“Your surfing can get better on every turn, on every wave you catch,” Kelly Slater once said.
Robbie Welhaf is not surfing waves, but the CB East alum’s pitching gets better each time out on the Whitecaps.
The Detroit Tigers assigned Welhaf to their Class A affiliate, the West Michigan Whitecaps, on May 16 and he threw two shutout relief innings that evening. On May 29, Welhaf got the win in his first start for West Michigan, a 10-1 rout where he allowed just four base runners and no earned runs in five innings.
“First and foremost, (Welhaf) is a performer. He’s pitched well. He is a strike thrower,” said Whitecaps’ pitching coach Willie Blair, a 12-year Big League veteran. “He has a good arsenal. He has four pitches that he can throw for strikes and all of them are effective pitches.”
In his first start after the All-Star break, Welhaf struck out nine Lake County Captains, a career high. At press time, he was 3-4 with 48 strikeouts in 48 innings. He walked just five. Welhaf’s 2.63 ERA would rank second in the Midwest League if he had enough innings to qualify.
Welhaf has always been stingy with yielding free passes. “Being able to have that type of control and command is partly due to mechanics,” Blair credited, “but partly due to his aggressive mindset. He is constantly on the attack.”
“I have to give my college coaches a lot of credit since from day one, command was a huge thing,” Welhaf added. “If you didn’t have command, you weren’t going to pitch much. Growing up, throwing upper 80s to low 90s was hard in high school but when you get to college, there is the quick realization that it’s not that hard. You have to really pride yourself on your command in order to be as successful as you want to be.”
Welhaf’s CB East Patriots won the SOL Continental in 2013, his senior year. The 6-foot-1 righty matriculated at Elon, throwing the program’s first Division I no-hitter on opening weekend of 2017. He led the Phoenix with six saves to complement a 2.25 ERA and a gaudy 61 to 11 strikeout/walk ratio in 2018.
In between, Welhaf whiffed 27 and walked just seven in 12 appearances for the 2017 Quakertown Blazers. “The Blazers were a really fun time,” Welhaf recalled. “I got to meet a bunch of new people, players from around our area, and see what happened with them. A lot of the West Chester guys I played with went on to win the Division II College World Series, so that was fun. My year, we were very close.”
Welhaf filled out draft questionnaires for Big League teams. Although his name went uncalled during the Major League draft, Welhaf knew he had a professional home. “The Tigers gave me a call in the 36th and 37th round letting me know that they were interested in taking me in a free agent slot,” Welhaf remembered. “It was a great opportunity so I said ‘Absolutely.’”
Thirteen days after the draft, Welhaf found himself throwing 2.1 scoreless innings in his professional debut: an 88-degree Florida afternoon at the Gulf Coast Yankees.
Welhaf admitted he was “a little disappointed” when the Tigers kept him in extended spring training to start 2019. “But I kept studying and kept doing what I was doing,” he added. Welhaf got a cup of coffee for Detroit’s High-A affiliate, was sent back to extended “and ultimately got sent to West Michigan, and was able to perform well in the first couple of outings to hopefully find a home for a little longer than the others,” he smiled.
He is settling into the life of a Detroit Tiger farmhand. “Obviously, they draft certain players because of their abilities and there is something that they like,” Blair explained. “But the Tigers have their thoughts on the way certain things should be done too. We’re trying to instill those thought processes into that player but we work on their strengths as well.”
“You’re obviously trying to take care of your arm as best as possible,” Welhaf described his routine. “You get to the training room early and get whatever treatment you need. You do your running, you get your throwing program in with the rest of the pitchers. Then you’ll shag (flies).”
West Michigan plays just outside of Grand Rapids. While Grand Rapids is an underappreciated city, Welhaf and his teammates would rather ultimately be playing 163 miles east on I-96 at Comerica Park. The journey there is far longer than the two-and-a-half-hour car ride, but Welhaf is doing the right things now to maximize his chances.
“He has a great attitude and he works hard. He is a good teammate,” Blair credited. “He’s a great kid so you can take your pick – there are a lot of things to like about him.”