Luke Robertson Guides Wichita Wingnuts Staff to Reach Potential
For fans of classic television shows, there was nothing like some of those amazing father characters. Dads like Howard Cunningham from Happy Days, Ward Cleaver from Leave It to Beaver, and Mike Brady from the Brady Bunch always had an incredible piece of wisdom for their children no matter what the situation was.
These men became the role models for generations of dads, not just because of their fatherly wisdom, but also because of their ability to know when to step in and when to let their children fall on their faces. These fathers always knew how to correct and yet inspire their children to get up and start over again. Most importantly, they taught their children to take each incident and use it to be a little wiser than they had been before.
Wichita Wingnuts pitching coach Luke Robertson understands that there is a time to teach and a time to listen; a time to admonish and a time to praise; a time to kick some butt and a time to come to the aid of his pitcher. He has established himself as one of the most respected pitching coaches in all of minor league and independent league baseball. A guy that free agents clamor to learn from and who his own pitchers want instruction from no one else but him.
Luke comes from a diehard family of baseball lovers. Quite a successful group of diehard baseball lovers at that. With two older brothers and a younger one that have played professional baseball, the sport became a family event, much like some families would have a barbecue every Sunday or have a family game night on Friday nights.
“It was something that our family, my dad and my brothers, could do together in the summertime and baseball is just one of things that once you get it in your blood it never leaves.”
In his blood was where the sport of baseball was truly flowing. The more he played the more he enjoyed the sport. Luke also found himself having a great deal of success which spurred him to want to play even more. He also loved the opportunity to spend more time around older brothers Josh and Nate, as well as with his father.
“Obviously things that you’re good at are things you enjoy doing. When I first got started my dad introduced me to it so we could all spend time together and then it was a want to be like my two older brothers, to compete with them and against them. That made it a driving force in my life.”
His father also taught him a lesson about commitment that he holds as one of his greatest pearls of wisdom to this day.
“My dad was a master sergeant in the army and he never allowed us to accept failure. Failure is part of the game and it’s something that you learn from and grow in the midst of, and he taught us that failure shouldn’t be a reason to turn away from it.”
It is always interesting to gain perspective on why a player selects their position of choice. Most select out of desire to showcase their skills or personality, or because they felt that they stood out above all others at that position. While those may be true, it is clear that Luke Robertson views the mound in a different way than most.
The Robertson brothers (including younger brother Matt) are a very solid group of men with high integrity and a commitment to living life in a way that is representative of Christ. They openly express their love for God and point out that He is a primary reason for their success. Such dedication and love has made the four a group of upstanding men in their homes, in their churches, on the field, and in the city of Wichita. This is as true about Luke as about any of the other three.
There is something interesting about the recently turned 36-year-old, however. One can tell that while living a life of great integrity, Luke would definitely be the one that would challenge the limits. This is a man who loves to be in the center of stuff, not out of some need for attention, but solely out of a desire to be involved with whatever is going on. That translated in his desire to become a pitcher.
“I always thought it was cool that one guy on any given night could neutralize an entire team, and I was always that kind of guy who liked to be in the middle of stuff. So. I figured if I had the ball in my hand on every play then I had the ability to be in the middle of something,” he explains with a smile.
Robertson was a standout performer at Maize High School in Wichita, where he played varsity baseball all four years and earned All-State honors as an outfielder in his junior season. Luke went on to play college at Butler County Community College and later transferred to Kansas State University. At both he excelled and in 1999 he caught the attention of the Los Angeles Dodgers, who drafted the right-hander in the 27th round.
His professional career began three years later in the Oakland Athletics organization. In 2002 he was 6-5 for High-A Modesto, striking out 144 in 121.1 innings pitched. The next season he split time between Modesto and AAA-Sacramento, going 7-8 overall.
The 2004 season was awash for the most part, as knee surgery limited his time on the field to just eight total appearances between rookie ball and Modesto. He posted a 2.92 ERA overall in 24.2 innings pitched, and still showed he was a real force on the mound, striking out 23. Three surgeries in four seasons had taken their toll, however, and it taught the right-hander that enough was enough.
“I had three surgeries in four years on my knee, and the question became with each surgery if I was healthy enough to come back and get back into shape to play again. It was a tough decision, but I didn’t want to put my body through that again.”
The chapter in his playing career may have been over, but Luke was about to make his biggest contribution to the game. In 2008, brother Nate bought a stake in the Wichita Wingnuts, a new independent league franchise joining the American Association. Josh was to be the club’s general manager, and he came to his younger brother about becoming the pitching coach under manager Kash Beauchamp.
“When this team came to Wichita, Josh talked to me about being the pitching coach. I had never really thought of being a pitching coach at the professional level, but once the opportunity was pitched to me I thought to myself that this really seemed like a good fit. I love to be out on the baseball field, I love to compete, I know that I will strive to be the very best at whatever I do, so I really thought that this would be a good fit.”
While Luke had not considered being a pitching coach previously, he did see that there was a natural progression. The right-hander had always been one to share ideas and thoughts with others on pitching staffs wherever he had played, and had a special knack for aiding his teammates to find that little edge to enable them to get hitters out on a more frequent basis.
“There are always times where you are thrust into situations where you have insights or experiences that you can share with others to help them to be better educated to succeed, and if you can give guys even the smallest edge over a hitter you want to help them to reach that point.”
His first season as the club’s pitching coach was admittedly one that had more challenges than the rookie coach envisioned. He had a lot to learn about coaching and teaching others his ideas, and this made for a year’s worth of upper echelon learning on how to handle his new job.
“My first year was a kind of crazy up and down year. There were a lot of things I learned both good and bad, but it helped make me who I am today. Those experiences helped to put me at the place I am today.”
His success in molding a pitching staff was almost instantaneous. In 2009, 2010, 2013, and 2014 his staffs led the American Association in ERA. His 2013 staff set a league record with a 3.38 ERA. The most interesting thing about his staffs’ successes is that Luke openly admits that he approached this job a little behind the curve. He had not learned the art of pitching the way he wished he would have, and so there is a lot he had to learn to develop his craft.
“One thing I wish I would have done more when I played was to have been more of a student of the game. Once my career was over and I couldn’t go out and pitch and do all the things I used to be able to do, I found myself watching baseball and becoming more of a student of the game. I feel like if I would have had the knowledge that I have now back when I played I feel like I would have given myself much more of an advantage.”
The fact that he didn’t feel that he was truly at his best early on is one of the scariest parts of what could be. If Luke and his Wichita Wingnuts staffs are having so much success already and he is just now reaching a point in his own coaching development where he feels that he really gets the true art of pitching, opposing hitters must be having many sleepless nights wondering how they are going to overcome the brilliance that Luke Robertson imparts.
The impressive part of the pitching coach’s style is that he teaches the art of pitching in a way that anyone could get. This is not a system built on advanced sabermetrics where Pitcher A should start Batter B with a curveball that lands in Grid 1 of the batter’s hitting zone, and then Pitcher A should throw a slider off of Grid 9 to get Batter B to chase. Instead Luke gets his players to buy into doing the things that have made pitchers successful in games for 150 years.
“My message is simple and clear. Compete in the zone with your stuff. Work ahead in the count, work down in the zone and put guys away in three pitches or less. That’s pretty much my philosophy in a nut shell, and it’s not hard to understand. It’s not a hard thing to grasp. If we are working ahead in the count, then we are using our whole arsenal so we can use any pitch at our disposal to get guys out. If we are working at the bottom of the zone then we are ensuring that we are not hurt by pitches up in the zone. Then, if we go in with a mindset of putting guys away with three pitches per at-bat, we can then last longer into games. The best hitters fail seven times out of every 10, and my goal for my staff is to make that eight out of every 10.”
What makes the Wichita Wingnuts pitching coach stand out is that this is probably a message being taught by thousands, if not tens of thousands of managers across the country, with nowhere near the success that Luke is having. He succeeds because his pitchers buy into his philosophy and he has shown them that his ideas work.
“The biggest thing I try to do with my pitchers is to build trust, to get them to trust me. To build trust between us, because if a guy trusts me then he will give me an opportunity and listen to me, and if a guy doesn’t trust me it doesn’t matter if I have the one thing that could get him to the big leagues, because he won’t be willing to use that.”
Like Mike Brady, Howard Cunningham, and Ward Cleaver, he also understands that sometimes it takes that pitcher falling on his face to get him to finally listen.
“So I have to let guys fail a bit, so they are willing to listen. I feel that the best opportunity I have to reach them is when they are facing adversity and not when things are going sweet. When everything is going good no one is going to listen to anything because it is going good, and I am a big advocate of ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.’ But that doesn’t mean we can’t do that little thing that can put us over the top, to give us that little edge, to do that little thing that is going to give us what we need to be successful.”
One of the more interesting aspects of how Luke Robertson speaks is that he often refers to what his pitcher is doing in the first person plural – we. He wants his pitchers to know that he is out there with them for every inning, every hitter, every at-bat. It has been something that has drawn the most amount of praise from pitchers that have learned under his tutelage.
“Luke wants us to succeed and that is one of reasons I only wanted to play here,” former closer Matt Nevarez explains. “He gets to know us and knows how to get the very best out of us.”
Left-hander Anthony Capra echoes the sentiment. “He helps us develop a great game plan, and you can see that he is with us every time we take the mound. You have to like playing for a guy that wants to see you succeed above everything else.”
Luke Robertson’s job is to build a pitching staff that can help the Wichita Wingnuts compete for championships every year. He has done that and done it with great excellence. To him that is not enough. His personal goal is to see his players reach their full potential for the benefit of themselves.
“I am not here to be their friend. I am here to be their coach, their teacher, their mentor, their confidante, their listener. Whatever place they need in their life, I try to be. Our goal as an organization is to win championships that is what we are set up to do. These guys individual goals are to help us win championships as well, but I want them to develop their skills to get on back to where they want to be. I want them to reach for the highest level they can go.”
Luke is working to help his players reach their dreams. Like a dad wanting his children to reach their full potential, the Wingnuts pitching coach is wanting his players to reach for that same dream that injuries took away from him. He may have lost his ability to reach that dream for himself, but he has gained a great deal of wisdom to speak philosophically about it.
“This is a chance for these guys to be able to fulfill a dream that you’ve had since you were old enough to dream. It is something that you can’t explain to anyone else until they have a chance to do it themselves, and it doesn’t mean as much until you have the opportunity to do it yourself. They are going to get that opportunity here, and I want them to reach that dream. With some sacrifice they can make it.”
Sacrifice. That is a word that young Luke learned from his parents from the moment he wanted to run onto a baseball diamond. Father, Dick, and mother, Cristy, made sure that all four sons had the opportunity to reach for their own dreams. That meant making a lot of personal sacrifices of their own to ensure their boys had the chance to reach for the stars.
“As far as our (Luke and his brothers) success, I think there is a lot of factors in it. Maybe none more important than my parents. My mom sacrificing her time to get us to practices on time, and to make sure that we were where we needed to be. My dad sacrificing his time and their money to make sure that we were able to get us into the camps to give us the instruction we needed to develop our abilities. They are a big reason why we are where we are.”
His parents get the lion’s share of the credit for the success he had as a player and as a man, but there is one person that he feels has played the biggest part of all in his success as coach.
“In my coaching career it is my wife (Shawna). It takes a lot of sacrifice to make the world go round, and she has done a lot to help me succeed here.”
The Wichita Wingnuts are having another outstanding season as a pitching staff. Despite a constant change in the group, Luke Robertson’s crew is fourth in the American Association in ERA. With the kind of success he is having it is easy to see why organizations have been taking a closer look at the pitching coach, but he makes it clear that the circumstance has to be right.
“For me and my family this is right where I am supposed to be. I enjoy what I do at this level. I enjoy that I can work with a guy and do what I can to help improve him without having an organization tie my hands by some organizational philosophy. I just look at a guy and do what I can to try to make that guy get better. It gives me the freedom to take what I know, take what they are, and try to find a mix and a mesh that can help us to move forward with what we can.”
In the state of Kansas, the Wichita Wingnuts competing for the American Association title is as much of a part of summer as 100 degree days and boxelder bugs. A big reason for that success has been the brilliant vision of Luke Robertson. His ability to teach, inspire and guide has helped to develop a staff that is always at the top of the league in quality of stuff and person. They are a direct reflection of their coach, which makes total sense. After all, like father, like son.
By Robert Pannier
Member of the IBWAA