Duncan Robinson, 22, is listed at 6’6″/220 and was one of the many tall right-handed pitchers the Cubs selected in last week’s draft. Equipped with a low-90s fastball and a big curveball, he was named the Ivy League Pitcher of the Year in 2015.
He was drafted last Friday, graduated from Dartmouth College last Sunday, drove all the way across the country to his hometown of Houston for a few days of downtime, and has now flown out to Mesa to sign and begin workouts with the Cubs. So I was appreciative when he found a few minutes to talk with me this weekend, during what has certainly been a whirlwind couple of weeks. I asked him first about the pre-draft process:
There were three or four teams that I talked to more than others. They just kind of wanted to get to know me, and then they also wanted some basic information, you know, height, weight, when I’m graduating, all that stuff. Closer to the draft, teams started talking to me about a possible scenario for me to get drafted and how I would feel about that.
And then on Friday, the second day of the draft, the Cubs area scout called me, and told me this might be lined up, you know, would you be OK with this? And I said “absolutely,” and then the scouting director* called me and wanted to make sure that we had an agreement, you know, that I wouldn’t just back out of it right after it happened or something like that. And then, about four picks later, it was done.
Were teams only asking you need-to-know things, or were they picking your brain on pitch-mix, approach, and other more nuanced things like that?
It depended on the team. Some teams just wanted the standard information and, granted, some of these scouts had seen me pitch, so they don’t need to ask about what I throw. Other teams would: what kind of pitcher are you, who do you model yourself after in the big leagues? And then, other questions: what’s going through your mind on the mound—they’re trying to get a mental description of the kind of person I am. But it depended on team to team.
Do you have an answer for a pitcher you’d model yourself on in the big leagues?
No, I really don’t. I watch baseball, and sometimes I think “Wow, I wish I could throw 100 miles an hour like Noah Syndergaard,” but no, whatever gets guys out is what I’m going to model myself after.
I asked Robinson if he had an idea that he would go sometime during that second day of the draft:
Definitely, the second day I was paying close attention. I had an inclination that I might go in the first ten rounds, but once we got to the seventh, eighth, ninth, tenth rounds, I started to pay attention a little closer. Because the third day, you know, has thirty rounds and starts to go by pretty fast. So I was just hoping to get picked up in the first ten rounds and was lucky enough to have it happen.
Are you officially signed?
Yeah, well, I’ll officially sign in Arizona when I fly out there. I’m home for a couple days, but I’ll get it going on Sunday.
Do you have an idea of what you’ll be doing in Mesa once you get out there?
I have a brief itinerary for my trip out there. For Monday and Tuesday I’ll be going through physical exams, you know, to make sure I’m healthy. Rookie ball is in Arizona, in Mesa, and then short-season is in Eugene, Oregon—I would hope I would get out there sooner rather than later. But I guess that’s all dependent on how I do. But I’m sure I’ll be put through some workouts and some throwing program action, so I’m sure I’ll know more once I get out there.
In 2016, Robinson’s K/9 ticked up to 9.6 and his BB/9 dropped down to a sterling 0.91 (he had 73 strikeouts and seven walks, total). I mentioned these impressive numbers to him, and asked him how he thought of himself as a pitcher. With these strikeout numbers in mind, I was a bit surprised when I asked him how he thought of himself as a pitcher.
I can’t say if I fit or not into the type [of pitcher] the Cubs are looking for yet. Hopefully I will. But I would describe myself as the type of pitcher that’s going to throw a lot of strikes, which can lead to one or two things: a lot of quick outs or a lot of hits. When things are going well, it’s a lot of quick outs, groundballs, guys getting themselves out. This year, I had more strikeouts than I was accustomed to, which is never a bad thing, but I’m someone that doesn’t necessarily overpower guys in terms of velocity. Maybe that will change, maybe it won’t, but I’m a type of guy who’s going to be around the plate.
I found this interesting, because it shows that Robinson isn’t taking his 2016 strikeout numbers as the only input in the type of pitcher that he is. He recognizes that he has historically pitched to contact, and that continuing to think of himself that way is most likely to lead to success.
He didn’t have a comparison for himself, but I might: Ryan Williams was the Cubs’ tenth-round draft pick in 2014, and he has risen all the way to Iowa on the back of a 2.29 minor league ERA, but only 157 strikeouts in 212 innings. The flip side? He’s allowed only 33 walks in his minor league career, a stat that Robinson sounds like he is trying to emulate with his pitch-to-contact approach. Williams’ success might be a good model for a mid-round draft pick rising quickly through the system.
I thought another model might be the success of another Dartmouth right-handed pitcher, Kyle Hendricks. I asked if the two had ever connected:
Yes, when I was a sophomore in the fall, he was taking classes and finishing his degree. I had some brief interactions with him there because of the baseball team connection. But he’s been a little busy at this time of year, but you know, it’s great to see a guy like Kyle do so well at that level. Gives guys like us hope.
Do you have any goals for the next few months, or long-term?
Obviously, the ultimate goal is to be pitching at Wrigley Field. But in the grand scheme of things, I’m just going to go out there and work hard, you know, leave nothing to doubt that I’m giving it everything that I can, and whatever happens after that I’m OK with, as long I know that I did everything that I could.
Nobody knows if Robinson will rise through the ranks, but he seems to at least have the right attitude and makeup for the long, arduous road to the bigs. Either way, he’s another interesting name to keep an eye on in the months and years to come.
*This is presumably Matt Dorey, though I didn’t ask.