Most of the Tigers’ hardcore snoops know the story of Jacob (Jake) Robson, an outfielder now at Triple-A Toledo who was born in London, Ontario, and grew up in Windsor playing baseball at Vincent Massey Secondary School.
They might know of how he hit his way into a Mississippi State offer and how he became a Tigers eighth-round pick in 2016, four years after the Padres tried to get him with a 30th-round gamble.
What they don’t seem to know in 2021 is how this man, now 26, hasn’t yet worked his way into Comerica Park’s outfield configuration. Not when he’s batted a combined .400, with a 1.192 OPS in 28 games at Toledo and Double-A Erie.
Or, maybe they do know:
That roster numbers have not been Robson’s friend. That the Tigers outfield, early in 2021, was filled with the likes of Robbie Grossman, JaCoby Jones, Nomar Mazara, and Victor Reyes. That also waiting for a summons to Detroit were two guys with relative seniority and cachet as Tigers outfield prospects: Derek Hill and Daz Cameron.
In fact, it was the clutter in the Tigers outfield — not a lot of distinguished talent, but a lot of similar bodies and skills — that forced Robson into an 18-game stint at Erie, which was well beneath his punching weight.
But rather than sulk, or pout, or ask to be traded, or seek out a media outlet sympathetic to his plight and air his justified grievances, Robson decided on another option.
He would hit, and hit, and hit, and show he belongs in Detroit.
Which, from all evidence, he does. In fact, it’s probably a matter of time, a short time, before he gets his Tigers initiation.
“The kid’s performed at every level and continues to do so,” said Toledo manager Tom Prince, explaining during a phone conversation last week that decisions on where prospects play are his bosses’ purview, strictly. “I just put them in the lineup and let them play as we try and coach them up.
“But there’s no doubt,” Prince said, agreeing that the big leagues are, at some point, in Robson’s future. “He’s swinging the bat extremely well and making hard contact. When he makes contact, the ball goes, with good exit-velocity.”
Robson bats left-handed, stands 5-foot-10, weighs 182 pounds, and can play anywhere in the outfield.
He has four home runs to go with that cumulative .400 average and 1.192 OPS, which, incidentally, came from fairly consistent — make that, torrid — production at both Erie and Toledo.
Square this searing spring with his five-year minor-league numbers and you can repeat the initial question: Why hasn’t this guy gotten a phone call from Detroit.
His career farm stats: .297 average, .383 on-base average, .426 slugging — .810 OPS. He also has 86 stolen bases in 431 games.
“The one thing that stands out is his ability to get on base,” Prince said. “He runs the bases hard, he looks for extra bases all the time. And he wants to steal bases — second and third.
“And he’s definitely a very solid outfielder who can play all three positions.”
Most interesting, of course, in analyzing the Robson dossier is his bat. It is a weapon the Tigers endlessly seek, never more than in 2021. It is, potentially, the edge Robson could bring to an outfield that advertises more than its share of personnel, which reasonably could be branded as “fourth-outfield” types.
“He’s a much better hitter now than he was in my first year here in 2019,” said Jeff Branson, the Tigers minor-league batting instructor. “And credit to him for what he did during a year-and-a-half layoff (COVID-19’s effects).
“The biggest thing is just his hitting position. It’s a more balanced position. A lot of times before, he was out on his front side a lot, which created a lot of ground balls to the pull side. Or, if he did get the ball in the air, he’d hit it (weakly) to the left-field gap or to the left side. But he’s worked his tail off to get into a better position.
“He’s also had this year-and-a-half to get his body stronger and leaner.”
A superficial glance at his numbers might suggest strikeouts are a bit of an issue (461 in 431 games). But beware, the cursory study: While he has 29 whiffs in 28 games this season, he also has 24 walks.
Punch-outs, with that brand of ratio going for him, won’t be a problem.
“One thing we track is swing decision in the zone and out of the zone,” Branson said. “His swing decisions as far as being ready to hit with balls in the zone are really good.
“His chases are down. He takes what pitchers are giving him. If you don’t want to pound him in the zone, he says, ‘I’m taking my walk.’”
What yet impresses Prince, and Branson, was how Robson handled that spring assignment at Erie. He did not deserve it, Tigers bosses across the board agreed. They felt they had no real choice.
Robson, however, did. He could accept it and not become bitter. Or, he could have opted for fuming and spewing grievances, which, on one level, would have been understood.
Robson made his decision: He batted .424 in 18 games at Erie, with a 1.243 OPS.
“I think you give the young man a lot of credit,” Prince said. “We had conversations before he got sent down to Erie. We said, ‘Look, Robby, you’ve performed here (Toledo). But the biggest thing you do is go down there and play well and get back here.’
“Well, he didn’t (gripe). He played great and got back here.”
As for what might happen at the next level, and when, Prince repeated he’ll let the Tigers front office decide those matters. Nor is he inclined to say how Robson might be best used in Detroit. He can play center, or left, but finds himself most times in Prince’s lineup in right field.
It implies his arm is another asset. In fact, it’s more on the end of average.
“I think those days are gone,” Prince said, quibbling with thoughts that a strong arm means right field is a more likely station. “Ballparks are so much different now. Obviously, at Comerica Park, right field’s the shorter of the two fields.
“But I’ve bounced him around.”
As for the next bounce, it could well be a 60-mile carom from Toledo all the way to Comerica Park.
Robson, for sure, is ready.
The lone question is: When are the Tigers?
Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and former Detroit News sports reporter.