The unconventional way David Robertson prepared for the 2022 season – and the man who helped him do it
“Ohhhh! He got it!”
Michael Hermosillo had just deposited a pitch from David Robertson over the left field fence on Field 1 at the Cubs’ spring complex in Mesa, Ariz.
However, that reaction wasn’t from teammates or coaches watching nearby.
It was from Robertson himself, who was laughing in the moment as Hermosillo took him deep.
It was a live bullpen session in the middle of Spring Training, so nothing was on the line. But there are many pitchers around the league who are so competitive, they’re swearing and shouting when they miss their spot in the first bullpen of spring.
So this felt different — strange, almost. A stark contrast to the intensity often seen on practice fields.
“It was funny,” Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy said. “That was my first experience of being around him in that environment.”
But Hottovy was actually expecting it because Cubs bullpen coach Chris Young worked with Robertson in Philadelphia in 2019.
“[Young] prepped us, like, ‘this is what it’s gonna be like. This is the type of guy he is,'” Hottovy said. “He is a character when he’s on the mound in how he is and what he thinks about. But it’s really good, the way he comes at guys.
“There is something to be said for staying within yourself, knowing ‘I’m not at my peak-peak right away coming into the season, so I’m gonna stay simple, attack the strike zone.’”
That was on March 29, a little over a week before the Cubs kicked off the 2022 regular season. Robertson had not even appeared in a Cactus League game yet at that point, so it seemed very much in doubt that he would even be ready to go by Opening Day.
Not only was Robertson ready, but he has been one of the most dominant relievers in baseball over the first month of the baseball season.
The 37-year-old hasn’t allowed a run and has permitted just 1 hit in 11 innings this year. He has converted all 5 of his save opportunities, induced 16 strikeouts and finished April as one of the best relievers in a host of categories:
Robertson signed with the Cubs in mid-March but just as his spring started to build up, his wife gave birth to the couple’s third child — a son named Everett. So Robertson flew back home to Rhode Island for a few days to be with his family.
That created a tricky situation. It was already a short, rushed Spring Training. Now Robertson was going to miss nearly a week of Cactus League play. How could he keep his arm in shape and get ready for the season?
“I got to throw some when I got back home,” Robertson said in March. “I had a friend come catch a bullpen and then got to play catch with a dad down the street.”
That “dad down the street” is Brian Hughes, a general contractor who built Robertson’s house.
Hughes and Robertson are good friends — they fish and hunt together. Their wives and kids are also close.
But it’s not like Hughes has any catching experience. He played hockey in high school and that was about it.
“I have zero baseball skill — we’ll put it that way,” Hughes said.
This pairing actually began last year, when Robertson was recovering from Tommy John surgery and trying to build up his arm strength.
“When he came back here, his biggest thing was trying to find a buddy to play catch with,” Hughes said. “I’m like, ‘listen, I’ll play with ya. Why not?’ He’s like, ‘oh, I don’t know.’
“We’d go out to the field and he’d feel me out and I could feel him kinda testing me. And then so when he came back this year, he’s in like full form. It’s definitely different.”
Hughes is actually a lefty, so the action on a lot of Robertson’s pitches created a bit of an awkward angle for him. But he wasn’t concerned for his safety.
“Nah, let him hit me, man,” Hughes said. “I grew up playing hockey, are you kidding me? I love to prove to him that hockey players are superior athletes.
“We got a big league reliever throwing at a high school hockey player and we had no problem catching the ball. I don’t know why it’s so hard for these guys to hit that,” Hughes added, laughing.
People often asked Hughes how he managed to catch the ball from Robertson, who averages 93.1 mph on his cutter this season.
Hughes replied that he heard the ball zipping in before he saw it and just tried to stick his glove out to the right spot.
Still, even with help from his neighbors, the fact that Robertson was fully ready for the season amid a crazy, disjointed spring was a pretty remarkable accomplishment.
Especially only a couple years removed from a major elbow surgery.
Robertson missed most of 2019, undergoing surgery in August of that year. He was sidelined for all of 2020 and didn’t make his 2021 season debut until Sept. 1 with the Rays.
He appeared in 12 regular season games with the Rays and another 3 in the American League Division Series. He felt like he was “searching” for feel and rhythm for much of that time, still trying to lock in his command after a long layoff.
“There was always this little voice in your head that’s talking to you after you had something fixed,” Robertson said. “I really felt like by playoff time, I had started to figure it out and kinda knew what I was capable of doing and that my arm was gonna hold up on me.”
This spring, Robertson was confident he was going to be ready for the season. He knew his body and arm so well and understood he didn’t need 10 or 12 appearances.
But just because Robertson was confident he would be ready by Opening Day doesn’t mean his new manager shared the same unshakeable belief.
“I don’t know that I did [have confidence], if I’m being honest,” David Ross said. “I was uncertain. But I think the way he went about his work and when he came back and trusting that he did the work while he was home with the baby. And being able to take care of his throwing program.”
Ross and the Cubs listened to Robertson and put trust in what he was saying. But they also watched his bullpens and spring appearances and looked at the data — which all supported the veteran’s case.
The team didn’t have to wait long to find out the answer, either.
The Cubs took a 5-4 lead into the top of the 9th inning against the Brewers on Opening Day and Ross called on Robertson to nail it down — which he did to pick up his first save since 2018.
With each subsequent outing, Ross’ faith in Robertson grew.
“Putting all that together gave me the ability to be like, ‘OK, I know he’s gonna handle the moment,'” Ross said. “He seems very calm, he competes really well in big moments. And so track record is mainly what I went by, trusting that he was ready and obviously he was.
“Coming into the season, we had a lot of those kind of uncertainties in all the guys that may or may not be ready with a shortened Spring Training — especially with him going home.”
It helped that Robertson had an open line of communication with the Cubs all spring, even when he was back in Rhode Island. He sent a video of his bullpen back to Hottovy and the coaching staff.
“It wasn’t ideal but he absolutely did a great job getting himself ready,” Hottovy said.
The Cubs have been blown away by Robertson’s simple approach and confidence. He knows exactly who he is on the mound and is throwing a first-pitch strike 75% of the time this season.
“Obviously he’s gone out and been tremendous,” Hottovy said. “Listening to him talk about how good he feels physically, you trust a guy that has that much time in the game to tell you. You hear lines like, ‘oh I feel fine.’ But he was like, ‘No, I went through surgery and came back. I feel like I have a new arm.’
“When you have a guy who has that much history explain how good he feels, you trust what you hear there.”
Hughes has a sense of pride seeing how Robertson has fared early this season, knowing he played a small part in getting the 14-year MLB veteran ready for the season.
“Listen, what are friends for?” Hughes said. “It’s funny because as talented as he is, he’s just so humble. You would never think that Dave Robertson is a big-time player. You can sit down and you can play catch with him in the backyard and he’s just a normal guy.”
Since this pairing has worked so well, it has to become a regular part of Robertson’s offseason training program, right?
“Oh of course,” Hughes said. “I’m just hoping he cuts me in on the salary.”