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The Trayvon Robinson Transmogrification


The Pittsburgh Pirates just released Erik Bedard. That doesn't have much of anything to do with the Seattle Mariners, but this serves as a convenient opening to a reminder that, a year ago, the Mariners traded Bedard and picked up two prospects. They also traded Josh Fields along with Bedard and I think he's the forgotten man in that trade, which has always kind of been his career upside. "Fields should blossom into being the sort of guy who gets traded without people noticing or remembering." But this post isn't about Josh Fields, because no posts should be about Josh Fields.

The more interesting of the two prospects the Mariners got was unquestionably Trayvon Robinson, if one takes "interesting" to mean "likely to have a major-league career." Robinson was 23, and a speedy outfielder, and in triple-A he owned a .938 OPS. He had a high average and 26 dingers. He'd done a lot of his damage in Albuquerque, where one time I drove in three runs by ordering at a Denny's, but he had tools and he had results, so Robinson looked like he could become something. Not bad for a return for a pitcher for whom the Mariners no longer had any use.

Of course, Robinson had problems. In triple-A, he struck out 30 percent of the time, and he made contact just 65 percent of the time that he swung. Miguel Olivo's career major-league contact rate is 68 percent. Robinson joined the Mariners and, unsurprisingly, the problems didn't get fixed. He struck out 39 percent of the time, and he made contact just 66 percent of the time that he swung. Put another way, Robinson batted .210 with the Mariners while posting a .346 BABIP. You could say he was a little lucky to post a batting average as high as he did.

Generally, these sorts of players are incredibly difficult to fix, if not outright unfixable. Robinson's made huge strides. He improved his triple-A strikeout rate to 22 percent, and he improved his triple-A contact rate to 73 percent. We've talked about that a little bit before. Now Robinson has collected some plate appearances in the majors again. His strikeout rate's at 23 percent, and his contact rate's at 78 percent.

We're talking about a big-league sample of less than 100 plate appearances and less than 150 swings, so our numbers are still limited, but the magnitudes of the differences are such that this sure seems meaningful, especially given Robinson's improvement in Tacoma. Trayvon Robinson hasn't become a contact hitter, but he's become a lot more of a contact hitter, which was something he absolutely needed to do if he ever wanted to start earning real money in this business.

You think of a guy like Carlos Peguero and his problem is his approach -- he just doesn't recognize different pitches, and he just doesn't recognize the strike zone. Discipline was never really a weakness of Robinson's. Last year in the majors, his rates of swings at balls and strikes were fine. A little aggressive, but fine. The problem was just contact, meaning the problem was just the swing. Last year, 405 players batted at least 150 times. Robinson's rate of contact on pitches in the strike zone was baseball's eighth-worst. Robinson wasn't so much selecting the wrong pitches as he was attacking them the wrong way.

Now Robinson's swing has been cut down, and it's made a world of difference. A necessary consequence is that Robinson will presumably hit for a little less power, but then power was never Robinson's game, time in Albuquerque be damned. Robinson was never going to make it as a power hitter. If he was going to make it, he was going to make it because of his defense and ability to hit line drives to the gaps. These days he's giving himself more opportunities to hit those line drives by putting more bat on more balls.

What Trayvon Robinson isn't is a finished product. He still probably strikes out too much, and makes too little contact. Without much in the way of power, and with only a passable eye, Robinson needs to put more balls in play. And even if Robinson continues to improve, he's unlikely to blossom into a star, and he's more likely to just hang around as a switch-hitting fourth outfielder. There's only so much that Trayvon Robinson can do. But the reason I'm highlighting this is because Robinson has already made such a significant change. It's less about celebrating Trayvon Robinson and more about recognizing a massive improvement in contact skills. Prospects who don't make enough contact usually continue not making enough contact. Improvements tend to be modest. Robinson has made a significant improvement, and one might believe there's still more improvement to come.

The Trayvon Robinson the Mariners traded for was an interesting player with a crippling weakness. The Trayvon Robinson the Mariners have now is an interesting player with weaknesses that are in no way crippling at all. Even if this is all that Robinson ever becomes, it took a lot of work to get even this far. Robinson's already done something few players in his position can ever manage to do.