Jeff Seidel | Detroit Free Press
LAKELAND, Fla. — The ball came screaming into the Detroit Tigers dugout at Joker Marchant Stadium.
Jacob Robson, a minor league outfielder, was wedged between a couple of players, sitting on the bench. It was Feb.22, 2020 — the Tigers’ Grapefruit League opener against the Philadelphia Phillies.
Robson wasn’t scheduled to play. He was in the dugout only to watch and support his teammates.
“There were so many people in the dugout, it was hard to like find some free space,” Robson said. “So I was sort of sandwiched between a couple of guys.”
As the ball came into the dugout, Robson didn’t have time to jump out of the way.
“I saw it off the bat,” he said. “It was coming on a line towards the dugout, and I just turned my head and covered my head — or part of it — and the part that I wasn’t covering was the side of my head. And that’s where the ball hit.”
Robson suffered a concussion. The side effects lingered for weeks and ended his spring training. Then, COVID-19 ended any chance of playing in the minor leagues.
It was a one-two whammy that derailed an entire season for this left-handed hitting outfielder.
But now, looking back on it, Robson says the concussion and stoppage in play might have come with a silver lining. Because it forced him to re-evaluate everything.
“I kind of took a step back and was like, what can I improve?” he said. “How can I fill some holes in my game? And one of those things was my mechanics in the box. And I just sort of cleaned them up. I mean, the best hitters have the best mechanics and it’s not a coincidence.”
While in quarantine, with no games to play, Robson decided to change his swing.
“If I had been called up earlier (to the big leagues), maybe I wouldn’t have looked in the mirror and saw that I should make some mechanical adjustments,” he said. “If I made it to the major leagues with this swing, I might say, ‘I might as well keep it.’”
But he did change his swing, which he will unveil when the Tigers hold their first full practice on Monday. The Tigers have eight outfielders on their 40-man roster, ranging from veterans to a batch of prospects. In addition, the Tigers have invited three other outfielders not on the 40-man, including Robson. That makes Robson a tremendous long shot to make the Tigers roster but almost everybody in this camp has a chance, according to manager A.J. Hinch.
“Now I feel like I’m better equipped to face elite pitching and cover the zone,” Robson said.
But there is something else. Robson is a year older. “I feel like I’m older and more mature as a baseball player,” he said in a Zoom call from Australia. “So I think that just gives me an advantage going into spring.”
Yes, this story ends in Australia.
And it all started with that foul ball
No laughing matter
Robson has suffered several concussions. The first few happened when he was a kid, playing hockey in Canada.
And he suffered another one in a 2017 car accident.
“So I’m more prone to them,” he said.
After getting hit by the ball, Robson was fatigued, had headaches and was sensitive to light.
“I just laid low in a dark room for a long time,” he said. “I was real like loopy. I felt like totally out of it. I was kind of giggly. A lot of guys will get angry or sad. But I was like the opposite. I guess which is good. But yeah, I was definitely out of it.”
The Tigers brought him back slowly and gave him time to recover, which he appreciated.
He had a meeting with general manager Al Avila and then-manager Ron Gardenhire.
“They were just like, hey, look, it’s kind of too late in camp right now — you’re not going to break camp with the team,” he said. “Don’t worry about it. We’re just going to send you down to the minor league side, get your at-bats and ease into the season. Do not come back too quick.
“It was a little bit reassuring that we’re they were on the same page of not getting me back too quickly.”
But soon after, the pandemic hit and the minor league season was canceled.
He decided to move to Mississippi to practice with several professionals.
“We had a little group of pro guys that would train together,” he said.
Trying to find a place to play became a major problem. At one point, he was supposed to play in an independent league in Canada, but it was canceled.
“I just kept training in the cage, running, doing workout stuff and the next goal was to try and find a place to play in the winter ball,” he said.
He considered going to the Dominican Republic to play, but the COVID cases in the country gave him pause.
“I found out that Australia had almost no COVID,” he said. “So I said, ‘I’m just gonna go to the place with no COVID where I can get some at bats.’ And I think it was the right choice.”
Good swing, mate
Robson went to Australia and played in 12 games, hitting .184 with a home run and eight RBIs.
Instead of worrying about his average, it gave him a chance to try out his new swing.
“It’s better than just being in the cage and someone throwing you underhand flips or hitting off a machine,” he said. “It’s not the same as the real competition on the field.”
Robson, 26, was an eighth round pick in the 2016 MLB draft out of Mississippi State. He hit .305 in 57 games in Toledo in 2018. And then, he hit .267 with nine home runs in 112 games in 2019.
But the pandemic couldn’t have happened at a worse time for him and his development.
“Could describe some of the changes you made to your swing?” I asked.
“I was drifting a lot in the box, towards the pitcher. And so when you’re doing that, your head’s moving a lot, and you can’t really control what your body’s doing so much. You have to really rely on your hand eye, which doesn’t give you much room for error. So I’m staying put a little more and making sure my head doesn’t move so much.”
Over the years, I have seen Robson play several times in the minor leagues.
And every time I’ve seen him play, he did something to help his team, whether it was a defensive play. Or moving a runner. Or taking an extra base. Or getting a bunt down. Or going first to third.
He’s a pure baseball player and I have a sneaking suspicion that Hinch is going to love him, too.
The Tigers outfield seems set. But Robson has a chance to make the Tigers Triple-A outfield. And then, who knows? If there is need for another outfielder in Detroit — whether it’s an injury or a hitting slump — he could get a shot.
“I feel like I’m ready,” he said.
Contact Jeff Seidel: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @seideljeff. To read his recent columns, go to freep.com/sports/jeff-seidel/.