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How Chicago Cubs’ Ethan Roberts developed a nasty slider — and ‘exceeded whatever your loftiest expectations can be’

Shortly before big-league camp broke three weeks ago, Chicago Cubs pitcher Ethan Roberts tried using a new grip for his slider.

The suggestion came from assistant pitching coach Daniel Moskos. Given Roberts’ natural supinated wrist position for his fastball release and how well the right-hander can spin a baseball, Moskos thought Roberts’ slider wasn’t his best version of the pitch.

So Moskos figured it was worth trying to tap into a next-level slider that would give Roberts more punch-out ability.

“The first thing in my equation when going to make an adjustment or an implementation is, ‘OK, what are we solving for?’” Moskos told the Tribune. “Is it platoon splits? Is he not striking enough people out, whatever it may be. So finding a swing-and-miss breaking ball was probably the place to go looking for.”

Roberts’ new grip does not look like a traditional slider grip and more closely resembles a two-seam fastball grip by positioning his right index and middle finger just left of the two seams. His natural throwing motion gets his arm and wrist in the necessary position to create devastating spin off his fingertip.

“It’s actually really comfortable in my hands,” Roberts said to the Tribune. “In spring training when I was throwing it in a couple bullpens, I was able to throw it for strike, but it’s a different atmosphere out here so I’m yanking a few of them. But I’m sticking with it because it’s worked really well for me.”

Roberts is generating elite spin rate and horizontal movement with his slider, both of which rank first among big-league right-handers. His 3044 rpm average is bested only by Oakland Athletics left-hander Sam Moll (3082).

Roberts’ 21 inches of horizontal movement is tied with New York Yankees lefty Lucas Luetge for best among the 283 pitchers to throw at least 10 sliders this season.

Roberts is producing more vertical drop than the league average too. His slider’s combination of horizontal break and vertical drop challenges hitters’ eyes and makes it a great putaway pitch.

“I had a feeling given the spin profile of what he does with his fastball that this might be a really good pitch,” Moskos said. “I didn’t really know it was going to be as good as it’s been. You can’t set your expectations that high, no matter that what he’s done has exceeded whatever your loftiest expectations can be.”

A pitcher typically works through a progression when implementing a new pitch or grip during spring training, starting with bullpens and live batting practice before working it into exhibition games. The shortened spring because of the lockout meant getting creative. Roberts looked for any chance to throw his new slider: on flat ground, playing catch, a throwing session between outings or anywhere he could get off a mound and gather data on the pitch.

Moskos introduced the grip to Roberts on March 27, and Roberts deployed it for the first time the next day during a Cactus League save opportunity against the Cincinnati Reds. Roberts threw his new-look slider only once more in a game before the regular season, again unleashing it April 1 versus the Milwaukee Brewers.

“Luckily for us, he took to it right away, and the grip change was easy for him,” Moskos said. “Right out of the gate he pretty much nailed it, and so now the hardest part for him is finding the lanes to throw it on.”

Because Roberts gets so much horizontal run on his new slider, he can’t set his sight lines the same way as his old version. On Roberts’ first big-league strikeout Tuesday against the Pittsburgh Pirates, catcher Willson Contreras positioned his glove on the inside edge of the zone to show where he wanted the right-hander to throw the slider. Contreras knew the pitch would end up where they wanted it — low and away.

Roberts executed it perfectly. Roberto Pérez whiffed on a slider that generated 24 inches of horizontal movement.

“Part of it is an element of trust that it’s going to move when I start it there,” Moskos said. “If you are aiming at a right-handed batter to start your slider line, you have to trust that it’s going to break so that you don’t just give up a free hit by pitch if you leave it arm side.

“And so that’s an element of trust that you have to get over. But for him he was able to do it, and he finally found his lines in Pittsburgh.”

Roberts’ nasty strikeout pitch earned him a shoutout on Twitter from pitching analyst Rob Friedman, who runs the popular @PitchingNinja account.

Roberts acknowledged it was cool to witness that moment circulate on social media. But he added a caveat.

“Nobody saw the three bad ones that I threw,” Roberts said of his Pittsburgh outing. “I see the three bad ones. But it’s good to see that one because that’s what I know I want my pitch to do almost every time.”

Naturally there are growing pains when utilizing what is essentially a new pitch because of his grip change. That doesn’t even account for the 24-year-old Roberts being in the majors for the first time and learning what it takes to be successful at the big-league level. Throwing with conviction is important, doubly so when trying to trust a new grip and pitch movement in a key situation.

Roberts was confronted with that scenario Thursday night at Coors Field while trying to maintain the Cubs’ three-run lead.

He entered with two on and one out in the fifth inning and allowed a hit off his slider to each of the first two Colorado Rockies batters he faced. Roberts did not throw another slider, walking the next two hitters on 12 consecutive cutters. Roberts allowed two inherited runners to score, including on a bases-loaded walk before Keegan Thompson entered to escape the jam and hold a one-run lead.

Moskos thought Roberts made good pitches with his slider, especially to Rockies slugger Kris Bryant, who managed to turn on a down-and-away slider and hit it to left field. Moskos believes it’s important to reinforce that while sometimes adjustments can be made, there are times all a pitcher can do is tip his cap to a good hitter.

“Do we need to overemphasize failure? No,” Moskos said. “I like to reinforce the positive side of things because this game’s hard and you play it every day. And for a guy like him, he’s going to have to be available every day, so if we’re constantly harping on the negative, yesterday can bleed into today and can bleed into tomorrow, and we don’t want that either.”

When reflecting on Thursday’s outing the next day, Roberts said he lost a little conviction in his slider after he surrendered back-to-back hits off the pitch. Catcher Yan Gomes recognized that and went to Roberts’ cutter to try to miss a barrel and get out of the inning.

“I was just trying to be too fine,” Roberts said. “If I wasn’t too fine and I was throwing my fastball and my cutter in the zone, I was going to miss a barrel. But that was the young me coming out, and I learned my lesson.”

Because Roberts didn’t get a full spring to work with his new slider grip, there is an understandable balance of wanting to leverage it as a weapon while still getting comfortable with the pitch. Moskos understands Roberts might not fully trust his slider in key moments like Thursday’s outing.

“I can’t ask him to do that, that’s unfair of me,” Moskos said. “Because some days it’s just about survival. It doesn’t have to be pretty all the time. It’s just about getting through it and keeping your team in a position to win.”

Roberts’ stuff will continue to make him a valuable option for manager David Ross. His role in the bullpen might transform over the course of the season as the Cubs already have shown trust in the rookie. His last two relief appearances were high-leverage situations and despite Thursday’s hiccup, Roberts remains an intriguing young arm who could become a viable backend option.

“He is a really good-hearted kid who wants to do the best that you possibly can,” Moskos said. “It fires me up that he’s always looking to get better.”

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