Washington Nationals rookie Clint Robinson is off to a good start this year, hitting .357 with a .571 SLG. Of course it is just 14 plate appearances and he's had a grand total of 28 PA (.296/.321/.407) in parts of three major league seasons, having previously seen brief action with the Kansas City Royals and the Los Angeles Dodgers.
If you have followed Robinson's career over the last few years, his success thus far is not really a surprise. Despite lacking a premium prospect pedigree, he has always hit well. He mashed in college: .333/.444/.569 over three seasons at Troy University. However, scouts didn't like his physical tools very much. He was considered very limited defensively. As a result he lasted until the 25th round of the 2007 draft and got a measly $1,000 bonus.
The Royals sent him to Idaho Falls in the Pioneer League. He kept mashing (.336/.388/.593). But that's the Pioneer League and lots of older college guys hit well there without being top prospects. He moved up to the Midwest League in 2008 where he hit .264/.333/.472 with 17 homers, 37 walks, and 67 strikeouts in 379 at-bats. That is pretty solid slash production for the pitching-dominated MWL, but he was old for the level so it was easy to ignore.
He moved up to Wilmington in the Carolina League for 2009. Guess what? He still hit: .298/.356/.463. At this point people started paying attention because Wilmington is a very difficult park environment to put up those kinds of numbers. But again, he was old for the level and there were many skeptics.
Clint Robinson didn't care about skeptics: 2010, Double-A: .335/.410/.625, 29 homers, 41 doubles, just 86 strikeouts in 477 at-bats, Texas League Triple Crown. 2011, Triple-A, .326/.399/.533, 23 homers, 35 doubles, 100 RBI, just 88 strikeouts in 503 at-bats.
Despite two spectacular seasons in the upper minors on his resume, he was not promoted to the majors: he was blocked by Eric Hosmer and Billy Butler. Sent back to Omaha for 2012, Robinson's production slipped a little but was still robust at .292/.393/.452. It is very common to see that happen; a guy ripping up Triple-A without a resulting major league trial, no matter how brief, often seems to deflate in the second go around the circuit.
However, overall his PCL encore was solid and he did get the major league trial this time, seeing a grand total of four at-bats in September. He struck out twice and that was apparently evidence enough for the Royals, who designated him for assignment.
The Royals traded him to the Pirates, who didn't have room either and put him on waivers at the end of spring training. Claimed by the Blue Jays, he was sent to Double-A for 2013 and hit .270/.364/.446, which sounds like a comedown but really isn't: within the Eastern League context, this production was right in line with 2011 and 2012. He saw a month of Triple-A action but didn't thrive for Buffalo, hitting .213/.323/.352 in 108 at-bats. That was the worst batting line of his entire life by far.
Finally a free agent with some control over his destiny, he signed with the Dodgers for 2013. That was pretty smart: it meant he'd get back to the Pacific Coast League and the hitter haven of Albuquerque. He took advantage, hitting .312/.401/.534. The Dodgers gave him nine at-bats in the majors and he collected three hits.
He was back on the free agent market for 2015. Looking for more hitting depth, the Washington Nationals approached him, valuing his left-handed bat and his long track record of productivity as described by James Wagner in the Washington Post.
. . Nationals officials put together a list of minor league free agents to target based on scouting and advanced statistics reports. They wanted a left-handed bat to complement as the Nationals’ major league team is heavy on right-handers. "His track record stood out against the rest," (Nationals farm director Doug) Harris said. "He was very highly-ranked on our list."
And after a good spring training, here he is in the majors. The Nationals have actually given him some playing time in left field; his range is, shall we say, rather limited but he puts in a good effort and catches what he gets to. His defense at first base is nothing special but is workable if he hits.
Will he continue to hit? While many wrote him off as a creation of the Pacific Coast League in the past, the fact is that Robinson has hit everywhere, including in some tough hitting environments. The only time he hasn't hit well was in Buffalo, but that was just 108 at-bats and and even then he wasn't punchless with 12 doubles.
Robinson is not the stereotypical minor league slugger who swings from the heels and can't handle advanced stuff. His walk rate has increased with age and he always keeps his strikeouts under control: he's never whiffed more than 86 times in a full season. Even observers who discount him due to defense say he has a good swing and solid batting eye. He is not a strict pull hitter and can drive the ball to all fields: note the distribution of his home runs in 2014 according to MLBFarm.com:
Maybe it won't work out. The sample size is extremely tiny right now. If he keeps hitting the pitchers will make adjustments and he'll have to show he can adjust back at them. Even if he does hit, his lack of defensive value will tumble his career once his bat slows down as he ages.
Be that as it may, he earned this shot. Clint Robinson is in the majors because he earned it.