty, it’s just going to be a waste pitch, so figuring out the spots to actually start the cutter.”

Robinson’s mechanics also contribute to his effectiveness and make his arsenal more effective. He comes straight over the top, which creates an unconventional and deceptive release angle that makes it look as if he’s delivering the ball right on top of right-handed hitters.

“I think it’s actually pretty difficult for hitters because they’re just not used to seeing somebody so high over the top. That arm slot actually helps my pitches more because if a hitter knew how I used to pitch, it’s coming from up there and getting more rise. Now it’s coming down, and it’s tunneling down and out from them or down and in to them if they’re a lefty.”

Confidence in his stuff has played a big role as well.

“When I get on the mound, it’s just all positive thinking, like, ‘every pitch is my best pitch.’ I try to think mentally that my best stuff’s going to beat the hitter’s best stuff, so just use my game. Whether it’s throwing cutters, sliders, or curveballs, just go out there and throw my best pitch every time and think it’s going to beat whatever their best swing is.”

Mitchell, Frelick, and Wiemer’s journeys through the minor leagues have been well-documented, but it’s easy to forget that Robinson has been right there with them at most of those stops.

“I was on the team with Joey and Sal all last year. I started this year in High A with Sal, and then I met all three of them back in Double-A for a little bit. And then Brice [Turang], we were on the AZL team in his first year together. I got to play a Double-A game with him last year. We’re all friends, we’re all pretty close. We’re all young guys, younger than the average age for the level that we’re at, so we all kind of stick together and talk.”

“Being around those guys, it’s just more fun. It’s youthful, almost.”

Robinson may not appear on Top 100 prospect lists like some of his teammates do, but he has demonstrated with his performance that he could be an important member of Milwaukee’s next core of young talent. Robinson has already exhibited plenty of growth as a pitcher; at just 23 years old, he has plenty of room to continue improving.

There figures to be some turnover in the Brewers’ bullpen this winter, and there’s a path for Robinson to factor into next summer’s relief corps. Don’t be surprised if the Brewers add him to their 40-man roster and give him a look in the big leagues next year.