It seems somewhat appropriate that, as a Las Vegas native, Aaron Roberts bet on himself and won.
The path to get there wasn’t an easy one, however, but the Cal redshirt sophomore has emerged as one of the more intriguing arms in the upcoming 2022 MLB Draft, which will be his second time going through the process after being selected by the Boston Red Sox in the 15th round three years ago.
Roberts, of course, elected to honor his college commitment, but has been somewhat limited in showing what he can really do at the NCAA level due to missing his entire freshman season due to undergoing Tommy John surgery and then going through the COVID-affected last year in his return to the mound.
He’s been used as a high-leverage situation-type arm this year, and while there’s been some bumps in the road, it’s a role he’s relished thus far.
“I’m working out of the back end of the bullpen, later innings, lot of pressure situations this year, definitely,” he told FutureStarsSeries.com in a lengthy Zoom conversation.
“But, it’s been really good adapting to that closing-type role. It gives me a chance to go out there and leave it all on the field, and kind of just compete with the batter in the box. It definitely feels like I can go out there and let it all go for the one or maybe even two innings I can do, as opposed to starter where you’ve got to pace yourself and you can’t just go max effort all the time.”
Roberts turned in a solid redshirt freshman campaign last year, earning him this type of spot this year; he went 1-1 with a 2.31 ERA in 12 outings, and struck out 18 batters in only 11.2 innings of work. Results aside, it was nice for the American Studies major to simply get back out there after missing all of 2020.
“It was definitely interesting to say the least,” he said. “Coming off the 2020 year with the culmination of COVID and I had Tommy John surgery on January 21st of 2020, that whole experience with Tommy John and the whole rehab process — 12 months and (during) COVID as well, so we were dealing with quarantine and not being able to go to specific rehab facilities because they were shut down, or we can’t leave our house and things like that — and then coming back the next January because we weren’t able to have a fall that year was definitely interesting. A few of my first outings were against live batters in a couple of the fall scrimmages we did do, and then just jumping right into the season the next month. It definitely took some getting used to over time, but over time, I was able to get used to it.”
Being able to settle in last season made the lengthy rehab process all worth it, but also renewed his passion for the game after taking some time to reflect on a somewhat-lost year.
“It definitely made me realize some things about myself, like just how much I truly love the game of baseball,” Roberts said. “Being out of it due to COVID and having a surgery like Tommy John and having to push yourself like that every day, especially with facilities being shut down and me having to do arm work in my backyard, it’s just something where you realize that, deep down in yourself, your drive and your love for the game is what’s pushing you forward and making you want to do the little things that are important so that you’re able to compete how you want to.”
Over time, Roberts has also found the confidence in his elbow from a physical standpoint again so that he’s not dealing with the mental struggles that many suffer from after such a significant procedure; in short, he’s not out there wondering if he’s ever going to have to deal with tearing his UCL again.
“They say when you get Tommy John, you come back throwing a lot harder, but it’s really attributed to a lot of the arm work that you’re doing,” he said. “The shoulders, the forearms, the biceps, the triceps, all the work. All the time I had rehabbing and being able to just strictly focus on getting in the gym and prepare myself, it definitely increased the physical aspect of myself.”
It also, perhaps somewhat unexpectedly, took away some of the two-way aspect to his game that we saw back at International Week in 2018, where Roberts faced six batters, but also took batting practice and had an at-bat as well. The decision to focus solely on pitching was one that Roberts says he made himself after undergoing the procedure.
“Originally, I was going to come back and keep two-waying,” he said. “But, just due to some arm issues that I was feeling from constantly throwing as well as swinging the bat, it led to me deciding that I was better off just being pitcher. And, I felt that’s what most of the scouts saw me as anyways.”
Roberts said that it was “100 percent hard to leave hitting behind” and joked that all he has left now is hoping he can help contribute to shutting out the other team so that they get pitchers BP as a reward the next day. However, as he said, most scouts were ultimately going to see him as a pitcher, and that’s likely what he would have been doing in the Red Sox organization when they took him back in 2019.
“Getting drafted was definitely one of the best days of my life,” said Roberts, who cracked that he grew up a Yankees fan, so it made the decision to go to Cal a little easier.
“As every kid does, they dream to get drafted, so it was really a dream come true. It let me know that the hard work really does pay off in the end. Getting drafted by Boston in the 15th round — by such a historic franchise — it was such an incredible feeling, words couldn’t even describe how I felt that day. Deciding to go to Cal Berkeley and continue my education, everyone retires at some point; you’re either forced to stop playing the game by yourself or someone else. So, there’s a lot more to life after baseball. Being able to go to such a fine institution as Cal was really important, and was one of the huge factors in my decision. But, being able to have the Boston Red Sox or the number one public university to fall back on is something to make it a little easier.”
Now in his third year at college — redshirt or otherwise — Roberts is able to dedicate a lot more attention to what may happen in the draft this time around, all while of course doing everything he can to help Cal win this season.
“Meeting with scouts this year and things like that has obviously got my mind in that area,” he said. “This year, I’m definitely looking towards the draft, and that’s what I’ve been working towards my whole last three years in dealing with everything I have. I’m definitely ready to go through that process again and test the waters.”
The questions that teams have been asking have ranged anywhere from the standard queries about how he’s feeling physically to, shall we say, some less conventional inquiries.
“There’s been a lot of the normal stuff, stuff about family,” he said. “Most of the conversations we had throughout the fall and winter were generic, getting to know you-type questions. But, I remember some of the questionnaires were pretty funny. One of the teams asked if we put peanut butter in the fridge or the pantry or, when we’re at the store and we finishing shopping, do we return our shopping cart back to the designated area or leave it in the parking space. It’s some of those weird things that I guess they have the mental people evaluating. I don’t know what me not putting peanut butter in the fridge says about me, but they know it now.”
Roberts sense of humor is just as strong now as it was back several years ago at that International Week event, with his days back on the travel ball circuit sometimes a distant memory with everything he’s been through since, but more often than not, still serving as the foundation for valuable lessons learned in and out of the game.
“If you’re really looking back at it, it just seems like it was just yesterday,” he said. “But, then again, I’m out at practice and in that cycle of the constant Groundhog Day (type of) doing everything over and over again, it also feels like it was a long time ago from that standpoint. I was 17, 18 years old then and now I’m 21, going to turn 22 this December. Time flies, but it also feels like it was just yesterday.”
Memories from Camelback Ranch are just as vivid as they’ve ever been, of course, with Roberts happily recounting his time on the National Team at the second installment of the annual event.
“The chance just to get invited to a World-class event like that where all the baseball players were treated like celebrities, words can’t describe it,” he said. “The first night reception when all the players meet and greet, and there was that dinner. Getting the chance to meet Mr. Jeremy Booth was amazing, because you know Mr. Booth and the presence he carries and the type of man he is. All the coaches I got to meet, all the athletes, both national and international, it was just amazing. That was one of the things I really liked about the Future Stars Series, is the elements of not only the national players, but having those international players and being able to interact with them and seeing the little nuances that they bring to the game versus what you grew up around.”
The respect between Booth and Roberts is certainly mutual.
“A-Rob was one of the deepest students of his craft we had been around,” said Booth, the president and CEO of the New Balance Baseball Future Stars Series.
“He’s inquisitive and confident, and extremely driven. He’s gonna make it or exhaust himself trying. He’s got things about him that are energizing and easy to respect. He takes success in stride as an expectation and you can see the emotion harnessed under the surface in quiet resolve to win. Not a shock at all the Red Sox and Mike Rikard selected him in 2019 and it’s going to be fun seeing him rise in 2022. He ‘gets it’ as we can see and you know what time it is, he’s FSS For life.”
Now known as the Main Event, International Week, as it was known at the time, also, as several players interviewed from that event previously, like Brock Jones and Silas Ardoin, established a network of sorts for those who would be following a similar path at a similar time.
“Some of the connections you make there are lifelong connections,” he said. “I’ve known Brock Jones forever, and obviously he was there. I got to meet, at the time, a would-be potential Cal Berkeley commit, but he ended up getting drafted and signing, Kyren Paris. And then even kids from the other (team) like Daniel Espino, just the different aspects of cultures that they all bring to baseball was very exciting, and being able to connect with them, it was really amazing.”
Collectively, the International Week experience also helped them get prepared for the next step even in ways they may have never imagined or even noticed at the time, as Roberts can attest to.
“Even the little things, like being exposed to major-league locker rooms and things like that, with all the equipment and stuff, it gets me ready for the college level when we’re doing the same things,” he said. “Honestly, that event was one of the first times I learned to use a laundry loop, and just putting the stuff on like the socks and how to clamp the socks on and putting the shirts through the things. Now, almost every day here at college, we do the same thing after every practice and after every game. Just the little things like that, the tiny one percent little details like that help you out at the next level. Getting all the new equipment — the gloves, the jerseys, the shirts, the hats and all that — Mr. Booth wanted us to feel like MLB superstars, and I guess he succeeded with what he was trying to do.”
For now, however, Roberts will remain a fascinating college arm, at least for the next few months, before he’ll likely hear his name called in the MLB Draft.
“First off, always have to talk about the team, and I’m really excited about the team that we have this year,” he said. “I really believe that we can go all the way to Omaha, because this is the closest team I’ve ever been a part of, we’re basically a family. But this is the first year I guess that I’m really 100 percent healthy over two years after Tommy John. The Pac-12 season (started), and I’m just looking forward to contributing this year in a big way and helping my team in any way I can.
“It just feels like my arm is getting stronger every week, so I feel like what I have to do show myself is basically be myself, and just go out there and compete every day. Being able to be a part of the conference like the Pac-12 and being able to pitch against teams like Stanford, Oregon, UCLA — some of the most nationally-renowned teams — it’s going to be nothing but good for my future, being able to get that experience of having such good competition early in my career can only help later down the line when it’s even better competition.”
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