An Ode To Clint Robinson

The 2015 Nationals had a 30-year-old rookie on the roster, who ultimately generated 0.4 fWAR. The player, Clint Robinson, is not the type of player who is often written about at length, and there is a reason for this: 0.4 WAR is pretty much the textbook definition of replacement-level. That in turn means they are pretty much, well, non-factors.

Here is a player who raked in high school, raked in college, raked at Double-A, raked at Triple-A, for multiple organizations, and for whatever reason, hadn’t stuck on a big league roster. All of that personal, private narrative, the struggle to build and maintain a professional career playing baseball, is simply noted as “he’s a replacement-level player,” a minor figure, just another interchangeable part of a machine, without obvious identity or significance. Just one of hundreds of other cogs in the wheel that is a professional baseball franchise. A cold, unsentimental term used in the cold, unsentimental business of running a massive organization.

In Robinson’s case, describing him as replacement-level is not just unfortunate, it’s actually wrong as a matter of analytic fact.

As a first baseman, Robinson’s glove may never be fantastic. As an outfielder, he was thrust into that role while learning the positions largely on the fly, and he certainly struggled. His runs-saved and ultimate zone ratings figures are not pretty.

As a hitter, however, it is a much different story.

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This table shows the 2015 production of three different players, all left-handed hitters: player A is Eric Hosmer; player B is Mike Moustakas; player C is Robinson. To wit, Robinson’s peer group are the corner infielders – and two of the top hitters – for the world champion Kansas City Royals. (Robinson’s numbers came in fewer plate appearances than either Hosmer or Moustakas, but he did accumulate 352 PAs in 2015, a statistically meaningful quantity.)

We are in an era where a 20-percent strikeout rate is league average. All of these players are well below that mark, and C-Rob actually paced the group at drawing walks.

Comparing these players over their careers is challenging, simply because Robinson has far fewer plate appearances than Hosmer and Moustakas. But Robinson’s career .270/.355/.416 line is vastly better than anything Moustakas touched prior to 2015, and is very much in line with Hosmer’s .280/.336/.427 career.

Here’s another table:

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This table looks at contact-making ability and what we see, again, is just how similar these three are at putting bat on ball. They’re essentially identical.

In case you missed it, the Royals won the World Series with enough starting pitching, a devastating bullpen (obviously), and – critically – an offensive approach geared toward efficiency. The Nationals have already overhauled the roster toward a lower K-rate approach and greater consistency. Robinson represents a type of hitter that, over time, is not only highly consistent, but also would be especially helpful against that strikeout-happy pitching staff in New York.

I wondered if maybe Robinson had severe lefty-righty splits – and that just wasn’t the case. He only had 38 plate appearances against left-handed pitchers in 2015, but in that span, he slashed .424/.500/.485, striking out 21 percent of the time but walking 13 percent. That ends up being a favorable 0.63 walk-to-strikeout ratio. Splits are a non-issue.

Where did he come from? Interestingly, Robinson spent the first six years of his career – wait for it – in the Kansas City Royals organization. I poked around to see if he’d posted his 2015-style numbers at any time with that club.

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Yes, indeed. Over the course of his minor-league career, we see a player posting the same kind of numbers, year in and year out, at every stop he made. The consistency of his production – of low-K, medium-power hitting – is absoltuely remarkable. The more I dug, the more data I found that suggested his superb 2015 campaign was not a fluke at all, but rather the product of him finally getting the opportunity to play at the highest level long enough to accumulate meaningful numbers of plate appearances. The numbers suggest to me that he is a player waiting to generate well-above-replacement-level returns.

I will point to one final chart that puts Robinson’s production in some perspective:

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(Courtesy of Willman)

The analytic “meaning” of exit velocity is still in its infancy. But we see that Robinson’s ability to hit the ball hard tracked that of arguably the best player in the game. I would interpret this graph by saying it simply reinforces or reiterates the objective fact that Robinson is a not a novelty – he’s a serious big-leaguer who puts the barrel on the ball at fantastic rates, with pop.

What should the 2016 Nationals do with him? I think there’s an excellent argument he could be and should be the starting first basemen. His glove is not great. This, everyone knows. But his bat was a flat-out weapon in 2015, and there is no reason to think he succeeded merely because he was getting lucky in limited chances. He’s in a division loaded with some of the game’s best right-handed pitching. He’s a lefty who hits, draws walks and doesn’t whiff. For Robinson to usurp Ryan Zimmerman seems exceedingly unlikely – but Zimmerman’s ability to stay on the field remains a massive question mark.

The realistic 2016 scenario for Robinson is that he’s probably the game’s best back-up first baseman, a good fourth outfield option, and a superior pinch hitter. He will be, in general, the kind of high-grade depth that championship-caliber teams prize.

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