Trayvon Robinson has great raw skills and a disposition everyone can appreciate, but what can we expect from him in 2012 and going forward?
Buried beneath the big news stories of the week was the promotion of outfielder Trayvon Robinson. We haven't heard much from Robinson this season, so if you're blanking on the player, here's a quick catch-up: Robinson is a twenty-four year old outfielder and he was obtained in the Eric Bedard deal last summer. At the time of the trade, he was regarded as one of the top Dodger farmhands and was ranked by many outlets as the team's best hitting prospect. Already known for his speed, Robinson added power to his game in 2011, bopping twenty-six homers in his first 100 Triple A appearances (all with LA's affiliate in Albuqurque.) Soon after his acquisition, he was brought to Seattle.
Robinson struggled in his first tour of the league, as major league pitching exposed his raw approach at the plate. He appeared in forty-four games last season, posting a .210/.250/.336 line with an unacceptable 39.4% strike out rate. Robinson's fatal flaw was his susceptibility to the swing and miss. He whiffed on over 17% of his swings, more than double the league's average rate and he particularly struggled with breaking balls in the dirt. Worse, despite a penchant for chasing pitches off the plate, Robinson was dead last in the league at making contact on offerings out of the strike zone. There were some positives in his big league audition (most notably an insane catch in his debut) but it was clear that he'd be returning to the minors this season.
Unfortunately, 2012 has been a bit of a lost year for Robinson. He's cut down on his strikeouts, but it doesn't appear that he's improved his pitch recognition. Instead, it looks like he's simply swinging more often early in counts, as evidenced by a correspondingly dropping walk rate, his lowest BB% since 2007. More troubling is that Robinson's power is gone. After slugging .563 for Albuquerque last year, he's down to a .409 clip with the Rainiers and he's hit just nine home runs while playing in chummy Cheney Stadium. Altogether, his 91 wRC+ makes him a below league average bat.
Against this backdrop, Robinson arrives as a player who incites mixed emotions from fans. On the one hand, it's hard not to root for a guy like Trayvon. He grew up in pretty brutal circumstances, one of four kids from a single parent home, living in a gang infested neighborhood in South Central Los Angeles. On one occasion, Robinson's apartment was peppered in a drive-by shooting while he laid inside. On another, one of his best friends was murdered in an attempted carjacking. Robinson is also a product of MLB's Reviving Baseball in the Inner Cities program (RBI) and serves an inspiration for both kids in a similar situation and for the league in general as it attempts to address the diminishing population of black players in the sport.
Robinson's game is also likable. Whether he develops into a home run hitter or not, his ability to drive balls into the gaps and steal bases could be a refreshing injection to a station-to-station team without the raw power to thrive in Safeco Field. Moreover, fans will never doubt Robinson's will to win. He's incredibly intense on the field and he isn't the type of player who will ever face criticism for loafing.
But for all of Robinson's intangibles, it's hard to find comfort in his statistical profile. His contact rate in the minors in 2012 is still below average, and it seems unlikely that he can put the ball in play significantly more often in the majors this season than he did last year. Additionally, last season's home run numbers appear fluky in hindsight. He didn't have any track record as a power hitter prior to 2011 (his fifteen home runs in 2008 in high-A can't be divorced from the offense-heavy environment of the California League) and while twenty-six homers are impressive on the surface, he only had fifteen other extra base hits, suggesting that his dinger total was the product of another set of friendly ballparks that obscured his real power potential.
Robinson also isn't a defensive stalwart. He has the range to avoid embarrassing himself in center, but his arm is one of the weakest in the league, rendering him a liability in anywhere but left field. Altogether, it's hard to see him as a valuable contributor in his current form without a pretty crazy batting average on balls in play, an unrealistic expectation even for a player blessed with Robinson's speed.
For now, Robinson will probably play a few games (while Franklin Gutierrez recuperates) before returning to Tacoma. There's always a chance that something clicks for Trayvon while he's in Seattle, but more realistically, he's going to have to improve his game in the minor leagues. And yes, he does need to improve. Very few players can survive with his strike out rate and those who do need to blast upwards of thirty homers a year to justify their spot on the roster. Robinson can't be counted on to hit for that kind of power and he doesn't have the defensive abilities to compensate for a weak bat.
Trayvon Robinson is one of the easiest Mariners to cheer for in recent memory. He has an entertaining skill set and has already overcome so many obstacles. At the end of the day though, he's still the same raw hitter he was last season. It's hard to forecast a better performance until he demonstrates that he can make more contact or hit for more power.