What a difference a year can make! Entering draft season last year, Griffin Roberts was a strong-armed closer, the surprise hero of Wake Forest’s bullpen. He blew batters away in bunches and struck out 13.5 hitters per nine innings. As a two-pitch reliever with poor command, though, he lost plenty of hitters to walks. The main attraction was his mid-to-high 90s fastball and athleticism that gave hope for improved command. His profile was rounded out with a solid breaking ball, but he slipped out of the first few rounds and decided to stick around for his junior year of college.
Today, he couldn’t be a more different player. In a rare successful transition from the closer’s role to a spot in the rotation, the results are nothing short of fascinating. Roberts has become the Demon Deacons’ ace, adding a changeup and becoming less of a thrower and more of a true pitcher. He has already pitched a career-high number of innings, but is still maintaining a strikeout rate north of 12 batters per nine innings.
School: Wake Forest
Draft day age: 21
MLB Pipeline prospect rank: 50
Previously drafted: 29th round, 2017
MLB Pipeline Scouting Grades: RHP Griffin Roberts
No player available to teams in 2018 draft has a better breaking ball than Roberts throws. Not spin rate darling Carter Stewart. Nor Florida ace Brady Singer. Nor prep power pitchers Ethan Hankins and Kumar Rocker. No one. You thought Alex Faedo had a great slider? Even his takes a knee compared to the dastardly offering that Roberts uses as his best pitch.
Every attribute scouts look for in a secondary pitch can be found in Roberts’ slider. It has a harsh bite that plays havoc with opposing hitters. Burke Granger of 2080 Baseball reported favorably on the pitch, saying it had “two-plane break” and that Roberts could spot it better than his other offerings. In an interview with Aaron Fitt of D1 Baseball, Roberts expressed immense confidence his breaker.
Wake Forest righthander Griffin Roberts owns the best slider in college baseball — at least in my opinion, and probably in his own opinion too. Roberts has supreme confidence in himself, and especially in his slider, an 82-85 mph wipeout pitch with hard, late tilt. Hitters know it’s coming, and he knows they know — but they still seldom hit it. Roberts even said in a 3-2 count, he’ll throw his slider “like 100 percent of the time.” Here it comes; good luck.
Baseball America’s Carlos Collazo saw Roberts on his worst start of the year but still came away from the viewing with good things to say.
Roberts throws from an extremely low, three-quarter slot that gets sidearm at times and had a large amount of inconsistency with his release point throughout the outing with both his fastball and his slider. At its best, the slider is a plus pitch that can lock up batters or cause them to swing and miss as he buries the pitch in the dirt or finishes outside the zone. ... Roberts managed to get eight of his 10 strikeouts with the slider, including four swings and misses.
While Roberts no longer hits 97 miles per hour like he did during his closing days, the fastball still grades out as above-average. He will sit in the 90-93 mph range in most starts, with a shape that has been described as sinking, boring — or moving to the pitcher’s arm side — and running. There are some concerns as to how well it will play at the professional level, but those who doubt it are in the minority.
This combination of a fastball that passes the sniff test and a slider that rivals any prospect evaluators have seen before gives Roberts a good floor. He would still be a relief arm, providing a solid fallback option if the starting gig doesn’t work out. Seen as a setup man in 2017, he has shown improved command of all his pitches as a starter over his years in the bullpen. If the improvement is more than a mirage and transfers well in the event that he does transition back to one-inning stints, that significantly ups his potential.
It’s a good thing that Robers profiles well in relief because there are significant concerns that the Wake Forest star is not a starting pitcher long-term. One anonymous scout who believes that Roberts isn’t a long-term option in the rotation spoke to Bless You Boys and elaborated some on his opinion.
I’d send him out as a starter to see if he can make it work but way more likely to be a reliever at MLB level... like 80/20. Changeup is fine, mechanical profile is not.
The mechanical profile in question is more than likely the high-effort delivery utilized by Roberts, throwing from a very low three-quarters arm slot that sometimes wanders into sidearm territory. Both attributes tend to serve as red flags, indicators of high walk rates and injuries down the road. Pitchers who can’t find a repeatable delivery usually end up in the bullpen, and those who clearly have to work for velocity are twice as suspect.
Aside from the (legitimate) concerns regarding his role as a major leaguer, there really isn’t too much to complain about. While his changeup is a definite third pitch, the reports on it rage from “fine” to “average” to “bullish.” Unless there is a drastic change in his profile within the next month, the biggest knock on Roberts is that he isn’t more spectacular.
There isn’t a whole lot of consensus on exactly how good Roberts is as a starter. However, enough people like him in the rotation that he is almost guaranteed to go in the second round. Even if teams don’t think he will be a rotation arm at the highest level, there aren’t many inhibitions about taking riskier pitchers in the third round, and he almost certainly won’t fall to the fourth.
h/t Jheremy Brown, 2080 Baseball, and Baseball America for the videos