While turning 22 in August 2012, Robles was untouchable as a Cyclone, putting up a 1.11 ERA in 72.2 innings over 12 starts with 66 strikeouts against 10 walks and 47 hits allowed. He fanned 24% of opposing batters and walked a ridiculous 3.7%. His 1.11 ERA led the League, and his walk rate was fourth, third among the Cyclones, and his strikeout rate was seventh.
So, Saturday, after Matt Harvey and Collin McHugh took their turns against some version of the Marlins and their minor league affiliates, Robles came on for his second spring outing. In giving up five runs on two walks and four hits, including a three run homer, he looked like he did not belong on a big league mound. Robles was throwing three below average Major League pitches, a fastball at 87-90, a slider at 81-82 and a changeup at 83-84 mph. One National League scout described the slider to me as "flat," although it did produce two strikeouts in his first inning of work One of Robles' changeups turned into a three run home run by Joe Mahoney, a 26-year old fighting to make the Marlins roster. After that, he was a little shy about using the offering.
It is hardly surprising that Robles, who has not pitched full-season baseball is having trouble getting hitters out in a Major League Spring game. The Marlins were playing with big leaguers like Austin Kearns and Chone Figgins, 25-man candidates like Mahoney and nice outfield prospects Christian Yelich and Jake Marisnick at the top of the order.
Manager Terry Collins did not seem to mind that Robles has struggled this spring. "I love his arm. We love his makeup. He's learning how to pitch," he said Saturday. "Like [Pitching Coach] Dan [Warthen] said to me during the game, he said you know, "These young players, they have to know it's not easy to pitch up here. They have to learn a lesson, because it is about location. It's not about how hard you throw, it's about ball movement, it's about location. Not that you want to have a kid get embarrassed, but they need to understand that it's a process involved of getting ready to pitch in the big leagues."
I missed Robles in game action in 2012. However, based on his size, his age, and the fact that in game action he sat 91-92 with his fastball with some feel for a changeup, I had him pegged as a future middle reliever, if he reached the big leagues. (There's an excellent in-depth scouting report on Robles from Jeff Paternostro and friends at Amazin' Avenue.) Robles touched 90 twice on Saturday and 92 once, on the pitch after the homer to Mahoney when he was clearly pitching a little angry. Again, for reference, in 2012, the MLB average fastball, per pitch fx was 91.8.
The Mets saw something much more however and added him to the 40-man roster. Robles, who had pitched two years in the Dominican Summer League in 2009 and 2010, in the Appalachian League in 2011 was eligible to be taken in the Rule 5 draft following the 2012 season. Thus, the Mets protected him.
Mets VP of Amateur Scouting and Player Development Paul DePodesta explained the calculations: "The fact that we needed to protect him is what drove the decision. If we coulda had another year getting away without it, we would have. At the same time, it was just the upside potential. Did we really think he was going to get taken out of the New York-Penn League? We thought it was a long shot, but it was a risk that wasn't worth taking because of what he could potentially become. We think he has a chance to be a middle of the rotation type starter. If we thought he was going to be a nice sixth or seventh inning guy, we probably wouldn't have protected him out of the New York Penn League."
Adding a player to the 40-man roster straight out of the short-season New York Penn League really starts his clock in an aggressive manner. Every player gets three option years during which a Major League team can send a player who is on the 40-man roster down to the minor leagues without exposing him to waivers. Robles' first option year will be in 2013 now that he is on the 40-man roster. If he starts in St. Lucie, Robles could, with a strong first half, end up in AA Binghamton. Then, he would be starting 2014, either in AA or AAA in the minors on option #2.
DePodesta trusts enough in Robles' potential to be unconcerned: "But because of that potential upside, and the value of that kind of guy, and the fact that we think he's a guy who can come pretty quickly, because of the command, due to the fact that there's a legitimate three-pitch mix, with one of them that's well above average, we didn't think he was a guy who was necessarily in danger of running out of options, by the time he got there. So all of these different elements ended up going into the decision, but more than anything, there was very real potential here, and we can't risk losing it."
DePodesta summarized Robles' weapons as, "a plus fastball, maybe a tick or two below Mateo's, but still a plus fastball, but plus life, can throw a bowling ball up there at times with command. He really has a feel for where the gall is going even though it's moving quite a bit. His real weapon beyond the fastball is a changeup [that] can be devastating at times. He has a slider, and it's a decent one - he commands it well. And I think that pitch will probably continue to develop for him."
So, Robles is clearly not pitching at the level that inspired the Mets to protect him from the Rule 5 draft, and not up to his 2012 standards. For guys pitching to make the Opening Day 25-man roster, there is a pressure to perform in spring training near their in-season levels. For guys who have the team made, even young guys like Matt Harvey, they just need to get ready for Opening Day. Some other young pitchers, like Rafael Montero are already basically up to their in-season velocity levels. Robles falls into none of the preceding three categories.
DePodesta preaches patience, "Every individual is a little different. His normal velocity when the lights come on is 90-94, sitting at 91-92. He's only touching that right now as opposed to sitting there for seven innings, which he was doing last year. ...Robles is still so young, I don't think he's ever pitched at this time of the year, so we don't know yet, in terms of what his normal progression might look like, but I suspect by the end of March/early April he'll be 90-94 and the command will be there."
There are some good lessons here I suppose about making judgements based off a few spring training innings in March. Lets say it again: March does not matter. Spring Training stats do not matter. (Robles has allowed 7 earned runs on six hits, three walks and three homers allowed in 3.2 innings this spring.)
However, the tools should be there. I was expecting a little more heat out of Hansel. He is not hot yet.