Feature Photo: Daniel Robertson, INF, Rays
Editor’s Note: 2080 Baseball is publishing weekly profiles of former Perfect Game All-Americans as they progress through the professional ranks. The series will be published each Wednesday and run through the 2017 Perfect Game National Showcase, to be held June 16-21 in Fort Myers, FL. We’d also like to offer our special appreciation to David Rawnsley, vice president of player personnel for Perfect Game, and Patrick Ebert, PG’s managing editor and scout, for their contributions to the PG in the Pros series. – Mark Shreve
In baseball, the term “utilityman” used to connote a fringe or bench player. Chicago Cubs’ star Ben Zobrist has changed that perception by becoming one of the most valuable players in baseball, in large part because of his ability to move around the field. Ironically, it is the man who the Tampa Bay Rays traded Zobrist away for in 2015 – Daniel Robertson – who has taken Zobrist’s utility job in Tampa Bay.
According to David Rawnsley, vice president of player personnel for Perfect Game USA, Robertson was made for the role. Rawnsley says that the utility role is exactly what he would have envisioned for Robertson after seeing him play three different positions in the Perfect Game All-American Classic in 2011.
“He was just a guy that you wanted out there on the field,” Rawnsley said. “In Tampa Bay, he’s with the right organization. They value some things that he brings to the field more than other organizations. I don’t know if he can be the next quasi-Ben Zobrist kind of player, but I think that is a realistic goal for him.”
Since making his major league debut on April 4, Robertson has appeared in games at four different positions for the Rays: second base, shortstop, third base and left field. Robertson has always understood the value of being able to play multiple positions for his team.
“Even in my younger days playing travel ball, I was the guy when whoever was pitching, I played their position,” Robertson said. “If the right fielder was pitching on our travel team, I played right field. If the shortstop was pitching, I’d play shortstop. I always moved around and I was okay with it. Coming up through the minor leagues, I was mostly at shortstop, and I thought that might be my road, but last year in [Triple-A] Durham, they started moving me around a little bit, and it’s worked out. Obviously, the versatility is why I am up here right now, and I love it. I love playing the different positions and performing in whatever role they choose for me, whether that is starting a game or coming in later in a game.”
Rawnsley says that Robertson was never the most physically gifted kid on the field, but from an early age, he stood out because of his baseball aptitude.
“He was a very mature player in that even back in high school, aside from his hit tool, his raw physical tools were below average,” Rawnsley said. “You look at some of the guys we talk about in the draft who were first-rounders and all who run mid-6.4, 6.5 and throw 90-something. He did none of those things. The best he ever ran was a 7.28. And he probably had a 40-[grade] arm on a big league 20-to-80 scale, but he just had the ability to hit the ball and slow the game down. He slowed it down on defense and he slowed it down on offense.”
Eric Martins, then a Southern California area scout for the Oakland A’s, coached Robertson on his Area Code team and said that Robertson always had that drive to succeed.
“The thing that caught my eye with him was just his love for the game and his passion,” Martins, now the A’s hitting coach at Triple-A Nashville, said. “Yeah, he had the skills and was already a famous kid and he had the ability to hit and play defense, but it was his love of the game, his passion that stood out. He was always asking questions because he just wanted to get better. He played the game hard. He respected the game. Obviously a talented player on top of that, but when you add that kind of makeup, it just makes you want to draft that player even more.”
Martins sold the A’s on Robertson, and Oakland selected him with the 34th overall pick in the 2012 MLB Draft. Primarily a shortstop in high school, many scouts pegged Robertson as a future third baseman because of his size (6’1’’, 190 pounds in high school) and his lack of quickness.
After signing with the A’s for slot value ($1.5 million), Robertson reported to the Arizona Rookie League, where he immediately made the move to third base to accommodate the A’s first pick (11th overall) in 2012, fellow high school shortstop Addison Russell (SS, Cubs). Once Russell moved up to Short-Season A Vermont, Robertson returned to shortstop. Robertson would remain at shortstop for most of the next three seasons, only seeing a handful of innings at second and third base in 2014 for the High A Stockton Ports.
In 2014, Robertson slashed .310/.402/.471 for the Ports and he entered that offseason as the A’s consensus top prospect. On January 10, 2015, Robertson was the centerpiece of the package the A’s sent to Tampa Bay to acquire Zobrist. A broken hamate bone slowed Robertson down in 2015, but he still hit .274 with a .778 OPS as a 20-year-old at Double-A Montgomery in the Southern League.
Last season, Robertson spent the full year with Triple-A Durham and he slashed .259/.358/.356 while splitting time defensively between shortstop (75 games), second base (21) and third base (20). When the Rays needed a utility player this spring, they turned to Robertson because of his sure-handed defensive abilities and his mature approach at the plate. Through June 5, Robertson had made only one error in 129 chances over 39 games (19 at second base, 9 at shortstop, and 12 at third base), and he had a .330 OBP.
Martins says that while he hopes Robertson finds an everyday big league role at some point, he thinks the Rays are utilizing Robertson’s skills effectively.
“He’s that versatile that he’s able to fill whatever role they need him to,” Martins said. “DRob is the type of kid who will do anything. He just loves to play.”
Robertson takes pride in being able to play shortstop at the big league level.
“I remember going through the draft and coming up through the minor leagues everyone saying that I would have to move to third one day,” Robertson said. “It’s just an instinctual thing at shortstop. I just see the ball really well off of the bat. Even though I am a little bigger and not the quickest, I get a good first read and a good first step, so I have been able to stick around there. In the little amount of time I have had at shortstop in the big leagues, I have felt really comfortable there and have been making some good plays.”
Rawnsley says Robertson’s feel for the game allows him to maximize his physical talents both in the field and at the plate.
“When you slow things down, you know when you can make a play and when you can’t make a play,” Rawnsley said. “What it has really done is impact him at the plate. He has really good bat control, and he wasn’t tied into any one approach. He just hit the ball hard and if you hit the ball hard enough, they are going to fall in, and if you get the barrel on the ball, those are going to fall in too. He has always walked plenty. If you can keep your OPS in the upper .700s and play five positions, including shortstop, you are going to keep moving up.”
Robertson says he has always had an innate ability to anticipate what is coming next on the field.
“I remember being in Little League and I would have a play happen in my head, and the next play, it would happen,” Robertson said. “Recently, I was playing third base and we had first-and-second and I thought, ‘this guy is going to roll over on it and I’m going to step on third and throw it to second and we are going to turn a triple play.’ I swear to you, the next pitch, he rolls over on it right on top of the bag, I stepped on it fired to second and we were just a tick short of turning the triple play. The little things like that I have always been able to anticipate before they happen. That’s a thing that I have always been able to do. I don’t know if it is magic, but it’s definitely really weird.”
Robertson credits his father, Don Robertson, for his baseball instincts.
“When he was coaching me, he’d move me right before the pitch, whether I was playing second or short or outfield or wherever, he’d move me and I swear to you, that ball would be hit right where he moved me,” Daniel said. “So he had that instinct, too, and I was just born with it, I guess.”
Don Robertson passed away after a three-year battle with cancer in 2013 during Daniel’s first full professional baseball season. Recently, Daniel and his family established the Daniel Robertson Family Foundation, in honor of his father. The foundation raises money for families who are struggling financially while a family member is battling cancer.
“We were really fortunate when my dad was sick that we didn’t have to suffer financially. My dad was able to ensure we were taken care of, but not all families are in that situation,” Robertson said. “They can’t work to make money and they struggle to support their families. So we raise money to help those in need. It’s a blessing and an honor to be able to start it in his name because that is how he was. He was so giving and caring. It’s an honor to be able to do that and give back.”
Martins says that Robertson’s family – Don, his mother Julie and his three brothers – gave Daniel the foundation to succeed.
“It’s really a unique family. There is nothing but love that comes through those doors,” Martins said.
“I have always had this work ethic that I got from my parents at a young age that has translated to everything in my life,” Robertson said. “They were always huge supporters and pushing me to be the best because they knew how much I wanted to play in the big leagues.”
Now in the big leagues, Robertson finds himself in an environment where preparation and versatility can make a significant difference.
“Everything is under more of a microscope [in the big leagues]. Every pitch matters and every little detail matters,” Robertson said. “That’s the biggest difference I have realized from the minor leagues to the big leagues is that and the importance of winning. You can go 0-for-5 with five strikeouts, but if you make a play to help the team win, that’s all that matters and you walk back into the clubhouse celebrating a win. That’s the best feeling.”