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October 2, 2009

Future Shock

Trayvon Robinson

by Kevin Goldstein

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Dodgers outfielder prospect Trayvon Robinson isn't exactly living the high life yet-when I reached him on Wednesday afternoon he had just returned from Wal-Mart in Phoenix, and was in the middle of laundry cycles-but nonetheless, he's come a long way. Always one of the better athletes in the Dodger chain, Robinson took a massive leap forward this year in converting his tools into baseball skills, reaching Double-A at the end of the season while batting .300/.373/.493 overall. In his first two and a half professional seasons, he hit 12 home runs; this year he hit 17. He had never stolen more than 22 bases in a year; this year he swiped 47. His career high in walks entering the year was 33; this year he drew 60.

Robinson has no specific pointer to the improvement. "I'm just starting to play to more of my potential," he said. "I didn't necessarily want to bat .300, I just wanted to stay consistent. It's not all about performance, it's consistency that moves you up."

Not that there weren't some changes, beginning with Robinson's bat. "I picked up a bigger bat this year, 35 inches," he said. "I was just using this little 33-inch one before-a little twig." Additionally, a change in roles led to the power increase. "I was never really trying to hit for power, I just want to put the ball in play and run my ass off, but then they started hitting me third at Inland Empire," said Robinson. "I started seeing more pitches-two years ago I was just a hacker-and realizing what I can drive and what counts I look to drive ball in." With the power also came a career high in strikeouts, but that doesn't overly concern Robinson. "I didn't even notice it until the end of the year," said Robinson. "Then I saw it and was like, 'Damn! I struck out 143 times?'," he added, while taking an almost sabermetric approach to the number. "Strikeouts will come, it's the same as a popup or a groundout, it's just an out."

As for the stolen bases, the more than doubling of his previous career high can be explained with one simple change. "I had the green light all year," Robinson noted. "They just told me to go, so I went." With those 47 stolen bases came 20 times caught, but that's part of the minors for Robinson. "Every time I got thrown out, it was a different situation," adding, "and every time I learned something." Clearly that's the case, as Robinson was safe on his last 12 attempts for the 66ers.

Promoted to Double-A for the final three weeks of the season, Robinson didn't see a big difference in the level of talent between the California and Southern League, but once again, consistency is the key term when discussing the difference between the two levels. "It's not a talent thing at all really, it's consistency," he explained. "If they can get you out one way, they're going to keep doing that until you make an adjustment." Oh, and there's one other big difference at Double-A. "Guys had beards there-nobody had those in the Cal League."

Currently playing in the informal instructional league while preparing to join the Peoria Javelinas in the Arizona Fall League next week, the one aspect Robinson wants to work on is not necessarily a baseball-related skill. "I want to smile more and keep having fun like I did this year," he said.

It hasn't always been fun for Robinson. A 10th-round pick in 2005 out of Crenshaw High School in South Central Los Angeles, Robinson started playing sports at an early age, and not necessarily by choice. "My mom forced me and my brothers into sports-football, baseball, basketball, everything," said Robinson. "It gave us something to do and helped us not take the bad route," he added, referring to one of the country's most notorious areas for gang violence. Robinson excelled in all sports, but never really considered a professional career until fellow Crenshaw alum Dan Nelson (now in the Nationals system) was drafted by the Tigers in 2002, and again by the Cardinals in 2004 out of a Los Angeles community college. "That changed everything for me," commented Robinson. "I saw someone else get there and I thought that if he can do it, so can I, and it made me take the game far more seriously."

Robinson signed quickly after being drafted in June, and then had to deal with some culture shock. Playing in the Gulf Coast League was one thing ("I'd never felt humidity like that, I'll tell you that," he joked), but he finished the year in a town that could only be described as the antithesis of South Central-Ogden, Utah. A city of around 80,000 people with an African-American population of just over one percent, it might as well been a different planet for Robinson, and maybe even a post-apocalyptic one. "That place freaked me out when I got there," said Robinson, laughing in retrospect. "I first got there on a Friday, played on Saturday, and then we had a day game on Sunday. I'm on my way to the park and I realize there are no cars on the road and all these stores and restaurants were closed, I thought something might really be wrong until somebody explained to me that I was in Mormon country."

While difficult-but-challenging describes Robinson's pro debut, in 2006, he hit rock bottom. Beginning his first full year, Robinson was struggling to learn how to switch hit (a move he now credits much of his prospect status to) and then learned that even in Florida, it was tough to escape from South Central, when he learned his best friend, Ben, was murdered in a carjacking back home. Robinson admits that things got so low that he almost left the game, at least temporarily. "I'm in Florida, thousands of miles away, things aren't going well on a baseball level, and then I'm just sad and confused," said Robinson. "I didn't want to give up and quit, but I wanted to take some time off and go home." Robinson stayed in Florida, however, and it was because of his friend's death. "I couldn't walk away because I knew that he wanted me to play ball," he said.

Asked for a scouting report on his game, Robinson pauses, stammers, and finally says, "Look, I don't know anything about those 20-80 scores or anything like that. You find a guy that has seen me the whole day, from the time I show up to practice to the game, and I want him to tell you I play hard-unbelievably hard-every second I'm out there."

Ben wouldn't want it any other way.

Kevin Goldstein is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Kevin's other articles. You can contact Kevin by clicking here

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