I n the spring of 2019, an unexpected windfall of international bonus pool money sent Andrew Tinnish globetrotting. Two separate trades returned $1.5 million in spending room to the capped out Toronto Blue Jays, but the money came with a key caveat: it had to be spent by June 15, the very end of the 2018 signing period, after the top eligible players were long gone. That meant Tinnish, the club’s vice president of international scouting and baseball operations, and his staff needed to find players who had either slipped through the cracks or raised their stock after being initially passed over. A rough target list, a series of transcontinental flights and a huge spike in Tinnish’s air miles balance followed. “It was really a matter of, ‘Okay, we have two months to do our work on these guys, get to know them, get to know their make up and see them play,” says Tinnish. “So let’s get to work.”
Some of that work was relatively straightforward. A pair of Cuban pitchers held a workout in the Dominican Republic attended by nearly every big-league team, whether they had money to spend or not. The Blue Jays focused on Yosver Zulueta, the now 24-year-old flamethrower lighting up the radar gun at the organization’s advanced-A affiliate in Vancouver. He touched 98 m.p.h. and signed for $1 million.
More complicated was what to do with the remaining money. A trip to Taiwan to scout a few players delivered a less conclusive look, as they were out of season and tougher to gauge. Then there was the Netherlands, where teenagers Jiorgeny Casimiri, a hard-throwing righty, and Max Kops, a toolsy outfielder, were working out with the Dutch under-18 program. The Blue Jays signed Casimiri for $225,000, while Kops opted for an American college. But before the deadline hit, they also added another pitcher. This was a player they had tracked in the past but who very easily could have been overlooked because he didn’t pop the radar gun. Instead, Tinnish placed a $125,000 bet on the advanced pitching mechanics and maturity of Sem Robberse, who has since emerged as one the club’s top pitching prospects.
At just 20 years old, Robberse is now throwing in the low 90s and was recently promoted to double-A New Hampshire after tearing through A-ball in Vancouver. Not bad given his unique origin story and the unlikely set of circumstances that allowed the Blue Jays to pull him from the unbeaten path. With Robberse, Tinnish remembers, “everyone looked at the radar gun. When you see a lot of 85s and 86s, it’s not lighting you up. But I took a step back and was like, ‘Man, everything else is there that has a chance to be special if that strength/velo component comes.’ I left there with a really, really strong gut feel about the guy.”
G rowing up in the small town of Woudenberg, a 25-minute drive east of Utrecht, Robberse’s first exposure to baseball was a matter of happenstance, which is somewhat surprising given his father, Raymond, had shown some promise back in the day. A pitcher and shortstop, Raymond was practising with the Dutch national team as a 19-year-old when one day, while carrying a friend on the back of his bicycle, his backpack got tangled in a wheel and he crashed into the road, knee first. There was so much damage Raymond packed all his baseball belongings in a chest, parked it in his attic and decided to move on with his life. Once Robberse was born, Raymond made a point of not forcing baseball on his son, wanting him to pursue a sport of his own choosing. Despite its omnipresence nationally, soccer never really drew his interest, so his parents registered him at the Octopus Swimming Club in nearby Leusden.
At the end of his swim lessons, Robberse — then six years old — would gravitate toward the twin diamonds adjoining the south end of the pool, home to a local baseball club called The Red Caps. Soon, he was asking his parents for permission to join. After attending a few practices, Robberse fell hard for the sport and was quickly signed up. And it was only once the passion had been lit that Raymond took his son up to the attic, pointed out the chest and revealed his buried baseball past. “We opened the box with all my memorabilia, medallions, plaques, my old baseball uniforms and gloves, all kinds of pictures and I was really getting all these memories back,” says Raymond. “It was fantastic.”
Adds Robberse: “It was like gold for me, because it was like, ‘Wow, I didn’t even know we had that. I didn’t even know he played baseball before.’ My dad wanted to make sure that I chose the sport myself and not that I’m influenced by him, so that was really cool.”
Once Robberse dove into baseball, Raymond jumped back in alongside him, seeking out the best information he could find. He jokes that he was inspired by the scene in Bull Durham in which manager Joe Riggins, at the end of a clubhouse rant at his struggling players, says that baseball is a simple game in which players throw the ball, hit the ball and catch the ball. “Technically, it’s a difficult game, but it’s not complicated,” says Raymond. “That’s how I taught him everything, starting with throwing the ball in a proper way so you have no injuries.”
Robberse’s immediate aptitude, especially in his throwing, led to an uncanny ability to hit the target and quickly landed him at shortstop and on the mound. Even at a young age, he produced a repeatable throwing motion, which was one of things Raymond preached. He had broken down video ranging from Hall of Fame pitchers to rioting stone-throwers in search of the most natural arm motions. “He was very simple,” says Robberse. “Just throw as hard as you can and hit the ball as hard as you can and do everything as hard as you can. At that point, you started to develop good habits of a swing, a throw, pitching and then you can fine tune everything.”
Further fuelling Robberse’s interest in the sport, he and his dad regularly attended games in the Honkbal Hoofdklasse – the Dutch majors. Raymond also subscribed to MLB.tv so they could watch the New York Yankees play. But it was a hobby they shared on their own, since none of Robberse’s friends in Woudenberg played baseball. “I was the only one, basically, until my brother [Mees] followed me around and started doing it too,” he says. “It’s very complicated for people if you’re not really associated with it.”
None of that deterred him, though, and before long, Robberse joined a club in nearby Utrecht. A couple of years later, once he was dominating there as a 10-year-old, he moved to the Baseball Academy in Bussum, home to Honkbal club HCAW. The higher level and more intensive environment helped accelerate his progress to the point that when it came time to choose a high school, Robberse picked one in Hilversum, a 10-minute drive south, that structured class times around practices for elite athletes. “I wanted that,” he says, “because I wanted to get to the highest level in the Netherlands as quick as possible.” Mission accomplished – at 16, he debuted with HCAW, appearing in six games, three of them starts, with a 1.80 ERA.
T he foundation of Robberse’s rapid rise came from the base laid by Raymond. He’d been out of baseball about 20 years when his son picked up the game and he did everything he could to get current, cross-checking anything local coaches preached against the best information he could find. What started out as an investigation into the best throwing practices led to increasingly deeper dives as the quality of play increased. “I always looked out for Sem to protect him from coaches and trainers that might ruin him,” Raymond explains. “There are a lot of self-proclaimed baseball gurus here in the Netherlands that think they know something, but in my opinion, they do not always know things very well.”
A carpenter by trade, he had a good head for the science behind optimal pitching motions and was able to apply the knowledge with his son. And whenever he needed confirmation he was on the right track, he found expert communities to provide it. Before the move from The Red Caps to Utrecht, for instance, Raymond posted a video of nine-year-old Robberse to an online pitching forum featuring American coaches to get some feedback. “I got very good and positive responses and then someone reminded me what nine-year-olds are supposed to look like,” he says. “It was completely different. Sem was very smooth and the other young players were herky-jerky. I thought, ‘Okay, at this point, I’ve done a really good job.’ From then on, I looked for more good information. There’s a lot out there, but you really need to filter.”
The fundamental point that underpinned Raymond’s approach was ensuring that a pitcher is in what he calls the 90/90 position when their lead foot lands. That’s where the throwing arm is up 90 degrees from the body and the glove arm is 90 degrees from the upper arm. That way, the throwing elbow is never above the line of the shoulder. “I emphasized to Sem never change that,” says Raymond. “If you change anything else in your mechanics, like a different leg lift, or you want to throw faster, you will adjust something and your arm will change. Make sure that your arm never changes when you’re at foot landing.”
All of those lessons helped Robberse think the game at a far more advanced level than most kids his age. And all of those lessons would eventually pay off when a Blue Jays executive unexpectedly came calling in the spring of 2019.
T he Blue Jays first noticed Sem Robberse at a European tournament in the summer of 2018. Harry Einbinder, the club’s manager of amateur and international scouting, was there and thought Robberse was worth noting, but the team’s interest didn’t progress much beyond that. Major League Baseball had also left Robberse off the world team of prospects that toured Arizona the following fall and he slipped off the industry radar until the spring of 2019, when Tinnish noticed him alongside Casimiri and Kops.
On his first day in Amsterdam, Tinnish watched Robberse go through his daily routine, which included throwing weighted balls, resistance-band work and long-tossing, and was immediately impressed. “This is pretty advanced,” he remembers thinking. The two met afterwards and walked out of the facility together. Robberse, who had moved to Amersfoort, another Honkbal club, for the 2019 season, had a scheduled start the next day and Tinnish made plans to see him. As they were about to part, Tinnish asked where the young pitcher was going, since it was past 10 p.m. Robberse said he was walking to the bus which ran to the Amsterdam train station. After an hour-long train ride, he would catch another bus before walking home. “I was like, ‘You do that on your own a couple times a week?’” recalls Tinnish. “He’s like, ‘Yeah.’ So you could tell right away there was definitely passion to be a good baseball player and a desire to get better.”
Robberse dominated the next day and Tinnish marvelled at the way he filled the strike zone, spun the ball and handled himself on the mound against grown men. The velocity wasn’t big, ranging from 83 to 87, but he had what Tinnish calls “one of the best amateur deliveries I’ve ever seen. Athletic, good actions, good tempo. We have a handful of checkpoints that we like to see: how you’re getting from point A to B to C to D to E, and is he getting to the right points, is his body in the right position at the right time? And it was very clear this was a really good delivery.”
They made plans for a visit at the family home the next morning. Tinnish, whose mom was raised in Rotterdam, broke the ice with the handful of Dutch phrases he’d picked up over the years and listened intently as Raymond explained how he’d taught his son to pitch. Robberse broke down the mechanics of Jacob deGrom and Chris Paddack and what he looked for in the way they pitch. The more he heard, the more Tinnish was intrigued. Meanwhile, the family tried to wrap their heads around a possibility that hadn’t seemed within reach. “Yeah, that was a whole different experience,” says Robberse. “I mean, all of a sudden there’s a scout for a Major League Baseball team sitting in your living room that wants to talk about you coming over to the States to play professional baseball. That’s a whole different route than I thought I was going to take. All the things that he was saying were very positive and gave me a lot of confidence, like, ‘Wow, I can actually do this. I can get this opportunity.’”
Tinnish spent the rest of that visit to Amsterdam watching Casimiri pitch twice before heading home. Next came the Yosver Zulueta showcase and his signing soon followed, before the trip to Taiwan. When nothing definitive emerged there, Tinnish started weighing what to do. He didn’t have much history with the two Dutch prospects and felt he should get another look at them before taking the plunge, so across the Atlantic he went once again, landing on a Thursday. Robberse was starting that night, Tinnish watched him cruise for a few innings, noticed the velocity had ticked up a bit, ranging from 84 to 88, and thought to himself, “All right, I’m good here. I’m all-in on this.” Casimiri, who was pitching for HCAW, was 40 minutes away and Tinnish skipped over to that game to catch his late-innings relief work, which included touching 94 on the radar gun. That was enough to seal the deal there.
The next day Tinnish paid another visit to the Robberse home and answered questions about where Sem would live, how he would train, what he would eat. There was a lot for the family to digest. “You get an email out of the blue and you really think, ‘What’s happening now? How did they know him?’” recalls Raymond. “Andrew was a real nice man. We felt comfortable with him. And then you have to make a decision.”
Same for the Blue Jays. Robberse didn’t have the typical profile of an international free agent signing and it would have been easy to move on. But Tinnish saw too much to like to let it go. He thought back to his days as Blue Jays amateur scouting director and the prep work before the draft. “I’ve walked out of an area scout meeting where a guy had Gerrit Cole on his list and I’d be thinking, ‘Man, this guy really wants Kevin Pillar,’ you know what I mean?” he says. “Sometimes it doesn’t make sense. But you just kind of have these sort of educated gut feelings based on checking some boxes, and that’s what I felt like on Sem.”
Though there was immense uncertainty in sending his son overseas, Raymond understood the opportunity at hand. If Robberse wanted to go, his parents would let him, and Robberse very much wanted to go. All he wanted to do was play baseball every day and chase the dream. “I didn’t necessarily have, like, a big plan,” he says. “I was just focusing on playing my games and improving where I need to improve. Whatever came in my path that I thought was a good opportunity, I was just going to go take it, basically. It just came to me pretty quick, and I’ll work hard enough to become the best baseball player I could possibly be. So let’s do it, and hopefully it brings me something good.”
So far it has, with the promise of more. Though Robberse spent the pandemic summer of 2020 in a Florida hotel room after COVID-19 shut down international travel, he made plenty of progress in a 2021 season split between low-A Dunedin and advanced-A Vancouver. This year, he posted a 3.12 ERA in 17 starts at Vancouver — allowing only 76 hits and 24 walks in 86.2 innings with 78 strikeouts despite being 3.2 years younger than the league average — before being promoted. In two starts with New Hampshire, where he’s 4.5 years younger than league average, he’s allowed three runs over five innings both times. His fastball and curveball are his primary weapons, with the changeup a focal point and a slider in the works. The mound presence, the way he thinks the game and approaches pitching all belie his age. “I feel like I’m able to throw a lot of strikes in any count. I’m not really afraid of getting hit. I know how to pitch with runners on base. I don’t really get stressed because I’m still at the advantage,” he says. “I know what I’m going to throw. I know what it’s going to do. And I know I can throw strikes. So I’m making it even more difficult for the hitter if I’m going to mix things up or pitch backwards. Sometimes you make little mistakes and overthink certain things, but for the most part, I know very well what I’m doing on the mound.”
Back when he was pitching in the Netherlands, when any of the 30 major-league teams could have signed him but didn’t, few could see that. Tinnish looked beyond the radar gun and did. “Look, I know he’s not in the big leagues yet, he’s got a ways to go,” he says. “But I think everybody — except him — to a certain degree underestimated him a little bit. In hindsight, he checked a lot of the boxes that we look for, there just wasn’t a lot of velocity. Arm action and delivery? Check. Really, really good. Athleticism? Check. Really good. Competitiveness? Pitching makeup? Check. Fastball effectiveness against older competition? Check. Ability to spin the ball? Check. So he checks those boxes, but he’s a 17-year-old right-hander who is sitting 85. If you’re not locked-in on some of the other things, you’re probably just going to turn around and walk away.”
To the Blue Jays’ fortune, Tinnish stayed, Robberse signed and the young Dutch right-hander is chasing his unlikely dream.